Monday, July 21, 2008

Adivasi Academy

PLEASE NOTE THAT THIS POST IS OUT OF ORDER. It should have been posted below between "Jambughoda" and "Dinner at the Jambughoda Palace." Sorry for the slip up.

Friday, July 11. Gandhi was committed to reviving life in the villages of India, and this, coupled with his sweeping and controversial critique of modern civilization, was a key component of his vision of an independent India. This means that any trip to India to explore Gandhi’s legacy has to include time in the villages and a look at the work of people who are actively involved in helping to sustain and enhance the quality of life in them, where poverty is rampant and the impact of globalization on farming has vastly undercut the ability of rural Indians to grow the crops they need to sustain themselves, let alone to make a living. This means that the economic viability of village life is in a critical state, and the culture of the village is in danger or disappearing. All of these problems are even more acute in tribal areas, where the indigenous people of India (called adivasi, which roughly translates as indigenous) have been marginalized and oppressed under the British, who branded them “criminals,” and even the independent Indian governments, which have been slow to find a way to help insure the economic viability of tribal villages and to find ways to preserve the cultural traditions of the adivasi. Many of these villagers are leaving with the hope of finding work in the cities, adding to the population of slums like those we saw in Delhi and Ahmedabad. Moreover, the state government in Gujarat, where we are, is totally preoccupied with modernization and seems content to have these tribal areas disappear altogether, sucked up into the drive toward urbanization and industrialization.

Ganesh Devy and his staff at the Adivasi Academy (also called the Tribal Arts Academy) have a deep institutional commitment of helping tribal societies to recover and sustain their histories, traditions, languages, and artistic practices, and today we had an inspirational day meeting with Devy and visiting his academy. Devy himself is a remarkable man, having left a successful position as a professor of English literature (he is an eminent critic with an international reputation) to commit himself, initially, to the preservation of tribal languages and then, more ambitiously, to the education of students from the villages surrounding the academy and the creation of a museum dedicated to the preservation of adivasi arts and crafts (though Devy doesn’t like the term “crafts” and rejects the separation of art from life--he underscored in his talks to us both the artistic quality of the objects produced by the adivasi and the link between their art and their daily lives). Devy started from scratch with his project, first by publishing materials aimed at studying and preserving tribal languages, then constructing a museum space on the academy property, then developing an academy or school complete with library and computer resources. He has attracted the attention of both private foundations and the government, successfully developing a solid funding stream for the academy and gaining recognition by the government as a “Center of Excellence.” The academy is wholly staffed by young adivasi men and women who have studied at the academy and taken by Dr. Devy’s passion for preserving adivasi culture and enhancing the economic status of tribal peoples.

During our visit to the academy we had a number of meetings and discussions with Devy about the importance of sustaining and enhancing tribal cultures and the villages where the adivasi live, and particularly of preserving their languages. He talked with us about the archival work the Academy is doing and the educational philosophy he has instituted there (non-hierarchical, decentralized). We saw a short play put on by some of the students that dramatized the history of oppression tribals have faced, had lunch with Devy and his staff, and later heard some songs sung in both Hindi and English by the students (including “We Shall Overcome”). Particularly illuminating for me was the final discussion we had with Devy regarding the influence of Gandhi on his work. Like many Indians we’ve talked to, he grew up with Gandhi as only a dim presence and came relatively late to a serious engagement with his work. Others who have spoken with us were committed Marxists when they were younger or, like Devy, taught literature. Like them he’s wary of making a saint out of Gandhi, approaches him with an appreciative and a critical mind, and seems focused on the practical, imaginative application of Gandhi’s thought for our own time, inspired more by his principles and methods than by a desire to follow Gandhi in some kind of dogmatic or devotional way. For example, he doesn’t have his students spinning cotton every day as is done in some other schools, and he said at one point that if advocating for micro-credit for villages will help them, he’d rather do that than teach everyone how to spin cotton to make their own clothes. I was impressed with the mix of principle and pragmatism he was taking from Gandhi. His contemporary approach to Gandhi seemed consistent with what other speakers had said to us about avoiding thinking of Gandhi in conventional, quasi-devotional categories some acolytes put him in.

Today, by the way, was the first day we experienced India’s famous monsoons. It rained hard the whole day, but though we met outside a good deal of the time we were sheltered from the rain by a series of porticos where we sat. But it turned out it had rained so heavily that the dip in the road leading into the Academy was traversed by a roaring river and we had to roll up our pants and wade through the waste high water to get back to our jeeps. I shot some video but don’t know when I’ll have a chance to post it. Lot’s of incredulity at having to do this, initially, but then it turned into a lot of fun.

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