A Photo-Ethnographic Study, Ancient Travellers, Explorers and Documentarians, Madhya Pradesh, Oral Stories from Rural India, Tales from Rural India
Comments 31

Life Of Verrier Elwin: Past and the Present Of the Tribal Cultures In Central India: A Photo-ethnographic Essay

Elwin’s research work in India took place at a critical period leading up to the Indian Independence from British rule. Verrier Elwin first met Mahatma Gandhi in 1928 at his ashram in Ahmedabad, where he had gone to represent the Christa Seva Sangh at the International Fellowship of Religions. Gandhi’s philosophy of satyagrah  as non-violent resistance against the colonial rule had a strong impact on Elwin and he were drawn into the national movement for Independence. However, as he became more deeply involved in the welfare of the community that he lived with, in central India, he began to question the relevance of Gandhi’s severe views on prohibition, celibacy and vegetarianism for that environment.

In his autobiography he wrote. “long letter from Mahatma Gandhi urging me to perform daily yagna or sacrifice, of spinning; as no one here for hundreds of miles has ever seen a spinning wheel, decide not to, but suggest rice pudding as a daily sacrifice instead.

Verrier Elwin with Gandhi, early 1940s

Elwin’s personal reassertion of loyalty and identity was unequivocal. At a time when most of his countrymen opted to return home after India gained Independence, Verrier Elwin who had integrated so earnestly, could see no future for himself in England. The fact that he became the first person of foreign origin to apply for and receive Indian citizenship confirmed where his sense of identity and loyalty was.

This personal reflection about his decision is the right text for a photograph of a single unidentified figure wearing a large carved wooden mask.

Image of baiga masked dancer in a chhera dance, pandpur, Mandla district, central india.

My becoming an Indian was not a negative thing, or reaction against something. I fell in love with India when I was with Gandhi and he accepted me. Later I had even stronger intense and specialized attachment to India’s tribal people.(1964)


As one of the foremost researchers on tribal cultures in India, Verrier Elwin’s legacy extends not just to books and photographs but also deep inside the community he got married in and thereby lived for several years in Patangarh.

In his own words he wrote

Patangarh was a charming village on an abrupt hill in the midst of a wide clearing in the mountains. On every side were the hills, piled up on one another, of the maikal Range. In the foreground was the magnificent symmetry of the Lingo  mountain. The sacred Narmada was only half a mile away and we could see its bright waters. A fresh wind was always blowing. Patangarh was at least five degrees cooler than sarwachappar or karanjia. Not only was the village beautiful, but its inhabitants were more delightful, more amusing, and more friendly than any others. Most of our neighbours were pardhans, the gay, romantic minstrels of the gonds.

Elwin’s first tribal friend and the informant was Panda Baba, a local Gunia or medicine man, however it is unclear whether Panda baba was depicted in the photograph of two Baiga elders performing a ritual with dry rice and a gourd.

It was also the image that I used as the cover for the first chapter i.e the previous post.

The fact that he frequently referred to the tribal mythological stories in his books shows his receptivity to the way they viewed the world, and to what was meaningful to them. Here the Photograph taken by Elwin of a group of Baiga children that shows them squatting on the ground as they play a game called Phugri-phu, that relates the Baiga origin myth as it was recorded by him.

An elegant portrait of a young man poised to aim with a bow and arrow was next contextualised by a comment from Elwin, in which he compared the harsh conditions imposed by the onset of the second world war as lesser than the daily hardship faced by a Gond villager at the time.

He also went on to record a surprising perspective from an elderly tribal woman about the war in 1964. We do not know which war she was talking about but it could most probably be the 1962 war between India and China.

This, she said, is how god equalizes things, Our sons and daughters die young, of hunger or disease or attacks of wild beasts. The sons and daughters of the English could grow old in comfort and happiness. But god sends madness upon them, and they destroy each other, and so in the end their great knowledge and their great religion is useless and we are all the same.


Elwin’s warm and humble approach that endeared him to the village people and gave them the confidence to ‘open their hearts to him and tell him their secrets.’ The informality that is established here is visually affirmed by the informal snapshot of a Baiga father and son seated squatted drinking wild honey during a special festival of bees celebrated once every nine years.

image of painting of demons on the wall of a gond house

A mysterious musical performer wearing a mask and a headdress adorned with peacock feathers. The image is accompanied by an intimate reflection from elwin on loneliness, chosen to convey the intensity of the spectrum of experiences of a lone Englishmen far removed from his own culture and society and now relocated into a starkly contrasting environment


Image of Muria Jester caked Nakta wearing a mask at the chherta festival. The mask is made from a gourd, with nose of beeswax, teeth of gourd-seeds and a turban of red cloth.


Image of Gond Priest to perform the rituals for Verrier Elwins first wedding to Kosi, on the banks of Narmada. (1940)

Relating to this, Elwin translates the speech delivered by the Gond Pujari at the occasion of his wedding:

“listen brother, when she is foolish; do not despise her thinking her a mere daughter of the forest. Never find fault with her or grumble at her. And you girl, never say he is bad he forgets me; he does not love me, and so leave him. He is English. He has come from another land to love us.”

The longer Elwin cohabited with the tribes, the more he grew to appreciate their way of life- the simplicity, spontaneity, vitality and the superior freedom from the psychological complexities that he identified with modern civilisation. For instance, the traditional karma dance and song associated with fertility among the adivasis of Madhya Pradesh and performed at any time of the year, still has iconic significance in Pardhan Gond culture. During his stay, Elwin described the Karma dance as a form of ‘Lila’- a word with Sanskrit origins that can be loosely translated as ‘divine play’ and refers to the activity of god. Elwin’s appreciation of the trancedental dance form and cultural sensitivity comes across :

The bulk of the poems are songs of the dance and the most poetic of them are perhaps the songs of the great Karma dance which is common to many of the primitive tribes of central India. This dance symbolizes the growth of the green branches of the forest in the spring; sometimes a tree is set up in the village and the people dance around it. The men leap forward to a rapid roll of drums and the women sway back before them. Then bending low to the ground the women dance, their feet moving in perfect rhythm, until the group of singers advances towards them like the steady urge of wind coming and going among the tree-tops, and the girls sway to and fro in answer. They often dance all night until, lost in a rapture of movement, they surprise the secret of the Lila the ecstacy of creation.

Image of Gond dancers watch with a dancing stick in her right hand form a ling line in which they go round and through the male dancers with many different movements and steps, 1942 at Sameli village, bastar.

I hold that Elwin’s background in Literature and theology made him more receptive to the indigenous cultural practices and spiritual beliefs. Unlike most of his academic peers. Elwin was overtly visionary in his outlook, and he recognized and relished the vibrancy of their vivid myths and legends, this poetic aspect of his personality is communicated be the texts that convey his appreciation for the mythologies and legends and their centrality to his understanding of the tribal past.

For them as for their elders, all nature is alive with spirits – Nang-banshee living in the great trees, Bhagbageshwar Deo, lord of the wild beasts, whose dwelling is in the running water and under stones and bushes, the wicked machan who lurks by the highways and robs the passers-by, the angry burning ghost in the unhappy hollow of the semur tree, Makramal Kshattri the monstrous spider whom you may meet at dusk straddling across the road, and saraglil whose mouth is ever open, whose lower lips rests on the ground, while the upper touches the sky. (1936)

The fact that he recognized the validity of these mythologies as a source of information about the construction of identity demonstrates his receptivity towards accepting them on their own terms. Long periods spent alone gave him the time for contemplation. Verrier Elwin was accustomed to reflecting on his personal motivation and also about the dynamics of the relationship between himself and the village people. He kept reverting back to the subject of reciprocity.

He wrote in 1964,

We often gave parties, which usually ended in a dance, and what was more important we were given parties in return. In the Mandla villages, these were quite elaborate affairs- our hosts would clean their houses and spend all day preparing food, which was generally very tasty. When the time for supper came, a number of people would arrive to escort us. The strongest youth present would hoist me on his back; another would pick up shamrao, and then proceeded by woman singing songs of welcome we would be carried to our host’s house.

To accept tribal hospitality(provided it is not overdone) is a very good thing. It breaks the one sided patronage of charity, the condescension of benevolence. When you reach a point that people want to do thing for you and are proud to do so rather than always being on the receiving end, you have made a big step forward.

Image of Gonds under a tree with those in the foreground is shown pouring out home-made liquor from gourds. 1941.

Elwin’s critics have pointed out his romantic view of the tribal people as they were depicted in his photographs, as well as in his many comments about the superiority of their way of life when compared to what he perceived were the drawbacks of civilisation, for example this paragraph which to me sums up his soul, and his way of perceiving.

I think that the primitive has a real message for our sophisticated modern world which is once again threatened with disintegration as a result of its passion for possessions and its lack of love.

Researching on Elwin’s life has remarkably restored my thinking on the ways of seeing and living. As much as I have managed to share as an Explorer, I still feel to be away from What and where I can go from here. It has been a pleasure to know a man who spent his life learning and sharing the way Verrier Elwin did. Inspiring to say the least.

Sharing some photographs of murals on the walls and life that he must have taken in love :

Lila Elwin, wife of Verrier Elwin in 1980

Verrier Elwin with Gond children in Patangarh, 1941

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Thank you.

If today is the first time you have arrived on The Road to Nara, you are heartily welcome ~ Namaste


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I will take this opportunity to introduce you to About me and importantly;

What have i learnt in a decade of travels around various communities and cultures even though its been a lot many yearsbefore you coarse on youown Road to Nara.


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If you wish to contribute to my travels, or towards My School Project you can please do so here

And when you have something to share, or feel like saying a hello, please write to me at nara@road-to-nara.com

To visit other long-term photographic works, you can visit here.


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Hi, I am Narayan Kaudinya. And i welcome you on this journey, the Road to Nara ! I am an Ethnographer and a practicing Indologist. I did my masters in History and further learnt Sanskrit, Yoga and Nerve-therapy. At 24, pushing most academic sounding, office sitting works away, i felt compelled to know and understand the world and my country, Bharat/India. I travelled, and as it happened i took up teaching in Kashmir and further up in the remote villages of Baltistan in the foothills of Karakoram Ranges. For around three years and many states later there came a time when i felt that it was only while teaching i learnt how to laugh, to see, feel, breathe, love and cry -with children, and mostly resource-less parents in the harshest-freezing border conditions. I write, and work as a documentary photographer and Filmmaker, with numerous published, exhibited and some awarded stories. In my travels and life i have let nature lead me, the divine mother, and as a Yogin, my resolve here is to share my experiences and thoughts as honestly, and through them to blossom in everyone the power and possibility in pursuing your breath, that you seek your true nature with courage and curiosity. Here, on this road i will share my spirit, my love for nature, the elements of life that are us. And in doing so, i'll be happy to see you along.

31 Comments

  1. every time you touch my heart with brilliance bro! i wish it would travel into every heart around the world.
    you work hard i know, thanks for sharing. XO sis

    Liked by 1 person

    • I can work way harder sis. And I must. Even though I consciously see birds sis as I always try to look up to trees and birds while walking but eversince I read your comment on being kind to birds, I had been thinking how? As I will make conscious effort to keep giving away food for them as I do for dogs all the time.

      Thank you sis. Lots of love.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This promised installment of the life and philosophy of Verrier Elwin doesn’t disappoint because it is brilliant in providing thought-provoking ideas not only to the reader but to the writer, Narayan, himself. His findings from the time of Gandhi, for example, provide a bridge to our times since the spinning wheel is now used to recycle plastic into maths and the wall hangings to create jobs for rural communities and to provide an income. It is indisputable that to write about the unknown to the wider world, Elwin was a master decision of the author. In the process, we learn fascinating details of the life, rituals, and philosophy of the primitive tribes.
    The provided photographs add greatly to our understanding of the remote culture and its nature.
    Narayan’s question where to go next, to my mind, would be to illuminate as many tribal, mystical, and unknown places as possible in his lifetime before they are lost, and to write as eloquently about them as he does. It might even get him the highest Literary award The Nobel Prize.
    May I leave the last word to Swamiji Vivekananda, my own guru:
    “The greatest religion is to be true to your own nature. Have faith in yourselves.”

    Joanna

    Like

    • Thank you dear Joanna. Your words are food for the hungry and gives me lot of courage. Every time, always. It is true there is nothing more to me than to preserve and present life that comes and will come through me. I will be blessed to be the one.

      Thank you deeply.
      Narayan

      Like

  3. Its always feel good to read your blog. This topic is intriguing to me as I have always been very curious about tribal culture and there way of living. This was indeed an interesting read.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Beautifully written about Elwin research on Tribal culture ! Well shared with excellent photos ! ❤👌😊💕well shared 🙂

    Like

  5. KK says

    Thank you, Narayan ji for this part highlighting the tribal culture as seen and experienced by Verrier Elwin. I loved his minute findings. Drinking, dancing, handicrafts and tribal attire were the parts of tribal life, but I think a lot of things are changing now, as I experienced during my limited interaction with Gond people in Damoh and Khargone districts. The post is quite informative and captivating one, and one should know about this aspect of culture too. Thanks again!

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  6. Michael Graeme says

    What a fascinating character, Narayan, and – in your earlier post – a memorable encounter with the man himself. As always, such a wonderful read, and these old photographs are enchanting.

    (apologies, I left this comment in your earlier post also, but its proper place is here)

    Best wishes

    Michael

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Excellent Article and rare pics, you are very skilled blogger, Thanks for sharing such interesting tales over the Blogging world.

    Like

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