- Dr. Rycroft, Thank you for giving me the opportunity to take this interview. It is a great pleasure to talk to you especially on the 158th year of Santhal Rebellion. For over two decades through your research projects and personal interest you have associated with the Adivasis and closely observed their life and culture. You have also organized many International Conferences and Exhibition on the Adivasis. The exhibitions, documentary films, you were involved with presents a rare sight into the Adivasi world, and of course in a creative manner makes us conscious about our rich cultural and historical heritage. You have also authored books on the Santhal Rebellion and the Adivasis. Combining all these aspects and experiences of you I am excited to know your perspective on the Santhal Rebellion and its relevance in today’s world.
Thank you for inviting me. The fact that this interview will be shared with people who are interested in Santal (and Adivasi) history is a key point for me. The Hul or ‘rebellion’ of 1855-57 was such an important moment in the history of India. This movement has a critical bearing on how and why Jharkhand now exists as a state, and of course it is keenly remembered in other areas, such as West Bengal and in North-eastern India. So, it is with pleasure that I am able to communicate with you and your readers and other people who have views on this and related subjects.
It may, at first glance, seem odd to some people that a non-Indian person has anything much to say about a Santal-led event, or even about other aspects of Adivasi culture and heritage. But I would say that people outside of Jharkhand, and even outside of India, should aim to learn more about and understand these moments in the history of Adivasi people. This is because the ‘first’ peoples of colonized countries have much to contribute to the political, socio-cultural and intellectual life of various regions, including Europe.
To my mind, not enough people in Britain understand how British colonialism shaped the experience of modernity for many people world-wide. During and after the Hul, The British East India Company (and later the Raj) attempted to suppress and then re-colonize the area now known as the Santal Parganas. Through this process of domination they attempted also to learn about Santal customs and religion. They also aimed to heavily industrialize areas of Jharkhand. This has clearly led to a critical situation ever since the Hul, and the effects of the counter-insurgency campaign against the so-called ‘rebels’ are still being felt.
- Tell us about your first visit to an Adivasi village in India. This must have been really special, what additional feeling it gave you compared to what you had read, or what you had seen in documentaries or photographs prior to the visit?
I first visited India from Britain as a school-leaver in the early 1990s. At that time, my knowledge of Indian art or colonial history was minimal, but I was interested in modern art more generally. I did some voluntary work in South India and met a wonderful Bengali family from Purulia District (on the border of West Bengal and Jharkhand) whose youngest son was being treated at CMC Hospital in Vellore. I had the opportunity to visit them on later visits, at their home in Baghmundi.
So arriving at Baghmundi I had what would become my first encounter with Adivasi people, Adivasi culture and Adivasi regions. I was studying the History of Art at the time as an undergraduate, and developed an interest in the aesthetics and social interactions of Adivasi (Santal) and non-Adivasi people. I ended up writing an academic article on the wall paintings of Santals, Bhumij and Kurmi communities, which was published in 1996. This was really the start of a long journey for me, as the period of time that I spent in Baghmundi, between 1992 and 1994, was very inspiring. It taught me some of the values of people whom I would otherwise not have met, in all likelihood.
So from then onwards I became more interested in issues about how Santal culture and heritage had been documented and interpreted, about how the Chho dance had been appropriated by non-Adivasi (Bengali) dance groups, and about how the colonial government had dispossessed Adivasi people in the period before the Hul took place.
I had not really heard of any Adivasi-related news or cultural events before visiting Baghmundi. That may have been because I was young and naïve, but it may also have something to do with how limited a view most British people have of the realities that comprise life in most parts of India. There were some very memorable events from my first visits to Baghmundi: such as visiting the Chho mask-makers and artisans in neighboring villages; dancing with Santal people during the nighttime Sohrai festivals in villagers in the nearby Ayodhya hills; interacting with and playing host to visitors at the Baghmundi tea shop (which was run by the family whom I knew in the village).
- After that visit, you made many more visits to Adivasi villages and you associated with them very freely. You have often highlighted in your research papers and writings about the representation of the Adivasis in the colonial times. Times have changed since then; do you see any major difference or change in outlook about the Adivasis from Western perspective?
This is a good question. It can be quite difficult to understand exactly how colonial people experienced the region one hundred and fifty years ago, for example. They would have been there as part and parcel of the imperial economy and related political frameworks. Whilst staying in Purulia District I did not see myself as an anthropologist, even though many of my more recent engagements with Adivasis, and with Adivasi history, have had a clear anthropological dimension to them. Much of this can be found in my edited book entitled The Politics of Belonging in India: Becoming Adivasi.
But earlier on I found that it was important to understand the colonial perception of Jharkhand by researching the imperial representations of the region. My PhD focused on a British surveyor (and visual artist) named Walter Stanhope Sherwill, who closely interacted with the horoko and diko people of what was then called the Damin-i-koh before and during the Hul. He got to know some of the Paharia and Santal inhabitants of the area whilst finding out about the geology and society of the Rajmahal Hills in the 1840s. He was directly involved in the suppression of the Hul in 1855. Some of his sketches of the suppression were published at the time in the Illustrated London News, including his now infamous portrait of Sido Murmu (which I published in a book called Representing Rebellion: Visual Aspects of Counter-insurgency in Colonial India).
I thought it important to share my research with people in the Santal Parganas. So I came into contact with members of the Parganait Ram Soren Memorial Trust (Dumka), who helped me interact with the inhabitants of Bhognadih, which is where the Hul began. This was also a very eye-opening experience for me. Not only could I visit places associated with the rebellion, but also I came to understanding how important it is to remember the Hul in such a way that a degree of re-empowerment could be achieved through processes of remembering.
- I must mention this documentary film- Purvajo-ni Aankh: Through the eye of the ancestor. You were the Project Director of this film, tell us more about it.
Yes, for sure, we can discuss this. This is a short documentary and promotional film detailing an exhibition of old anthropological photographs that was held in Gujarat. It was my second film project, the first being Santal-related. We can talk about this later. In 2011 I convened a meeting in Germany with museum curators who held collections of Adivasi-oriented photography. We agreed to commit to the task of involving more Adivasi people in the display and interpretation of these photographs, many of which remained hidden from public view until recently.
I organized this meeting in my capacity as an academic researcher, based at the Sainsbury Institute for Art at the University of East Anglia in Norwich (UK). I involved two key Indian participants: first, Joy Tudu (an Adivasi rights activist), who I had met whilst researching the collective memory of the Hul in the Santal Parganas; and second, Ganesh Devy, the director of the organization called Bhasha (at Vadodara), who had inaugurated the Adivasi Academy in Tejgadh and through that helped to found the Adivasi Museum of Voice, called Vaacha. The exhibition was directly curated by Narayan Rathwa of Vaacha, and involved curators from Leipzig (in Germany) and Cambridge (UK). The film shows how Rathwa Adivasis viewed and responded to a selection of photographs that depicted Bhil and other Adivasis, which were produced mainly in the 1920s to 1940s.
(I personally think it was an excellent idea, I remember once while browsing through the book, People of India, I saw two photographs of Santhals taken in 1850’s or 60’s. It was an amazing experience, like the Rathwa people in the film trying to associate themselves with their ancestors through the photographs, it was same with me! )
- In this film there is a scene which explains that the Rathwa people previously used to sacrifice buffalo to please the god. That underwent a reformation and now they release the buffalo, as a personal sacrifice. It was exciting to learn about this important change in ritual, which perhaps suggests that Adivasi rituals, religious philosophies changes with time, am I right?
It is very interesting that you highlighted this section of the film. Firstly, yes, it shows how the Museum of Voice and the photographs came together to generate a conversation about changing rituals, beliefs and images. But more than this, the project showed how Rathwa Adivasis were very open in the selection and interpretation of specific photographs. There was very little attempt to see the images as a colonial-era anthropologist might expect or hope them to be seen, that is as documents that show a particular ‘tribe’ or ‘tribal’ cultural identity.
Rather, there was a clear sense that the people shown in the photographs were seen as ancestors of the Rathwa people, regardless of whether there were shown as being inhabitants of western India, central India, southern India, or whatever. There seemed to be a sense of national-Adivasi solidarity between the Rathwa people of today and the Gond, Santal, Chenchu people of yesteryear. The photograph of the buffalo that inspired the conversation about sacrifice was in fact a photograph belonging to the William Archer Collection at the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology at the University of Cambridge. It was taken in the Santal Parganas, and depicted a Santal scene. Yet this was of little concern to the Rathwa group, who took the image to portray a ritual that was meaningful to their ancestors, and hence they talked about it in that way.
- The religion of the Adivasis is quite unique; it is also distinct from the major religions in the world. However some anthropologists and sociologists argue that the “conversion” of Adivasis to some other religion changes their basic identity, and makes them disregard their own culture. On the other side if I take the example of the Bengalis, and the “Language Movement” where Bengalis placed community above religion, which ultimately led to the liberation of Bangladesh; I grow doubtful about the notion mentioned above. What is you view on this?
This is a very loaded, but also very interesting, question! I am not convinced that Adivasi religion is unique. I am unsure what you are referring to when you say Adivasi religion, but I assume that you mean the sacred-grove or sarna religion. I think that there are important parallels with other traditional Indigenous religions outside of India, but in terms of India, yes, it is unique to the extent that there are no other groups or communities (beside Adivasis) whose group or community identity is premised on the significance of the sacred-grove, or of the forest, or of ancestors and ancestral dwelling. But the issue gets quite complex when one begins to address the very idea of an ‘Adivasi’ community. It is clear that there is something about being Adivasi that is unique to India, and yet if one tries to contend that there is such a thing as an Adivasi religion, it only really gets us so far.
I mean that one would also need to think about the particular beliefs, and the related parameters of religious action and participation that came into existence to enforce those beliefs, if one is to understand a religious community as such. In India, there has been a lot of cultural transfer between groups, so the project of trying to pin down any one aspect of a religion as belonging to any one community may be limiting. The question, and your mention of the language movement, points to the value of addressing such issues historically.
This is where the census, for example, comes into play as a politically-motivated practice that not only documented aspects of culture and society, but also went a long way towards the interpretation and evaluation of cultural identity and social participation.