Professor Tone Bleie Interview: The Bodding Symposium
- Professor Bleie, I appreciate your time for the interview. TheBodding Symposium scheduled in first week of November is going to be a thrilling event for Santals living in all parts of the World. Before we go into that let us spare few minutes talking about the Scandinavian-Santal legacy, I am sure you have been a part of that legacy through your long association with Santhals. And from there on we would like to know the story of origin of this symposium. While we go on with the interview the readers will have the chance to share their views/opinions through the online poll that we have incorporated here, you will find it below some questions titled-your opinion. Also you are requested to use the comment section to place your views and suggest the Santal heritage issues. Your views/opinions are precious since it will be addressed in the upcoming e-conference in October facilitated by Adivaani. The date of this e-conference will be announced shortly, it will be an open conversation where anyone can join in following a simple registration process, so stay tuned.
I guess the importance of both outdoors and indoors museums for collective memory really dawned for me when I led an action research initiative with Adivasi NGOs, BNELC and Santal youths in Northern Bangladesh in the late 1990s. In this milieu, popular memory about the Scandinavian-Santal legacy was nurtured by the mission’s physical imprint on the cultural landscape and continuing albeit diminished contact between Scandinavians and Santals. What struck me was how the very notions of national church and folk church, liturgy etc. carried the unmistakable imprint of a vast layered joint legacy. Communities and congregations kept alive an oral tradition anchored in a cultural landscape dotted with missions, hamlets and sacred sites. I was told poignant tales about their treasures kept in a palatal museum in faraway Norway. In Norway, unlike in Bangladesh and India, pervasive secularization had nearly obviated public and popular memory about this ancestral legacy. Paradoxically, one of our universities owned the Santals’ fabled heritage collection. Save for the manuscripts, the prehistoric and ethnographical sub-collections were on storage, not exactly a marker of the museum owner’s valorisation. I recalled anthropological colleagues characterising the Bodding Collection as a goldmine for research “on the Santals”. Not only being a scholar, but also a human rights advocate, I got deeply troubled by the Santals’ limited access to the Collection. I started asking myself: “can I help changing this situation?” I must emphasize I am not implying I am the only South Asianist concerned with the troubling issue of access for the original custodian communities. However, as a scholar cum human rights advocate and periodically a bureaucrat I was convinced petition letters and the like, however well intended, would not really alter this situation. It took me another decade before I could start, since I was emerged in development efforts in the hills of Nepal and later as the UN’s Regional Chief on women’s rights in the Asian and Pacific Region. In 2008, I returned to Norway. Enthusiastically I prepared myself for writing the history of the Scandinavian-Santal legacy in the 20th. Century and networking with Adivasi organizations. Again, I was diverted by an offer to head a centre for peace studies through a critical transition. Only after completing that assignment, I could really dedicate myself, doing field and archive research in Scandinavia, India and the US and starting writing. The upcoming Bodding Jubilee struck me as an excellent opportunity to bring several stakeholders together – both reflecting on our ancestral pasts and looking towards our futures. Half-jokingly my family and friends tell me I have been unstoppable the last 3-years! No wonder since “the pregnancy” from fertile seed to action lasted that long.
- Tell us the agenda/issues that will be discussed in this symposium, we would also like to know about the participants of this symposium.
The symposium is an international academic event. Yet we have very deliberately also reached out beyond the academy to indigenous rights organizations, representatives from different cultural institutions, descendants of legendary pioneers, retired Santal Missionaries and the like. The symposium is a so-called “open event”, which implies that anybody can attend if they simply register. We realise this notion seems rather farfetched to our South Asian friends. Luckily, we have some self-registered South Asians, including Santals. The dense program includes one session that places the Santali mission in broader historical context, followed by sessions revisiting Bodding as scholar and missionary. The last session is the most significant in terms of revitalizing Indo-Bangladeshi-Scandinavian relations. We like to debate: how can we open up access to the collections first digitally and later move towards joint management? Moreover, not to forget, under which terms and conditions is physical repatriation of parts or the whole collection at all possible? You ask me about the composition of participants. Well, some are internationally renowned for their work on Santal culture and society, others for the role of the Santal mission or other Norwegian inner and external missions. Again, others are respected community leaders, national leaders or cultural heritage innovators. Descendants of the first generation pioneers and of later India missionaries will also be attending. I am hopeful the conference will provide space for several voices and contrasting perspectives. There are several noted personalities and institutional representatives we would have liked to see attend. For various reasons they are not going to be in the Oslo Symposium. I really hope they might be willing and able to join us in the follow up phase.
- A simple question how difficult or easy it has been to organize this event so far?
Probably this is the most demanding conference I have ever initiated and co-organized in my professional career. Frankly, nothing was in place when I started preparations in early 2014. The collection owners were not very aware of the value of the collections. Therefore, they had to be persuaded about this and why a conference could be important. Norway has very generous support for the domestic cultural sector and for development including cultural cooperation with countries in the global south. Still we did not succeed in getting anything from these funding sources. Management of national heritage collections, whose owners and current custodians are Norwegian institutions, while ultimate custodians are minorities and indigenous peoples in South Asia or the Pacific, is literally “off the cultural policy radar or indigenous policy radar”. University museums are supposed to manage by own regular public funds. Their ethnographic collections are internally at the losing end. Our cultural institutions prioritize rather heritage conservation from the Viking Era. If not altogether surprising, still objectionable – is it not? The modest external support we managed to get for the symposium are from independent trusts. Another challenge has been to identify and persuade paper presenters who can help drawing the neglected global historical context of the Santal Mission and cover the poorly debated, overlooked contemporary social, political and cultural terrains.
- Bodding apart from the fact being an untiring missionary had an amazing observation power, he documented Santali story of their origin, folktales, medicines, rituals, customs and what not! It is staggering to think about a man who was equally passionate about so many genres. Anyhow many of us here hadn’t had the privilege or opportunity to go through his works, but being a researcher what do you feel about his works and the inspiration behind these works.
I gather from your question you are amazed by how much Bodding and his Santal collaborators managed to document, analyse, systematise, collect, write, compose and publish in different genres over about four decades. I am too; I guess most who seriously try to familiarize themselves with this legacy feels humbled and deeply impressed, not simply by appreciating the volume of publications, the manuscript collection and artefact collections, but by also taking into account the tough working terms under which Bodding Sahib and the collaborators endeavoured. Their legacy is a feat of the human spirit, multiple intelligences, mastery of your rich language Santali, cooperation, curiosity, an enormous working power and nearly boundless dedication. Bodding’s deeper motivations were as diverse, dynamic and contradictory as the pastoral enlightenment project itself. He was driven by scientific curiosity, rigor, nationalism and religious duty. In addition, not to forget by the deep emotional bond between him and several of his closest native collaborators, and by his attachment to certain places in Santal Parganas. His beloved first wife Clara Braaten Bodding was buried at Mohulpahari Mission, you know. How the private man and the towering public man interconnected, remain poorly researched. The Santals, I would say, have greater feeling and understanding for his reclusive personality and personal tragedies than his somewhat prejudiced Scandinavian Lutheran brethren.
- Bodding Saheb as he is popularly known here, is said to have carried back home an immense treasure of Santal artefacts which I guess later turned on to a collection. How these treasure have been managed till date. I mean did he donate it some University or Museum how did it all began and still maintained?
You are asking me a set of fascinating related questions, which I have attempted to answer over some 50-pages in a book chapter, called “The Santal Bodding Collection Unveiled: Context, Trajectory and the Conundrum of Custodianship.” I will present key findings in the paper I will present at the symposium. In few words, there are really three fascinating stories of management, one for the allegedly prehistoric stone artefacts (Cheter Dhiri – in the indigenous ontology of things), another for the exquisite ethnographic collection and yet a different one for the vast manuscript collection. If management success should be measured by quality of conservation of the collections, the result is overall quite good. If management is measured in periods of display as part of the permanent exhibitions or temporary exhibitions, one has performed poorly. In terms of access to Santals and others from the South Asian Region one has failed utterly and not heeded the access guarantee Bodding Saheb promised in the still remembered welfare ceremony on the lawn of Benagaria before his third wife Christine Larsen and himself left for India for good for retirement. To my knowledge Sontosh Kumar Soren (currently living in Denmark by the way) is the only Santal who have spent really long and sustained periods in the manuscript collection. How it all began? Well, Bodding started soon after he had moved to Mohulpahari. Norwegian ethno-nationalism, which emphasised the role of museums in conserving and displaying folk culture, was one major inspiration. So was Victorian ideals of the public museum and rationalist evolutionary ideas. Having said this, I would argue it ultimately began in Bodding’s childhood in Gjøvik with his consuming interest for collecting plants and flowers. Paul Olav – this little shy but very intelligent boy – classified and preserved them in a herbarium.
- Next is the question about the use of this magnificent collection, the microfilms, the written documents and so on. Do you think the amount of use made by the academicians, researchers including Santali intellectuals have been sufficient; I ask this because we don’t see much literature in here about the collection. I guess you would agree that if the information, knowledge contained in this collection does not reach the common Santhals, more importantly the students then I am afraid Rev. Bodding’s awe inspiring effort will go largely un-thanked.
I presume you are hinting to couple of my statements in the published article “Debating the story of a national treasure”? I did write that the output of the analogue (microfilm) repatriation project 25-years after it launch – seems modest. I might be wrong though. Am hoping to hear from the recipient institutions and the core constituencies how they consider specific and total output. The wider more subtle ramifications of the repatriation should be debated. Time is overdue to listen more to how Indians and Bangladeshis are assessing the repatriation by micro rolls. Therefor I posted some open-ended questions that I really hope will be seriously debated in the symposium. Now, the issue of access is of course not only about the manuscript collection, it is also a hugely important matter how to get reprinted editions of Bodding’s major publications widely available in both hard copies and digitally in the region.
- Do you see any strong voice or opinion for physical repatriation of the Bodding Collection to let’s say India, if yes what are the chances and challenges?
So far no one, be that an institution or an individual from the region (or from elsewhere) has officially demanded – with the current museum owners as their addressee – that this should be addressed now. That does not mean that nobody thinks that is not a matter of debate. So far, I know prominent people like Professor Amiya K. Kisku, Nathaniel Murmu, Dr. Olav Hodne and others started debating repatriation already in the early 1970s. I have not seen any written evidence from their discussions however. Might be such evidence is filed somewhere. My understanding is that they concluded it is too early to ask for physical repatriation. Virtual repatriation in the form of microfilms seemed at that point possible, and a step in the right direction towards greater access to at least to one of the three treasured sub collections. There are of course several obstacles and challenges related to India’s policy of “Tribal Museums.” We need to start discussing which institutions, be that local, state or federal level are not only technically speaking, in terms of mandates, exhibition policy, exhibition and storage space, outreach to Santals and other core constituencies – are interested and able to take on such a repatriation effort in collaboration with the current owners? Shall the future of the three sub-collections be debates separately? Should one consider dividing the vast ethnographic collection for example? There are so many exciting and demanding matters here. It is right to say “the Santals” are the prime original custodian to most of the collections – and therefore should have a major say. Alas, this nation is quite fragmented into several legitimate opinion holders who might have quite different opinions and suggestions. In my view, we better start with a proper jointly managed virtual repatriation, while not using that as an excuse for neglecting to address physical repatriation as a longer-term process.
- Now that we are still talking about hosting a digital collection and it has its own advantages and difficulties, and I try not to sound too fussy about it and I understand better late than never, but – it should been over by now isn’t it? What have been the major roadblocks in paving an online path, bridging an inquisitive Santal sitting in Kolkata to the stupendous Bodding collection in Norway?
If I understand you rightly, you imply that digitalization should have happened several years back. Norwegian university museums and libraries are not exactly world leading here. It is also quite costly. In these museums, departments often compete for funds for digitalization. There are several kinds of “roadblocks” as you coin it; from poor internet coverage, lacking basic IT literacy, access to suitable IT-equipment, lack of proper collection user guides, need for upgrading of the pointers and language options (in English and possibly also Santali) for key user groups. There are also several other challenges. Nevertheless, my feeling is it will be very exciting and meaningful to try to tackle them gradually and together this time.
Many thanks Professor Bleie for joining in this engaging conversation and letting us know some of the key aspects of the Symposium scheduled in November 2015. I am personally very excited like many of us here, we are hopeful that this event will be yet another milestone which will take Scandinavian-Santal legacy, relationship to a new level. Best wishes!