The Santal historical heritage, the Bodding Symposium

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Introduction: asking difficult questions

Can you imagine that the largest and most valuable collection of your saga manuscripts, Viking ships and other iconic remains from the Viking era – not to speak of your most exquisite collection of folk culture were owned by a foreign museum[1]?

When posing this hypothetical entry question to several of my countrymen their unison reaction is one of utter disorientation.  The idea is hardly imaginable and when truly contemplated – preposterous. This question with its rhetorical edge is however not outlandish.  The reactions provoked, suggests that public memory in Norway about our own long country’s colonial past has faded.

The answers vary tremendously when asking Santals from Northern territories of Santal Parganas, West Bengal and Bangladesh: what is your most valuable collection of literary heritage including ancestral tales, master crafted jewelry, implements and instruments and so forth?  Some respond saying; “What we have is what we still share in our storytelling traditions and through our ceremonials”.  Often they add, “Earlier Santal women and men were adorned in such beautiful jewelry, but all is gone now”.  Others will quickly make reference to the Bishnubati Museum or toHorkoren Mare Hapramko reak’ Katha by guru Kolean, put into book form by KairabSahib.[2]  Quite many people, affiliated with the Lutheran churches and their sister organizations answer altogether in a different way:

“Our treasures are kept in Norway since Bodding sahib’s time when he dispatched them over the great oceans.  Hence previous jewelry and master crafted implements came to Norway where according to our elders all is kept very well. This happened in our grandparents’ time”. 

This last response brings to light a fascinating narrative “thread” in “the tapestry” of a  common Scandinavian-Santal heritage spanning 150-years.  This is one of the golden threads I have searched for and which I am about to write a chapter on –  in my forthcoming book on the history of the Scandinavian-Santal historical legacy. The story of the Santal Bodding Collection has left me amazed, at times speechless, angry and deeply moved.  How did it all began back in the 1890s? Why did it gradually become an incredibly lengthy collaborative effort involving Bodding and his closest Santal teachers and collaborators?  And what has over a full century really happened with the museum collection of allegedly prehistoric stone blades (Cheter Dhiri or firestones), the huge manuscript and the ethnographic collections? Have promises been heeded or violated –  and why?


Paul Olav Bodding ,source-Wikimedia Commons

This intriguing story of how Santal brethren and sisters entrusted Bodding Sahib (on behalf of the Santal Mission) to bring their invaluable spiritual and material heritage to a cultural history museum in distant Oslo[3],  is again actualized by the 150-year Anniversary of Bodding’s birth (1865-2015) this year.

This Anniversary will surely be commemorated by various secular and religious organizations in India and Bangladesh.  In Norway, the Anniversary will be demarcated in Bodding’s home town Gjøvik and notably at the upcoming Bodding Symposium in early November 2015.

This symposium entitled Paul Olav Bodding and the Making of Scandinavian-Santal legacy will be held in Oslo, the very same week that it is 150-years since Bodding was borne on November 2nd 1865 into a Christian family.  The family had recently settled in Gjøvik and opened a bookstore and small modern printing press there.  We may say that his class background as well as his family’s involvement in the Haugean influenced Lutheran low-church movement came to strongly influence the adult Bodding’s worldview and life path – which brought him as a young missionary to India and the lands of the Santals and their neighbours.

The symposium is organized by my own university, the University of Tromsø (UiT) and the  University of Oslo (UiO).  UiO owns and manages the ethnographic and prehistoric sub-collections. Another partner, the National Library of Norway, is the custodian of the vast manuscript collection.


Arm Ring from Santal Pargana (source)

Most recent collaborators are the Bishnubati Museum for Santal Culture in West Bengal and Vardobaiki Museum (and Saami Center) located in Northern Norway.  Bishnubati MSC and the Norwegian partners wish to embark on a collaborative process – open to new interest groups – that may lay the foundation for development of a management platform for the Santal Bodding collections. Virtual repatriation is becoming a real short-term possibility as new parts of the collections are becoming digitalized.  The Vardobaiki Museum is one of six indigenous museums (managed under the Saami Parliament) that partakes in the ongoing Baastede-process of physical repatriation from the Museum of Cultural History to Saami Museums. Bringing under one umbrella two large bureaucratic public heritage institutions with two indigenous local museums (one in India and the other in Norway) is innovative, very exciting and challenging.

The Museum of Cultural History under University of Oslo has been the custodian of the Santal Bodding Collection for more than a century, under shifting conditions of display, storage, conservation and understanding of its role as owner and custodian. Few decades ago, the valuable manuscript collection got transferred from the University Library to the National Library of Norway.  The symposium was first announced online 6 months ago or round New Year 2015 AD.  It is organized an open academic event.  One can register online until end of August. The deadline for submitting abstracts was March 31st.  Selection of presenters took place in April.  It was been a tough challenge to ensure basic funding of the event, reflecting the nearly scandalously low attention in Norway to this cultural heritage agenda. As the prime mover and shaker for this initiative, this author has faced many shut doors and preconceived minds. The hope is that this situation will gradually change for the better, once Scandinavians and South Asians start joining forces.

The Symposium will have as prime focus the scholar Bodding and his contemporaries – including his Santal gurus and collaborators – but also exploring the intricate connections between the missionary Bodding and the eminent linguist, ethnographer and collector.

The memorial backdrop in of course Bodding’s remarkable life carrier devoted to a pastoral enlightenment project with profound roots in the late nineteenth century Europe and Norway and Denmark in particular.  This pastoral enlightenment effort, became gradually  embraced and rooted in the soil and minds of many Northern Santals.  But far from all.  Many resisted and rejected the Santal Mission’s influence for a whole set of political, religious and social reasons. This memorial framework of the symposium also intends to cast new light on new aspects of the historical Bodding’s personality, including   his strikingly reconciliatory ideals and practice. This remarkable legacy of reconciliation is perhaps less a source of veneration among his Santal brethren and sisters.  But it is worthy public attention and collective reflection.  Succeeding in 1910 Kaibab/Skrefsrud as Secretary of the Santal Mission – Bodding was tasked to lead a dramatic and very painful transition from a native Santal Church to Trans-Atlantic Mission, led by so-called “home-boards”.  Rev. Bodding became those years object of mounting criticism. Much of it was unreasonable criticism and took the form of backstage campaigns and rumoring.  Consequently, when Bodding finally started  realizing the politics at play and its malicious intent, he insisted on open-ended discussion and never resorted to denying his adversaries attendance in the forums he attended – be that official meetings or church services. He struggled hard to elevate collective interests of the church, mission and societal unity above his own grievances and wish for happiness. The dilemmas he faced were real and painful, causing him much humiliation, sorrow and sacrifice.

Returning to the Bodding Symposium; it is hoped to become a landmark event in the sense that it is solely devoted to the Scandinavian-Santal legacy – notably from a secular academic platform open to scholars and heritage professionals from Norway, other European countries, India and Bangladesh, in addition to writers, development workers and workers from the successor missions and the Lutheran church.  It is a dream coming true for this author and my colleagues that we can receive friends and colleagues from India and Bangladesh etc. at this historic venue next to the Museum of Cultural History – taking stock of “our” joint ancestral legacy. The venue will provide a unique opportunity to not simply pay homage, but to dare examining this legacy from different academic and policy-based viewpoints, informed by critical post-colonial “eyes” and minority rights.  The forum will hopefully kick-start a much needed joint debate if and possibly how one envision this legacy revived and rejuvenated in our own life time – reexamining the ancestral past and looking towards the future.

This is a nearly overwhelming agenda. I like to confine the remaining discussion in this brief paper to the conference’s third theme; the Santal Bodding Collection and its remarkable complex and little known historical context,  its history over more than a century and how it can best be managed in more collaborative ways involving Indian, Bangladeshi and Nepalese  stakeholders in the years and decades ahead.

Imagining a museum and a collection                               

What is “a museum”? Is it a theatre of memories?  Alternatively, perhaps a giant public treasure box.  If so which kinds of treasures?  Ancestral bones and stories, fossil giant birds, exquisite jewelry and tableaus bringing to life the glory and horrors of violence – and the listing could go on nearly endlessly.  Some might contend this suggestion is apolitical and argue, “keeping those human bones is a sacrilege to decedents and much of these treasures are booty of warlords and occupants turned heroes”.   Others might intervene suggesting their idea is more balanced; a house preserving and documenting a collective memory of creative and practical genus of our ancestors – not forgetting their ruthless greed and ineptness leading civilizations to collapse.  An academic proposal will typically be generalizing and offsetting  long; a building or an outdoors that is a site of historic truth claims, condensed cultural landscapes virtually littered with memorabilia of past ages and civilizations, consequential events, traces of evolution, regions, countries, peoples, communities, sacred and mundane meanings of artifacts and feats  of persona extraordinaire.  To restate the last argument in a shortcut simple way, these are specially made spaces for the stimulation and incubation of memory by way of architecture and assemblage of material and immaterial heritage.*  In this space objects are reunited with stories of an ancestral past.  Oral stories once told by ancestors and ancestresses are preserved on tape, film, tablets, woven fabrics, handwritten and printed manuscripts, inviting us to form a living memory and to move from preservation to innovation.

Museums may be public or private. In the latter case we think of the mausoleums and magnificent art collections of the House of Medici of Florence, or of contemporary faded British aristocracy and super-rich Arabs.  Public museums “for the people” were a nineteenth century phenomena.  Objects and living matters should be sources of knowledge, esthetics and amusement rather than of might and wealth of papal and royal regimes.  Museums have a variety of ownership forms and are managed by state funds or through public-private partnerships.  Museums are public or private institutions with specific responsibilities defined by laws, regulations and institution specific mandates set by national authorities, university boards, and trustees and increasingly by international bodies.

Museums might be encyclopedic or specialized, professional or amateurish, enormous or small.  A museum can be vast sprawling multi-storied complex of exhibition halls, meeting rooms, education centers, office spaces, magazines and archives, stores and cafes. Strict regulatory regimes structure the public’s access to buildings, differentiating between access to the spaces of display, sales and recreation and forbidding spaces of rare valuable or fragile single artifacts/specimens or whole collections, storage spaces and conservation workshops.  Ordinary visitors, pre-announced scholars and official guests are subject to different treatments.  Visitors are expected to obey strict rules during visits and may be reprimanded and even expelled or arrested subject to the degree of violation. Museums staff, currently aided by surveillance cameras, detectors and screenings are in place to prevent theft, damage or accidents.

Museums own and manage so-called collections that are made of “things” and living specimens.  Indeed, things some define as artifacts and objects might be understood by others as living – imbued with sacred powers and at risk of being damaged irreparably .[4]  Museums also manage collections based on long-term deposit and other custodian arrangements, not to forget short-term borrowing and lending (barter) agreements and purchases. Objects or whole tableaus might be original or inferior copies, though the distinction is not universally valid.[5]  Ownership might be legal and ethically unproblematic or on the contrary highly doubtful.  Or – ownership once thought perfectly legal, might become contested, and based on for example legal reform, discovery of forgery or new unprecedented political and museological circumstances.[6]  Names of collections are intimately connected with collection content, official pedigrees, original custodians, donors/benefactors, sponsors and trustees.  The very term “collection” suggests an underlying and understandable coherency, which is not always the case.  Its organization, mode of public display, conservation and storage, accessibility for research and other public and commercial uses, replication and inspiration provide shifting underlying understandings of materiality/immateriality,  value  and meaning – subject to scientific discoveries and paradigm shifts, museum mergers, classificatory revisions, space alterations, changing  market value, identity politics, new acquisitions and evolving ideas of exhibitions and custodianship.  Interactive exhibition policies (particularly in science museums) have in recent decades critiqued and to some degree supplanted the old visual Victorian display regime and opened up for entirely new museum experiences.

Local museums are often smaller sites managed by a city council or county, a local trust, hamlet or indigenous community.  Building mass and collections may be in a dilapidated and dismal condition due to changing or conflicting local narratives of place identify and history, migration, armed conflict or simply due to lacking funds.  Under such circumstances access might vary – from being limited as parts or whole complex are locked, and exceeding short opening hours – to being amazingly accessible. In the latter case visitors can wander around outdoors and indoors uninterrupted by staff control and hidden surveillance cameras.  Local museums built-up by local residents may be integral to local or indigenous history and memory and managed locally allowing and proceeds coming back to the community.  Outdoor sites include as for example local monuments commemorating events or singular persons, or sacred groves, other abodes of deities such as churches and temples, memorial grounds (including burial grounds) and ancient heritage landscapes.

What do I want to achieve with this selective generic reflection over what constitute a museum and a collection?  I hope laying the basis for a common reference frame for this magazine readership –  a meta-framework for an inter-cultural discussion about one particular collection and its past and future: the extraordinary Santal Bodding Collection and how to think anew about what might be this collection’s future “home(s).”

I deliberately chose using this double name, combining the collective term for the Santal nation with Bodding – the benefactor’s family name.  In fact, this unique collection is not the sole achievement of an exceptionally dedicated scientist.  There is no denying Bodding was the initiative taker and incessantly in-charge of all the different genre of collection efforts (of archaeological and ethnographic objects in addition to manuscripts) during his more than forty years in British India.  Entirely new evidence about startling differences of the “social life” or trajectories of the three differ sub-collections over a century will become available in my forthcoming book.  Suffice here to briefly mention one not insignificant sub-narrative under investigation; the virtual repatriation in the late 1980s of parts of the manuscript collection in the form of microfilm reels.  The lessons learned from this historical first virtual repatriation to India and the original owners and custodians are important do discuss jointly.   In other words, we hope to hear the opinions of Santal and other Adivasi scholars, writers,  educators and development workers sharing their views on this first effort of virtual repatriation, which naturally aroused high expectations – possibly much more than could be met?  The era of virtual repatriation of singular objects or collections to home communities and ultimate custodians has just begun – aided by development of digital technology. This topic will hopefully be intensely debated in the upcoming Oslo symposium and beyond. We are interested to know if such technology driven trends are already being debated by Santal intellectuals, literates and museum professionals?  And what about physical repatriation – are the enabling conditions there?  As an input to this debate I chose in the last section to outline some of the exciting and intricate issues we as organizers would like to see debated with Indian, Bangladeshi and especially Santal and other Adibasi friends.

The Collection in analogue and digital eras

Twenty-five years after the historical repatriation of microfilms from Oslo to five Indian institutions, Santali Literary and Cultural Society appear to be the only institution to have published anything, notably two large compilations by their own means. As far as we have learnt two more are ready for publication,[7] but the necessary funds have yet to materialize in a form available for a huge public still hungry for access to these ancestral voices.  None of the notable research institutions in possession of the reels has as far as we are informed  produced compilations in a certain genre and or thematic sub-set of the collection. Are we mistaken here? We like to hear from you readers – have any major scholarly work been published, acknowledging these manuscripts as important (if not the only) secondary material?  If not the case, the output after 25 years is strikingly modest, basically consisting of compiled transcriptions. This being said, we are aware that compilation work is essential, time consuming and linguistically challenging.  But such compilations are to be used as a treasure box or vital source for independent academic and literary and educational works.  We like to hear from Santal intellectuals, including literates, academics, development workers, and teachers – what is your situation?  Were there weaknesses in the repatriation process itself?  If so – what can be learned for the future?  Is the reels only a source for those writing in Latin script – or Ol-chiki script make use of the reels as well? What are they particularly interested in?  These are just few of the questions we hope to see debated in the Symposium.

web_hent_bilde (1)

Armband from Santal Parganas, (source)

Currently, the era of digital media including internet, opens up possibilities for digital repatriation.  With the digitalization of the ethnographic part of the collection completed and digitalization of selected sections of the manuscript collection underway – several “hot potatoes” have dropped in our laps.  Now a student or professor in Dumka or Ranchi can access the website of the Museum of Cultural History and search for artifacts in the Santal-Bodding ethnographic collection.[8] Or is this a too facile statement? In order to have access one needs to know the basics of how to access these databases and how to navigate there.  In collaboration with my colleagues in Oslo we have just completed a pilot guide for online users.  You are most welcome to try it out! [9]  This creates a uniquely new situation in several respects.

The whole definition of a museum as a physically localized treasure house (see the discussion above) might need to be rethought.  The Santal Bodding collection of mostly well preserved wooden ploughs, hunting equipment and fishing nets etc. can now be viewed “virtually” on photos displayed on computer screens by interested online users in India, Bangladesh and elsewhere. What are the challenges and opportunities for independent use as well as cooperation between Indians and Norwegians created by this new situation? We know access to the net itself is not something we can take for granted exist everywhere.  And even with online access – how to can a Santal teacher or mastercraftman find her/his way to the museum’s website and to the Santal collections?  Still the catalogue entries are in Norwegian, posing severe problems for users unfamiliar with Norwegian language. Should the museum translate entries with the involvement of Santal experts coming to Norway or sitting at their work stations in Dumka or Godda? What uses can a Santal community make – if you like to maintain your own local museum making of this data technology and the online availability of the collection? How to use new opportunities to research and learn about the old techniques, material use and esthetics on exquisitely crafted implements, instruments and jewelry now to be viewed on a screen? How do Santals of the traditional faith feel about religious objects been screened online? These are just some of the important questions we hope to see intensely debated at the Bodding Symposium in Oslo.

Coming up prior to the Bodding Symposium

The conference was announced early this year on the website of the Museum of Cultural History.[10]  We are about to develop the full conference program to be posted in August on this website. We also welcome submissions of display materials such as reports, books (both fiction and non-fictions) and documentaries about the environmental and human rights situation in Jharkhand, Bihar, West Bengal, Assam, Bangladesh and Nepal.  In order to increase participation and invite viewpoints from South Asian constituencies to the conference’s key sessions, we plan in the early autumn to arrange a few e-conferences on social media. Please be on the alert and sign up if you are willing to participate in these events.


This article was originally submitted and accepted for publication in the February issue 2015 of Nawa Ipil. Subsequently  the publication of this issue has been delayed a number of times.  When the paper is now published in Livelystories, the author is acting in understanding with Nawa Ipil’s co-editors.



[1]The exquisitely built and preserved Oseberg, Tune and Gokstad ships were at the height of the Viking Era (around 850AD) used for ocean exploration, Viking raids and trade. The Oseberg ship got finally used as a burial ship for two high ranking women; Sagas, are narratives written in Old Norse language. The tales and epics were written down between 1160-1400 AD. Main genres are tales of Norwegian, Icelandic and Danish kings and queens, bishops, migrations to Iceland and chiefly kinship clans. Sagas blend historic facts and creative narration;

[2]Kairab is known in Norway, Denmark and the Mid-West (in the US) under the name Lars Skrefsrud. This immensely valuable book was published by Skrefsrud at Benagaria Mission’s own press in 1887.  Bodding much later translated the whole text to English and published a bilingual edition in 1942. This has a valuable introduction written by him.

[3]Currently officially called the Museum of Cultural History, located in Norway’s capital Oslo.

[4] Treating living objects with respect should imply restrictions on handling, viewing, storage, treatment and allowing active ritual honoring.  For a recent good review of the theme of how museums handle religion and religious objects see; Crispin Paine 2013. Religious Objects in museums: private lives and public duties. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

[5] In Chinese art theory there is for example no original: copy dichotomy.

[6] There is a vast literature on the chancing politics of border crossing, museum development, legal reform and entirely new legislation in the wake of decolonization and rising illegal trade in antiques and ethnographic objects.

[7] Hor Hoponak Sadae Kathan Volume. Kolkata: the Santal Academy, Volume 11: Santal Literary and Cultural Society.


[9] Without Adobe Flash Player:

To search for Santal collections, write ‘Santal’ in open search field.

With Adobe Flash Player:


*immaterial heritage-It is made up by the-uses, representations, expressions, knowledge and techniques –together with the instruments, objects, devices and cultural spaces that are inherent to it- that the communities, groups and in some cases individuals acknowledge as an integrating part of their cultural heritage. source

Tone Bleie is Professor of Public Planning and Cultural Understanding at the University of Tromsø, in Northern-Norway.   She has worked and published on minority and indigenous issues in South Asia in a range of capacities over three decades and lived in Nepal, Bangladesh, Thailand, the US and Norway. Bleie is the Head of the newly formed Scandinavia-Santal Heritage Initiative (SSInherit).  The Bodding Symposium is one of the current initiatives under this umbrella initiative. Another is an ongoing book project, which aims at rewriting the history of the Scandinavian-Santal pastoral enlightenment legacy – making the book readable and available for audiences in India, Bangladesh, Nepal, Scandinavia and elsewhere in Europe.Her email address is:

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