Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Tribal Cultural Society, Sonari, Jamshedpur

The Tribal Cultural Society (TCS) at Sonari, Jamshedpur was my gateway to a culture that few urban-dwellers know of. TCS (not to be mistaken with Tata Consultancy Services) started in 1993 and presided by Mr AN Singh of Tata Steel with an aim to deliver a sense of self-respect and dignity to the lives of those who belong to the weaker (I think the superlative would do more justice to the description) sections of the community by providing basic education (in some cases achieving even functional literacy is a very commendable task), clinics and preservation of tribal heritage that is almost on the brink of extinction.
The bust of Bhagwan Birsa Munda, the famed tribal leader who took part in the Revolt of 1857 against the British greets visitors to the entrance of the TCS museum. In the midst of marigolds stand two mammoth statues of Sidhu-Kanhu, the tibal brothers who fought the British during India's Independence struggle. While most of us readily acknowledge the roles of Gandhi, Ambedkar, Patel and Nehru in their struggle for independent India, the TCS highlights the role of less 'visible' heroes and their significant contribution to nation-building. Anniversaries of Baba Tilka Majhi, Bhagwan Birsa Munda, Pandit Raghunath Murmu (he composed the script for the Ho dialect), Guru Kol Lako Bodra and Sidhu-Kanhu are observed with great reverence.
Enter through the ornate door painted with elephant-heads and colourful parrots and you come to the Heritage Hall that showcases the lifestyles of the various tribal communities. There are 30 different tribes in Jharkhand, out of which only five are 'visible'. (If they were 'visible' to the right people, they wouldn't have been in such a pitiful state.) The four main tribes of the region are Santhals (remember the famed Santhal outbreak of Bihar that led Gandhi to start the Non-cooperation Movement in the 1920s), Ho, Birhor and Munda.
The TCS museum houses a range of tribal artefacts - from totkos that are used to harness oxen to wind instruments that make music when they are deftly moved like swords to even a Birhor hut made of leaves (Birhor is a primitive tribe that inhabits the jungles of southern Jharkhand bordering with Orissa) to terracotta figurines of tribal gods and goddesses to even a jacket made of bamboo shoots. Most of these tribes such as banjara are nomadic. Also present are ornate masks that people wear when they perform the famed Chhau dance (Italian dancers come down all the way from Florence to Serai Kela to learn this rare dance form at the Chhau Dance Centre.)
While the society makes a great effort to bridge the vast gap between tribal culture and modern civilisation by providing healthcare (women even go to remote villages to distribute sanitary napkins) to conducting workshops where tribals are shown how to make soapstone sculptures that are commonly sold on the streets of Puri, Bhubhaneshwar and even Kolkata, it helps preserve tribal heritage. It even conducts two-day workshops where traditional healers share their knowledge with youngsters and document and patent their practices.
Though it works with a relatively small budget of Rs 1.4 crore (small when you compare the number of people it impacts), the society's attempts to bring forth mutual co-existence with modernity is slowly effecting a change in these primitive communities.

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