The silent surge of tribal writers

Tribal writers at a recently concluded literary festival in New Delhi
To borrow a bit from a famous British author, three o’clock on a Saturday afternoon is when one is least likely to mistake the gentle environment at New Delhi’s Sahitya Akademi for the fields of tribal India. The unfamiliar terrain of the tribal writers, who gathered in a session at the Akademi, is as big as it is small. One is at once confronted with many questions, the first of which is how to situate such a delightful rendezvous in the overall theme of Indian literature. If truth be told, so far we have not been accustomed to thinking of Indian literature outside of select languages. Can one judge the literature of the tribals without having any commerce with tribal societies? One is assailed by the doubt as to whether is one is on the right track at all.

However, as one gets closer to the writers, the penny drops. It becomes easy to perceive them as the more articulate members of their communities, people who are trying to come to terms with an India that hasn’t been exactly friendly to them. They do it with pride, hurt and friendliness.

And, if politics is the medium through which such submerged communities are seeking “their place under the sun”, literature has been the handmaiden of their politics. And within their literature what’s remarkable among the tribal poets is the overwhelming number of women. 

Vandna Tete, who writes in the Kharia language, spoken in Jharkhand and adjoining states, candidly states that she writes to protect her linguistic identity and culture. At a time when the world is struggling to save the planet because the rich are consuming more than they can give back to the earth, Adivasi philosophy has a lot to teach the world, she says. 

Take the environment. Adivasis believe nothing should be drawn from nature beyond what is needed to meet one’s requirements, a term decided by the mores of tribal life. To sustain and perpetuate their affinity with nature, they worship mountains, trees and birds. Tribal life is really cast in stone.


For Vandna, all this defines preservation. Then comes the more difficult bit about their coming up against two forces. One against the imperatives of development, whose deleterious outgrowth is visible not just within the areas that the palisades of their villages enclose but far beyond. The other is the government itself, the principal factor in the dislocation brought to them and their resources. All this has brought about a churn among the tribals, who are now more conscious of their identity than before.

Shanti Khalkho, writing in the Kurukh language, is not far from Vandna in her beliefs. Both subscribe to the tribal worldview of nature being the wellspring of all that sustains their life, including literature. Also, like Vandna, she believes in writing about the society and culture of the people to whom she belongs. Her writing brings out the story of deprivation, oppression and subjugation which the tribals have been subjected to, partly by the ‘varna’ Hindu samaj, partly by colonial systems.

Francisca Kujur, a PhD and a poet, writes in the Oraon language, which is part of the Dravida language family. Her poetry collections, like those of Vandna and Shanti, are about her land and her people, including those displaced by development projects, their beliefs, and even their superstitions. 

Fameline K Marak, a Garo language specialist, has a clear perspective on tribal memory. She says “there is a belief among the Garos that they had their own literature in their own script, written on the rolls of parchment made from the skins of animals. The literature evolved while they were still in Meghalaya, in Upper Burma. This was long before they came to Tibet. When they left Tibet and wandered towards the plains of India, they felt an acute shortage of food and so they boiled the scrolls of parchment and ate them. In this way, their literature was lost forever”. 

Though Fameline professes politics does not influence her work, she still writes on “love for nature, love for the tradition of our forefathers”, and so on. “Some themes are about the awareness of western life or adopting their lifestyles imprudently…” In her poems, she asks the young generations to look for values more than anything else.

Nirada Chandra Kanhar, writing in the Kui language, says he avoids politics in his writing. But, his subject matter is such that it cannot but express itself in politics terms. The Kui people have a problem of identity — whether to call themselves Kui or Kandha, the word used by them in the Constitution and in the records of the Odisha government. Their language has a script that has not been approved by the government. 

The challenge for a writer like Kanhar is to preserve the Kui language, described by the Supreme Court as a “gift of nature” that is fast disappearing. So, Kui literature, he says, should be promoted to save the language. 

“We respect other languages like Hindi, Tamil, Marathi and Odia, but we have to speak Kui first as our mother tongue. Some among the Odia people criticise Kui as a junglee language. This is a major problem. But intellectuals do not criticise us; rather, they encourage us and also want to know about our language and culture.”

Joachim Topno, who writes in the Mundari language, is cynical. He believes in the efficacy of writing to promote people’s awareness, he stands by the principle that the resources of tribals should be held collectively but when it comes to parliamentary politics, he’s not sure what it might lead to because the political representatives of tribals are never slow in abandoning their cause. The strongest evidence of this is that the tribals who write in their own languages are handicapped vis-a-vis those who know Hindi or English. “Uncivilised” is a description they often hear being uttered about them. 

Agrees Samuel Birija, writing in the Asur language. The politics of the tribals is mostly like being in a holdout to fend off illiteracy, oppression and unkept promises. Bidyeswar Doley, a poet who writes in the Missing language of Assam, is in complete accord. 

The quiet assertion of the tribals reaches its climax when they say — in the way Vandna and Shanti do — that they are not Hindus. Their religion is the tribal religion, which is the Adi Dharm or worshipping nature. Their gods are Dharmesh and Sarna, to whom even the Christians among the tribals, such as Samuel or Francesca, pay obeisance.

Listening to them evokes fear and anxiety. 

Fear of having got close to a large swathe of life that’s outside the consciousness of, to repeat, ‘mainstream India’ and the anxiety of not having done much justice to it. 

In The Woman Who Rode Away by D H Lawrence, a Mexican tribal is heard accusing a white woman of stealing “our sun and the stars”. In the writing of Shanti, Vandna or Vidyeshwar, with whom our familiarity can only grow, we are bound to hear such similar voices that are prevalent all round us. The Saturday afternoon at the Sahitya Akademi is testimony to that.

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