Sometime in the year 2011, at a meeting of bureaucrats, archaeologists, anthropologists and sociologists at Bhopal, Bhil painter Bhuribai asked, “Shouldn’t a tribal museum be made by the tribals themselves?”
In response Shriram Tiwari, Director, Culture Department, Madhya Pradesh, formed a team of tribal scholars and artistes, determined to build something rooted in the tribal imagination, instead of a monotonous display of classified artefacts, without context.
With grants mostly from the State, but also from the Central Government, the Madhya Pradesh Tribal Museum has taken shape.
Not as a storehouse of dead objects, but with the labours of a thousand tribal artistes arriving in batches, from every part of MP, recasting myth and life in amazing visuals, out of traditional materials like wood, iron, jute, mud, clay, straw, hemp and leaves, as well as canvas, acrylic and glass. Such is the sense of ownership of these tribal artisans, that when recently rains flooded the museum the residing tribal artistes didnt wait for instructions but salvaged everything themselves.
Seven major tribes of Madhya Pradesh (MP) Gond, Bhil, Baiga, Kol, Korku, Sahariya, Bhariya — have recorded their fast disappearing traditions in the tribal museum in Bhopal, transforming the oral narratives into huge paintings and sculptures. Baiga artist Ladlibai insists, “This is not a sangrahalay (museum), but our ghar (home). Things are changing in villages. But here, our children and grandchildren will know what our culture, past and present, means.
Predictably, the museum was awash with colorful costumes clad tribal artists, playing musical instruments and putting finishing touches on the galleries, before its formal inauguration on June 6 2013 by President Pranab Mukherjee.
The first gallery, maps Madhya Pradesh with its five adjoining states. The central banyan tree touching the ceiling and walls to indicate tribal affinities transcending geopolitical boundaries.
The second gallery depicts tribal homes, built ingeniously with local materials; the Bhil house standing alone on high ground. The cowshed in the front yard is vital to daily and festive life, how every object — whether hunting tool or oil-straining basket — is both utilitarian and ritualistic.
There is a tribal deity for everything from recovering lost cattle to curing stomach ache. Some are both goddess and god. Even a few objects under a banyan tree become a spiritual installation. Little clay dwellings for ancestors pack a whole wall, offering an aerial view of the dead world. Viewing spots at different heights in every gallery, lit up to suggest day or night, make visitors feel they are wandering many planes devlok (higher worlds) and paataal (lower worlds).
Distorting the size of the exhibit to make the intricate meaning of carvings come alive is a theme that runs across all the artifacts. For example this giant bangle (or kangna) made of dhokra craft (metal work by lost wax casting method practiced by the ghadwa community of Madhya Pradesh, chattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha and west bengal).
With its few toys but many games, the second proves that to play is to invent and imagine.
Traditional society is past focused. Metro dwellers are future oriented. Tribal culture lives in the present. Even death is but a way to the next new life. Since their oral tradition keeps changing, it is ever alive, constantly renewed, always modern. Despite the paradox of attempting to showcase tribal life in an undistinguished concrete building, Bhopals Tribal Museum may promote dialogue between tribal and urban societies and add brand value to the States tribal arts. The artists speak of another gain: the museum has made their children entranced by TV and Bollywood glitz realise the value of their own traditions and art forms.
A Sahariya tale sums up this wisdom. As God created more and more living beings, the first human couple he made got pushed to the edge. When he distributed magnificent gifts, the first couple got only a hoe, but were content to live with it, at peace with everything around them. As scholar Vasant Nirgune puts it, The essence of tribal lore is a deep knowledge of the surroundings, nature, seasons, spirituality, where individual consciousness melds with the collective, and humans are not central, but only part of life on earth.
Highlighting this intuitive knowledge is the real challenge for this ambitious museum.