Thursday, June 23, 2011

SOAS, London- Exhibition and Seminars

Report on the Exhibition at the Brunei Gallery, 13th April to 25th June, 2011

Friends from far and near in a revival reminiscent of 2008 at the Pigorini in Rome had assembled -- Susazanne Gupta from Berlin who made our film The One-Eared Elephant from Hazaribagh (who has eaten up many lettuce leaves and cabbages in Europe), Michel Sabatier, wife Beroze and daughter Lilya from La Rochelle, France ( expected to be hosting our next exhibition with the La Rochelle municipal council, in France during the coming Autumn),  The exhibition mentioned above at SOAS was organized by Robert Wallis and Jennifer Wallace of Cambridge under the expertise of gallery manager John Hollingworth. Robert's great photographs from the killing fields -- the coal mines of Jharkhand - were beautifully printed in large format and displayed beautifully. This was complemented by our specially prepared artwork on cloth and canvas by the Tribal Women Artists Collective under the INTACH  banner. Justin's wonderful film of the  puja by the Tana Bhagats to the Thethangi rockart in 1969 was shown in a specially designed room within the exhibition. Robert's film of the tribal women painting in the village was shown by closed-circuit TV with headphones for sound.  The guests were dazzling in their number and variety,  a great  many from the higher London  social circle, but one stood ouit - Bianca Jagger , who promised to visit us in Jharkhand this coming Sohrai festival at the end of October. The exhibition was titled: A Disappearing World: Ancient Traditions  under threat in Tribal India - Tradition, Continuity anmd Conflict in Jharkhand State. The exhibition continues for nine weeks uptil 25 June. It was introduced by the Director of SOAS. We have to thank for sponsorship of the exhibition and seminars The Gandhi Foundation, INTACH, SOAS, and the Helen Hamlyn Trust.

Report on the two Seminars at SOAS in conjunction with the opening of the exhibition of paintings and photographs titled a Disappearing World at the Brunei Gallery

SOAS is part of the University of London and is acknowledged to be the worlds leading centre for the study of a highly diverse range of subjects concerning Asia, Africa and the Middle East

14th April, 2011:
Two seminars were held on the 14th April

The first seminar was from 3-5 pm and held in the SOAS seminar auditorium. The topic was art, ancestry and tribal identity and was introduced by Bulu Imam of TWAC and concerned adivasi religious beliefs and art, and their connections to their ancestral lands and the natural environment endangered presently by largescale openscale mining in the Karanpura valley which subject was explicitly treated in theompanying exhibition in the Brunei gallery of SOAS alongside which featured large format photographs of the hazardous coal mining taken by photographer Robert Wallis, with large khovar and sohrai paintings by the artists of the Tribal Women Artists Cooperative. The report on the seminar is given below-

A summary of issues raised in the “Disappearing World” seminars:

Comments by Jennifer Wallace:
We held two public seminars on Thursday 14th April, in conjunction with the “A Disappearing World: Ancient Traditions Under Threat in Tribal India” exhibition at the Brunei Gallery, SOAS.
The first panel discussion was on Art, Ancestry and Tribal Identity, chaired by Jennifer Wallace (Cambridge University and writer/researcher for the Disappearing World exhibition).  On the panel were Bulu Imam, Convener of INTACH (Indian National Trust for Art, Culture and Heritage) in Hazaribagh, Jharkhand, and Director of the Tribal Women’s Artist Collective; Philomina Tirkey, an Oraon tribal artist whose work was included in the exhibition; Daniel Rycroft, lecturer at University of East Anglia and co-editor of The Politics of Belonging in India: Becoming Adivasi; and Rasmi Varma, lecturer at Warwick University and author of the forthcoming book Modern Tribal: the Cultural Politics of Indigeneity in Post-Colonial India.

The discussion focused on the issue of indigenous identity. Although Bulu began by declaring that Adivasi identity was defined by the 2007 UN declaration on the rights of indigenous people, the debate became polarised between those (chiefly Bulu and Philomina) who said that Adivasi identity was characterised by the experience of living in accordance with nature, in a way unchanged since ancient times, and those (chiefly Daniel and Rashmi) who stressed that it was more a political definition which was also available to those who no longer live in villages or in accordance with old beliefs and practices and who might still want to claim allegiance to those indigenous roots. In other words, the debate was between whether the Adivasi culture stretched back to the dawn of time and could not be intellectualised or whether it was constantly in transition, able to be appropriated and imposed by different groups and was the product of more recent history (such as rebellions against the British colonialists). While somebody from the audience raised the question of whether this was all just an obscure academic debate, others from the audience and the panel responded with the point that defining Adivasi identity was in fact hugely important for social policy and ongoing legislation. The general feeling was that it was very good for those on the ground and academics to talk to one another, because we are all working towards the same goals and objectives.
In the context of this larger debate, there was also a discussion of Adivasi religious beliefs and practices. Philomina spoke eloquently of the festivals and pujas that her village held every year, and we went on to discuss whether these pujas, which were focused upon the sacred land around the village, could also be continued by those who had been displaced from the land and who now live in urban slums. Rasmi pointed to the comparable example of the Gond tribe, who now paint instead of singing their old traditional songs; this led to a brief discussion of the art practised by the tribal women of north Jharkhand and its connection to their spiritual beliefs.  Bulu concluded the afternoon’s discussion by declaring that art was vital to a people’s humanity, that what we are all in danger of losing is a notion of ourselves as human. This notion is rooted in our sense of belonging, in our history and community; Adivasi traditions (which are endangered) represent that spirit of humanity for us most strikingly.

14th April, 2011

The second seminar was from 6.30 – 8.30 pm and was on mining, displacement and resistance in India’s tribal lands which dealt with the questions of indigenous adivasi identity, the impact of mining on these peoples  lands and on the environment, and the growing resistance to the mining from  the adivasis, and the government’s response to the resistance. The report on this second seminar is given below –

Comments by Jennifer Wallace:
The second panel discussion was on “Mining, Displacement and Resistance”, chaired again by Jennifer Wallace. On the panel were Bulu Imam, as the director of the Save the Karanpura Valley Campaign; Vinita Damodaran, lecturer at University of Sussex and author of many books and articles on popular protest, forest rights, globalisation and mining in Eastern India; Robert Wallis, the photographer for the “Disappearing World” exhibition; and Richard Harkinson, part of the London Mining Network.
The session began with a screening of Robert Wallis’s 6-minute film on the situation in Jharkhand. The panel discussion focused around three questions: what are the laws which are supposed to protect the Adivasi and which also paradoxically allow the displacement of tribal people from their lands? To what extent is mining a major contributing factor to the Maoist insurgency in the region? And what is the solution, or in other words, what kind of development, if any, could or should be brought to Jharkhand? Vinita explained the problems with the recent Forest Rights Act, and spoke powerfully about the extent of dispossession (about 60 million people) since Independence. With facts like these, she asked, is it any wonder that there is grievance and that some Adivasi are ending up fighting with the Maoists? The panel were divided on the question of the solution. Bulu was strongly opposed to any form of development imposed by outsiders for the benefit of outsiders. Others felt that some form of local development, in which Adivasi take control of their own industries, could be the way forward. Only through development of this kind might the Adivasi be given a non-violent alternative to the Naxalites or armed insurgency. There was a vigorous debate about whether corporations or NGOs could – or indeed already do - carry out Environmental Impact Assessments, and how these could ever be effective or whether they are completely ignored and used only as a PR exercise. Bulu expressed a faith in young people to realise the importance of nature, community and spirituality for the human race. While Robert was sceptical about whether young, middle-class people living in cities really cared about the cost of the development which was bringing them prosperity, Bulu finished the session by declaring that the power of the internet and other media to raise awareness offered the crucial solution; with knowledge of what was really going on in Jharkhand and the other mining states of India, young people would strive to overturn the mistakes of their parents.

Additional comments by Robert Wallis:
Further to discussions about the Forest Right’s Act, during the seminar and after it, it was pointed out that the FRA, which was ostensibly created to protect tribal land rights, has in fact been used to exploit their lands without fair compensation. While the FRA prevents tribal land from being freely bought and sold like non-tribal land, it does not prevent the government from seizing the land for purposes considered to be in the “national interest”- specifically in the case of Jharkhand, for mining and hydro-electric projects.  So in practice Adivasi are forced off their land but paid only a tiny fraction of what it is really worth to corporate interests which will then buy it from the government at a much higher price.  Bulu forcefully argued that this is a loophole which the government uses to acquire mineral resources on Adivasi lands at knock-down prices. He said this must be changed. If Adivasi are dispossessed and forced to leave their ancestral lands, they must receive a fair price for the land, the same price that would have to be paid if it was owned by non-tribals. Only in this way can Adivasi purchase other agricultural land (land for land) to continue their traditional way of life or choose alternatives that are economically viable.  Otherwise many will end up scavenging on the edge of the mines that have displaced them (as seen in my photos in the exhibition) or working as unskilled day labourers living in urban slums.
To summarise, Bulu said that either the FRA must be respected and not easily overruled by the so called ‘national interest’, which is really the interest of large corporations but not of those whose way of life is being destroyed, or Adivasi must be paid the same as non-tribals for what their land is really worth to be able to start a new life elsewhere. It becomes a legal issue in either case.
Bulu concluded that even if the law is changed or interpreted fairly, it must then be enforced at the local level which is an entirely different challenge since non-enforcement of existing laws is endemic in India due to bribery, intimidation and corruption.

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