Last week, the Telegraph, one of Calcutta’s major newspapers, published two different articles about the Birhor and the way they are perceived by the majority Indian society.
The first article described the visit of some officials to a couple villages in the state of Jharkhand. The deputy commissioner of the state, K. K. Soan, accompanied by some other people, visited Basu Kocha and Jorebore, about 80 km from Ranchi, the state capital. Twenty one families from both the Birhor and Paharia societies met the visitors when they arrived in their communities and showed them documents that indicated they owned several tracts of land.
The people claimed, however, they had never been shown the location of the property when it was given to them at least 10 years earlier. With a reporter present, the officials were obviously embarrassed. The deputy commissioner directed one subordinate to immediately find the land and ensure that the families were shown where it is located.
He then warned a revenue officer with the party that he would face serious consequences if his instructions were not carried out. A public relations officer then told the Telegraph that such an event was unprecedented—the first time anything like that had happened during a field inspection by a deputy commissioner.
The second article describes a temporary building called a pandal, which has been erected in Calcutta for a puja, a Hindu religious celebration, in this case organized for the goddess Durga. The group that is organizing the puja, the Suruchi Sangha club in Calcutta, decided for this year’s festival to highlight the theme of preserving the environment. It is developing that theme by focusing on the tribal societies in the neighboring state of Jharkhand. The club decided to model the pandal for the festivities after a Birhor dwelling.
The pandal is evidently fairly large, with a dome 30 feet high. It is covered with different varieties of plants that might be used by a Birhor family in Jharkhand to cover one of their homes in the forest. The club, concerned about the accurate appearance of the pandal, went to Jharkhand to get the plants; it raised them in a local nursery until it was time to erect the building. The plants are known for producing fruits and flowers, or for providing medicines the Birhor use.
The interior walls and ceiling of the building mix other tribal themes and art work from different Jharkhand societies in order to try and capture the spirit of the peoples of the state. The centerpiece of the structure is a 14-foot high idol of Durga, a goddess that embodies, for Hindus, the characteristics of female forcefulness.
The organizers of the festival also wanted to present a sense of tribal violence, however. As the Telegraph reporter incorrectly expressed it, “the charm of the tribal heartland is incomplete without its warrior men and women.”
Outside the pandal, the organizing club erected a pedestal for a statue of Birsa Munda, a warrior and leader of the Munda society, also in Jharkhand, who fought against the British 100 years ago. He is viewed today as a freedom fighter for Indian independence.
The Suruchi Sangha club extended the tribal image by building a ring of village huts around the perimeter of the pandal, complete with a model forest. Raja Sarkar, an artist who helped prepare the exhibit, told the Telegraph that in order to create the ambience of a Jharkhand village, they “tried to replicate a tribal battle scene.” The artists placed on one side of the exhibit area 24 statues of men and women heading off to war. “The sound of drum beats heralding a war will play in the background to add to the effect,” he said.
Too bad the organizers were unaware of the fact that, however much other tribal societies in Jharkhand may have gone to war, the Birhor are quite peaceful. It may be difficult for city people living in a major, world power such as India to accept the idea that some societies avoid conflict, competition, and violence.