A new museum in Madhya Pradesh showcases the oral narratives of seven major tribes. And it’s put together by the tribals themselves, says Gowri Ramnarayan.

Once upon a time, the mighty God Badadev disappeared into the Saja tree. A minstrel crafted the bana, a new musical instrument, to awaken him. The musician’s bow followed the movements of the bharhi bird as it dipped and swerved in flight. Invoked by this music, Badadev reappeared and blessed the tribe.

Such stories from seven major tribes of Madhya Pradesh (MP) — Gond, Bhil, Baiga, Kol, Korku, Sahariya, Bhariya — are recorded in their traditional bardic songs. Now, Jan Jatiya Sangrahalay, the new tribal museum in Bhopal, transforms these oral narratives into huge paintings and sculptures.

How did a project for preservation launch a process of creation? Two years ago, at a meeting of bureaucrats, archaeologists, anthropologists and sociologists, Bhil painter Bhuribai asked, “Shouldn’t a tribal museum be made by the tribals themselves?” Shriram Tiwari, Director, Culture Department, MP, then formed a core team of tribal scholars and contemporary 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 museum took 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 their sense of ownership that the residing tribal artistes didn’t wait for us, but salvaged everything when rains flooded the museum,” says Tiwari.

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.”

Just before its inauguration on June 6 by President Pranab Mukherjee, the museum was thronged by happy artists in colourful costumes, playing drums, testing flutes, putting finishing touches on the six galleries.

The first gallery, still incomplete, maps Madhya Pradesh with its five adjoining states. The central banyan tree will eventually touch ceiling and walls to indicate tribal affinities transcending geopolitical boundaries. The second depicts tribal homes, built ingeniously with local materials; the Bhil house standing alone on high ground. Artist Harisingh Khuman explains how 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. “Now there are plastic pots and machines for everything,” he laughs.

“Moved by the pain and sacrifice of Baasin Kanya (bamboo maiden) in my grandmother’s story, I made it in my mind first,” says Gond artist Durgabai Vyam, who has depicted the saga of a sister inadvertently killed by her loving brother. The girl is reborn as the bamboo, indispensable in every aspect of tribal life. A newborn is placed on a bamboo soopa, a corpse on a bamboo bier.

Durgabai has travelled widely, attended urban workshops, created paintings to be published in books. “When I paint, I am connected to my roots. Rain washes out our wall paintings in the village. In this museum they are preserved for the world to see.” Her daughter Roshni, studying in NIFT, Bangalore, at home in Hindi and English, has neither tribal name nor village life. But she says that, though her generation belongs to the city, “I know tribal rituals and stories. So, even if I paint city life, it will be in our style, and reflect our beliefs.”

In the Devlok gallery, ceramic artiste and museologist Shampa Shah explains, “There is a tribal deity for everything from recovering lost cattle to curing stomach ache. Some are both goddess and god. Hardly any idols though; 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. Consultant artist Harchandansingh Bhatti says, “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).”

There are galleries for guests and games, where exhibits will keep changing. Chattisgarh dominates the first, with its Dussera chariot traditionally made by participants from 40 communities in Bastar. With its few toys but many games, the second proves that to play is to invent and imagine.

Director Tiwari admits that, since the installations are crafted with perishable materials, maintenance demands vigilance and continual restoration. He also shares his dreams of showcasing, in turns, tribal art from across the country and the world. A first concrete step is the international film festival of tribal cultures held in June at the museum’s snug theatre.

Project coordinator Ashok Mishra says, “Traditional society is past focussed. 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.” Mishra sees tribal aesthetics and professional skills as perfectly adaptable to nouveau lifestyles. He believes that using modern materials makes the tribal artist more innovative.

This idea is actualised on the huge wall painting in glowing acrylic by Bhil artist Bhuribai — autobiographical but also the story of her community. Discovered by eminent artist J. Swaminathan among migrant labourers building Bharat Bhavan, Bhuribai overcame initial fears to become a noted painter. Bubbling humour makes her identify Swaminathan by his veshti and Indira Gandhi, who gives her an award, by the gun-toting security guard behind her. The last visual is of an aircraft. “I am going to America,” she smiles.

Despite the paradox of attempting to showcase tribal life in an undistinguished concrete building, Bhopal’s Tribal Museum may promote dialogue between tribal and urban societies and add brand value to the State’s 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.