Niranjan Mahawar, 75, is a self-taught ethnologist of Chhattisgarh. He spent almost five decades in southern Chhattisgarh to study the life and art of the Bastar tribes. It was his family’s rice production business that first took Mahawar to southern Chhattisgarh’s Bastar region in the early 1960s. At that time, the family was not aware that Mahawar — a masters in Economics from Sagar University in Madhya Pradesh — had enrolled as a member of the undivided Communist Party of India (CPI) of India in 1955. Later, while administering the rice mill, he started the CPI’s first district unit in Dhamtari of Chhattisgarh, eventually joining the CPI-M after the division. While the family finally managed to delink him from the Communist Party, Mahawar’s love for Bastar — especially tribal art and culture — kept growing. Today, Mahawar — who was made famous in a series of interviews by the writer Dom Moraes — is considered an authoritative voice on central Indian folk art, folklore, tribal myths and theatre. He spoke to Suvojit Bagchi extensively on his work. Excerpts.
It was difficult to find out your house in Raipur as nobody knows you here, not even your neighbour…
Yes, that is a problem. A woman came from USIS in Mumbai once. She said the same thing.
But in the early 1980s, Dom Moraes wrote a lot on you and possibly you are known since then especially among people who are interested about Bastar art.
That’s correct. Dom came here with a friend as he was planning a visit to Bastar. That was in the early eighties. He came twice and we had a long chat over lunch.
He visited Bastar and wrote a book, Answered by Flutes: Reflections on Madhya Pradesh. It had two pages on me. He then wrote more on me. Well ….after that, the journalists started pouring in and a lot [has been] written on me in mainstream magazines.
So what is there in those articles…or more precisely, what exactly do you mean by Bastar art? The bell metal artefacts…wrought iron ones…the wood carvings?
Well, everything. But first let me say, I won’t call it bell metal but bronze.
Why is it called bell metal?
Bells of temples were made of the metal which is pure bronze. And as you said, besides bronze artefacts, there are wooden carvings, wrought iron, masks, combs… I have about 200 combs. They are all Bastar art. They all tell a story.
Like this woman Tallur Muttai (shows a picture of a woman in bronze, embracing a child with her left hand and holding a stick with a funnel on top with her right). She, in tribal myth, lives in palmyra fruit trees. To the tribals, palmyra juice is the breast milk of Tallur Muttai. She, therefore, is the earth mother. But then there is the massive Hindu-isation of the tribal myth and the earth mother is made to sit on a tiger as Hindus prefer their goddesses on the tiger. I have a problem with this makeover. If the tribal gods are comfortable on the trees, let them be...why make them a Hindu? Besides, the market forces are also changing the artefacts.
So, in spite of the overlapping of the images of the icons, a tribal is in no way a Hindu?
P.N. Haksar, while heading a national committee on the tribals, once asked that. I said, tribals don’t believe in chatur-varna or the caste system that is the basis of Hindu society. Tribals lived with their native tradition and for over five thousand years refused to get dominated by Hindus. Hence they are not Hindus.
So, the difference with Hindus has been there for a long time?
Of course. In the Ramayana, you have the demon. Remember the woman, Tadoka, the demoness. The word Tar or palmyra is in her name too. I assume, she is the same Tallur Muthai and she, like other rakshas, got a snub-nose. The Gonds have a snub-nose. So while Ram represents the upper caste Hindus, the Aryans, Tadoka and her friends represent the tribal society, the Dravidians. This resistance against the outsiders was documented in modern times by the British gazetteers, anthropologists. They published how the locals resisted them. When the British tried to enter the region, one of the kings of the area, the Raja of Kanker, asked them to refrain. The kings, however, were small and while they also were outsiders, always avoided confrontation with the Bastar tribals.
You mean, Bastar almost always accepted the local rulers, but not the big imperialist forces?
Yes. They will not accept you easily. Even now, you would find tribals while talking among themselves would call you a ‘thug’ — a cheat. They don’t trust outsiders. Now, associate this thought with today’s mining. Bastar will resist mining and outsiders.
You mean the State and its mining policies will not be able to penetrate Bastar?
I cannot say that for sure. The Indian state is far more complex and powerful now.
Maybe this has helped the Maoists…
Of course. Maoists used this sentiment to their advantage. But I think they are extortionists and not Communists.
You yourself were a Communist. What or who really inspired you?
Yes. I joined the party in 1955. Initially I was influenced by writers like Premchand, Yashpal, Saratchandra Chatterjee, Rabindranath Tagore or Gorky. I had a science teacher, Surendra Bhatnagar, whom I met in school in Dhamtari, Chhattisgarh, as we migrated from Alwar. He was a CPI sympathiser and influenced me. Soon I joined the family business and did two things in my factory. Paid women and men equally and asked the workers, who were paid peanuts, to organise themselves. This seriously unsettled my father and uncle (laughs). Eventually I went to study at Sagar University, Madhya Pradesh, and met Sudhir Mukherjee, the legendary CPI leader. I joined as a whole timer.
Anything that you did as a CPI activist in the 1950s?
Well….the usual party work. But we used to run a party unit among students in the university, which grew fast. We started the first party office in Dhamtari. See, it was a time, when we all thought that Communism is around the corner as the Korean War of 1950 was interpreted as Stalin’s victory. Stalin was a hero — even in these remote areas like Dhamtari (laughs).
But things changed…
Yes. It did. From the early sixties the debate within the CPI started distracting us. I was in the party class in Gwalior in 1960, where different groups, within the party, spoke in favour of and against Nehru. B.T. Ranadive, Homi Daji and Dr. Gangadhar Adhikari were there. I was not really aware of the developments but slowly came to terms with multiple opinions within the party. Finally the split took place, albeit for different reasons, and after some vacillation, I joined the CPI(M).
Eventually left the CPI(M)…?
Yes, but that was not necessarily because I was disillusioned with politics. My family was creating a lot of pressure on me…my father…he requested me to leave the Communist Party as it was bad for the business. I was upset, took a sabbatical and went to Kolkata. After a brief stay I came back to Chhattisgarh and started working in the rice mill.
And started studying Bastar art?
I have been visiting Bastar and documenting tribal folk lore, tales, music, theatre and every other forms of art in the region even before I left Chhattisgarh briefly.
But you have not written any full scale book — other than monographs — until recently when you published Bastar Bronze. Why is that so?
Somehow it could not be organised but now I have several books and monographs in the pipeline. I did publish some translations of Verrier Elwin’s works.
After the formation of the new State of Chhattisgarh, the State government commissioned you to write two major books on the crafts and the performing arts of Bastar. You were paid a fee as well. I assume it was about a decade ago. Why did the government not publish the books, after commissioning?
I don’t want to talk about that.
Apparently the department of culture where you submitted the manuscripts, did not even want to return the manuscripts?
Let us not talk about that.
It was only after Governor Shekhar Dutt’s intervention that the manuscripts were returned …is that correct?
Yes, that is right. But let us not discuss that.
I have been told, that you refused to assume the post of the president of People’s Union of Civil Liberties (PUCL) when they requested you recently, even though you were an active activist at one point.
That is because of my health, my kidneys are not fine, I told them.
Is life difficult in Chhattisgarh as an independent academic or human rights activist?
I don’t know. I avoid activities as I am not well.
Do you think your Communist identity and love for tribals prevented the government from acknowledging your work?
I don’t want to comment.
Maybe that is why you are not even known in your colony…
Thank you very much.