A life dedicated to preserving tribal culture

Musician, linguist, writer, scholar, educationist, institution-builder, tribal activist — and a key figure in creation of Jharkhand — Ram Dayal Munda passed away in Ranchi on September 30 at the age of 72.

I saw him last on March 30 at a conference of the All-India Adivasi Mahasabha: as the three-day conclave concluded at the Talkatora Indoor Stadium here, Adivasis sang and danced together, unmindful of the varied regions they came from, their brilliant costumes blending with each other. Dr Munda — who had not yet been diagnosed for cancer — leapt off the stage, and joined fellow Adivasis, singing, playing the nagora (drum), and dancing with abandon, his long hair flying.

“Dance to survive”

Dr. Munda believed strongly that the Adivasis would survive only if their culture continued to flourish: Nachi se banchi (Dance to survive), he would say. Indeed, for him, the preservation of the tribal way of life, culture and languages was integral to his work of improving their lot, and fighting for their rights to the forest land they lived on.

Later that day, he lamented that the Union Tribal Affairs Ministry was not much more than a “post office” — it must become, he said, “a genuine nodal agency for issues concerning the welfare of the tribal communities.” Implement all the constitutional provisions, laws and government schemes for the Adivasis, he said, and the first step to tackling the Maoists would be taken.

For Dr. Munda, the central message of the conference was the urgent need to unite the diverse tribal communities from across the country for them to gain a voice in Delhi, as a starting point to controlling their own destinies — and their land, water and forests. But it was equally evident that even though he was a member of both the Sonia Gandhi-led National Advisory Council and the Rajya Sabha, Dr. Munda held out very little hope that things would change dramatically for the Adivasis without a long, hard struggle.

Dr. Munda's own life story was exemplary. Born in 1939, in the tribal village Diuri in Ranchi district, he attended the neighbourhood Luther Mission School at Amlesa: from there, he moved to the sub-divisional town of Khunti, 40 km away from home, to study at a secondary school there. As the centre of the historic Birsa movement, the area attracted international scholars, especially anthropologists. Dr. Munda found himself playing guide to such visitors, an experience that led him to an M.A. in anthropology at Ranchi University (1963), followed by a PhD on tribal languages at Chicago University (1970). After teaching stints at the universities of Chicago and Minnesota, he returned to Ranchi University to head the newly established Department of Tribal and Regional Languages, finally becoming its Vice-Chancellor in 1985.

Cultural mobilisation

In 1999, he retired from active teaching to concentrate on the cultural mobilisation of the Adivasis: this included active policymaking at the U.N. Working Group on Indigenous People in Geneva and the U.N. Forum of Indigenous Issues in New York, as a senior official of the Indian Confederation of Indigenous and Tribal Peoples (ICITP), an all India tribal-led and managed movement.

Dr. Munda will be particularly remembered for building a troupe of dancers and musicians, whether as a student in India or in the United States, or later when he was teaching at Ranchi University: he consistently sought to integrate traditional performance culture into modern-day life. His troupe led the Indian cultural contingent in the Festival of India in the USSR in 1987; in 1989, it toured the Philippines, China, and Japan. Thanks to his leadership, village akharas for dance and music were revived across Jharkhand.

In 2007, Dr. Munda was honoured by the Sangeet Natak Akademi; in 2010, he was awarded the Padma Shri.

It is his lifelong dedication and contribution to the cause of preserving tribal culture that will live on.

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Printable version | Oct 24, 2021 8:43:11 PM |

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