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First Adivasi Mahila Sahitya Sammelan in Gadchiroli Inspires More Tribal Women to Tell Their Stories

Adivasi Mahila Sahitya Sammelan

Globally speaking, indigenous culture, knowledge, practices, and stories have been transmitted from one generation to the next through oral narratives. This collective knowledge owned by communities is an ancient repository of values, beliefs, lifestyle practices, heritage, stories, and various sciences.

With increasing urbanization, and globalization of economies and culture, indigenous cultures and languages are at risk of rapid acculturation which may lead to the loss of rich ancient text, practices, and knowledge. The cultural depletion is expedited by the fact that the multiple narratives of these oral traditions have not been documented. There is no way to know how many of such local traditions and practices that may have been useful in this day and age have already been lost.

The First Adivasi (tribal) women’s literature festival in Gadchiroli district on the 15th and 16th of April 2023, was an effort to celebrate Adivasi women writing and reinforce the discourse that there is a need to document indigenous cultures, struggles, and knowledge in adivasi women’s literature. The initiative was led by celebrated tribal Marathi poet and writer, Kusum Alam, and supported by Adivasi Ekta parishad, Krantiveer Narayansingh VK Adivasi Samiti, Federation of Indian Indigenous Languages, Akhil Bhartiya Adivasi Vikas parishad, Jan Adhikar Manch, and Sarva Gram Sabha Gadchiroli Zilla.

Kusum Tai Alam mentioned that she faced many hardships to carry out the first Adivasi women’s literary festival, from financial difficulties to travelling far places to meet stakeholders and being months away from family. This was rewarded in the form of immense support from the community, through participation, celebrating the inauguration of the event with Tarpa dance, and showering of flowers.

The Welcome Service

The festival aimed to highlight the tribal existence, identity, knowledge, tradition, art, and history of tribal heroes through the lens of tribal women writers. Apart from this, awareness generation about many tribal rights, including constitutional rights, was also one of the major aspirations of the event. Kusum Tai further stated that tribal women are carriers of society, culture, art, and tradition. Tribal women have a great contribution at every social level, but at the same time, tribal women are still living in disadvantaged economic, health, social, educational, and political situations. The festival aspired to take forward such discourses through tribal women's writings.

It was endearing that the festival received support from over seventy-gram sabhas who came together to provide partial ration and funding for the event. The Maharashtra state government’s tribal development department (TDD) too backed the Adivasi Mahila Sahitya Sammelan. The highlight of the festival included the participation it drew from adivasi women of various tribes of Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, Meghalaya, Arunachal Pradesh, Odisha, Gujarat, and Madhya Pradesh.

The key speaker and guest for the event, the celebrated Khasi poet, dramatist, playwright, critic and scholar, Prof. Streamlet Dkhar spoke about very crucial issues in her inaugural talk. She highlighted that ‘we live in the 21st century, yet atrocities against women have not stopped, but continue to increase. Different problems faced by women are still severely affecting them due to patriarchal domination, violence, lack of opportunities, gender discrimination, extreme poverty, poor healthcare, and other problems. Therefore, in every walk of life, we talk about issues like women's liberation and women's empowerment and how to overcome the daily difficulties of life. We should object strongly to the discrimination against women that is made based on gender. We should be critical of the imposition of men-centric taboos and the so-called cultural norms against women. We should urge that all women should have the choice to decide for their lives, and they should have the same opportunities as men do in day-to-day activities.’

She further went on to state that, ‘there are feminist movements worldwide to reflect such a reaction against the crimes against women in society. Tribal women are seen to be subordinate everywhere. It begins with her family, then in the institutions, workplace and even in society at large. It has been observed that the perception of writers, especially of male writers, in many places portrays women as objects, not humans. Now, it is high time to bring a change in our perspectives about women. It must begin from us too, as we expect the support of our counterparts. However, there are tribal societies where women get the liberty to share equal rights with men, but still, there is a long way to go.’

The well-known writer and literary icon, Najubai Gavit, who was one of the inaugural speakers at the event spoke at length about the challenges of tribal life from her lived experiences. She highlighted that tribal literature, unlike literature emanating from other sections of society, is not for mere entertainment. Tribal literature is songs of struggle.

In one of the key sessions chaired by prolific writer, Dr Joram Yalam Nabam from Arunachal Pradesh, who has been honoured with awards such as the Sahitya Srijan Manthan, and Ayodhya Prasad Khatri Smriti Award, chaired the discussion on the contribution of women in the promotion of tribal language and culture. The session included prominent speakers such as Adivasi Rajasthani writer Dr Heera Meena who highlighted the loss of indigenous languages, and how more documentation needs to be done on the indigenous cultures and diversity. Dr Ing Perme discussed the central role of women in Adi folklore and stories, and how for centuries they have carried it forward. She highlighted how these ancestral stories and songs have deep-rooted teachings of indigenous lifestyles and spoke at length about the indigenous Ponung folk dance with its mythological significance.

The writings from most of the sessions also bought home the idea that, as a society, we are drifting away from nature, whereas the tribals still live near the environment, and their lifestyles are still interconnected with forests and natural resources. Tribal life values ​​are not understood by reading this book but by association. These life values ​​should be preserved. Women are the breeders and carriers of this culture. Tribal women have made history. The purpose of this conference is to create a constitution-conscious and egalitarian society.

Conference and Talks

The festival was aimed to be a think-tank of many prominent women voices in tribal literature and to inspire more tribal women to take up writing and documenting their own stories. The festival also showcased that such events are important to share each other’s culture even within the diverse tribal communities of India.

Distinguished author Usha Kiran Atram also graced the event and read stories around the theme of challenges of tribal migration, and how the pandemic has affected them disproportionately. Some of the prominent tribal literary figures and activists who graced the event were Ashok Choudhury, Vahru Sonawane, Dr Vasavi Kiro, Kusum Rawat, Aloka Kujur, Varsha Manwar, Fr. Nicholas Barla, Mangla Garewal, Shrikant Ghote, Kishore Kavthe, Tala Tudu, Sunil Gaikwad, Nandabai Bhil, Kusum Meghwal, Madhuri Madavi, Sadhna Meena, Nirmala Putul, Dashrath Madavi, Promodini Yerwe, Joba Murmu, Anisa Tadvi, Dr Nilkanth Kulsange, Surendra Masram, Manisha Madavi, DrPravin Kilnake, Sunil Kumar Bhil, Sonu Alam, Gaurav Alam and many others.

Many of the writings presented at the literature festival were themed around the ecological challenges of urbanization, globalization, and a universal idea of development. The writings shed light on the loss of indigenous traditions. The stories and poems shared also highlighted critical Sustainable Development Goal challenges like high rates of maternal mortality, and malnourishment.

Adivasi book stalls were set up by indigenous representatives, and apart from literary books the stalls also had books on Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act, 1996 (PESA), the constitution, Birsa Munda, and Dr. Bhimrao Ambedkar. Initiatives like Anamaya, the tribal health collaborative, also participated in the festival and spoke about the interlinkages of indigenous health and culture with the organizers.

Reflections at the event brought to the forefront questions like, can we follow a single definition of development adopted from the West? Should tribal development not be rooted in culture, history, knowledge, traditions, identity, art, and language? Many crucial issues such as pollution, and illegal mining, affect agriculture and climate, leading to increased displacement of tribal populations more than ever. The risk of natural calamities is also rising with time, ranging from global warming to earthquakes to forest fires. Tribalism is the way of their life, as life cannot go on without pure water and air, it is the tribal way of living that can restore the idea of rational and sustainable development.

Madhu Raghavendra leads Culture at Anamaya, the Tribal Health Collaborative. He is a poet, curator, and social development practitioner. He has worked in various capacities over the past decade in public health with Central and State Governments and International Development Organizations (UNICEF, DFID). He has authored four books of poetry, Make Me Some Love to Eat, Stick No Bills, Being Non-essential, and Going Home. He is the founder of Poetry Couture, a movement that has created free spaces for poetry in many cities of India, including North East India. He has participated in the 2022 PEN Emergency World Voices Congress of Writers at the United Nations Headquarters, in New York. Madhu was a resident poet at the 2022 Spring International Writing Program, The University of Iowa.

1 Comment

Naresh Kharadi
Naresh Kharadi
Jun 19, 2023


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