While urbanisation is perceived as the way toward development and modernisation in most parts of the world, the path in India is not so straightforward as the country plays home to millions of tribespeople who live in dense forests, dependent on the vagaries of nature, and have no access to urban amenities or even safe food, water and healthcare.
And yet, these tribes are the last links to India’s ancient civilisational heritage, and their arts, dance forms and crafts need to be given due respect as precious remnants of the region’s rich cultural traditions.
Though indigenous tribes exist in all parts of India, the percentage of their population is largest in states like Chhattisgarh, Andhra Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Assam and Bihar. To celebrate diversity and to give a boost to tribal culture and local crafts, the Chhattisgarh government held a three-day National Tribal Dance Festival in Raipur last month.
Being a sociology student in high school and college, and having studied about various tribes of India, I was stoked to visit a festival that brought my textbook tribes and their ritual practices to life from 27 states and six union territories of India. Held at Raipur’s Science College ground, the festival also saw the participation of tribes from Uzbekistan, Nigeria, Sri Lanka, Uganda, Syria, Mali, Palestine, and Kingdom of Eswatini.
The festival included a competition in two categories: wedding dance and a traditional dance themed around harvesting or agriculture. National teams competed for the top three positions with prizes worth Rs 5 lakh, Rs 3 lakh and Rs 2 lakh, respectively.
The arrangements included seating for about a thousand people, traditional stalls for indigenous food, arts and crafts, cloth, bamboo works, pottery and also an entire area dedicated to farming which included mockups of harvesting and the dam system of Chhattisgarh. There was also a barn with cows, fish, rabbits and roosters.
Chhattisgarh is in the unique position of having 44 percent forest land, which is maintained by tribes. The artists from tribal areas of Bastar, Dantewada, Koriya, Korba, Bilaspur, Gariabandh, Mainpur, Dhura, Dhamtari, Surguja and Jashpur displayed their own history, culture and traditions along with their delicious food stalls and age-old crafts.
It was a sensorial treat to explore the rich local textiles, crafts and cuisines along with an extremely diverse crowd from all over the world. The traditional clothing on display was colourful, vibrant and bewitching. Each outfit looked like a work of art.
As the acclaimed fashion designer Marc Jacobs said, “Clothes mean nothing until someone lives in them.” Tradition, history and even the touches of modernisation oozed from the breathing fabrics wrapped around the people in the festival.
The festival also held its first conclave featuring stimulating discussions with panelists from different fields such as tourism, film, food, arts and crafts and preservation of the tribal cultures in India, along with representatives of the Chhattisgarh government.
Festival curator and director Yasmin Kidwai; art writer, curator and Dhoomimal Gallery advisor Kiran Mohan; fashion designer David Abraham; and film director Avinash Das were some of the speakers at the conclave.
At the end, Team Jharkhand won in both categories of the dance competition, winning cash prizes totaling Rs 10 lakh. Team Odisha was the runner-up in both categories, while Team Assam won the third slot in the wedding dance category and Team Chhattisgarh won the third position in the traditional dance category.
Every dance that I witnessed was hypnotic and vibrant. They brought to my mind the words of British writer Vivian Greene, who said, “Life isn’t about waiting for the storm to pass… It’s about learning to dance in the rain.”
The dances displayed the bonds indigenous people have with one another and trust in community that is often forgotten in modern society due to heightened emphasis on the individual over community. The tribal dances were synchronised like a beating heart, warm and alive, passionate and fierce.
The pandemic isolated many of us in urban centres even further, but what the Tribal Dance Festival highlighted is that one can learn to be free from hardships with a dance – be it alone or together.