Ashay Deshpande- Comparison Analysis of Communities

Introduction:

Indigenous Knowledge and Communities is a course that focuses on the observation of indigenous communities and their cultural practices along with traditional knowledge. It also attempts to understand the common perceptions about the communities it deals with in comparison to the empirical reality about their lives. In this particular batch, we visited four hamlets from the larger system of the Kathkari community in Raigad district, Maharashtra. The Kathkaris are a tribe that has lived in various parts of Maharashtra since times immemorial. They were once entirely dependent on the once dense forests of the region for their resources. However, since the emergence of India in 1947, subsequent governments and laws have resulted in an observable distance between what they used to be and what they are today.  The self-identity of the Kathkaris has been influenced by the perceptions and attitudes of neighbouring communities and other specialised agencies with political, ideological, religious and capitalistic agendas. The traditional discourse on the Kathkaris in Maharashtra, like most Adivasi groups is rooted in an overall anti-Adivasi attitudes based in generalised stereotypes about forest dwellers. Even the earliest British attempts at documentation refer to the Kathkaris as a degraded body of natives who live as outcasts near villages inhabited by other communities. Even then, their dislike by the dominant Brahman upper casts was noticeable. Thus, with the emergence of a new government which believes in sacrificing individual cultural identity for assimilation into a larger cultural mesosystem, it is important to look beyond the bureaucratic and ideological convenience of agenda driven ‘development’ and understand the uniqueness of each individual hamlet. Thus, this paper will compare observations made in each of the four hamlets to create a basis for further study and future community participatory interventions for the Kathkaris to reclaim their identity.

Mangaon:

The first hamlet we visited was the remote village, Mangaon, inhabited by both Kathkaris and Marathas.

Relationship with the forest:

Out of all the communities we visited, Mangaon seemed to have the greatest connection with the forest. They still conduct religious festivals in the forest and use fruits, roots and vegetables found in the forest. Despite this, they are no longer heavily dependent on the forest for their resources, instead relying on migrant labour and work in the nearby fields owned by the Marathas.

Cultural identity:

This community seemed to have the best recollection of their cultural roots. Those we talked to made a clear distinction between themselves and the Marathas. The way the village is structured too, reflects this distinction, with the Kathkaris living on the fringes of the village, higher up on the hill rather than closer to the road and the school, where the Marathas lived.At the school, where we had our first contact, we were welcomed with a traditional Marathi song and observed a segregation in the footwear of the Kathkaris and the Marathas. Since the forest plays an important part of a culture which historically obtained resources from the forest, there is a cultural disconnect caused by their newer occupational patterns. These seem to have begun the process of alienating the newer generations from their heritage. The presence of the Maratha school and the perceived relevance of Maratha culture over the alienated Kathkari culture has also resulted in a degree of enculturation among the newer generation.

Gender:

Due to the prevalence of migrant labour as an occupation among the men in the community, our interactions were mostly limited to the men of the community. Entire families travel to distant parts of Maharashtra in order to work, disrupting the children’s education.

Cultural production:

An observed practice was religiously themed tattoos among the women in the community, inked at a young age. However, these tattoos are made by an external artist from the local market.

Attitude and relationship with the researchers:

We interacted with the community at the aanganwadi towards the Kathkari part of the village. The villagers, mostly women, were beyond cooperative in answering our questions and keen to understand where we came from. They even shared berries and roots from the forest with us, both as a sign of hospitality as well as to introduce us to their culture.

Mirkutwadi:

The second hamlet we visited, Mirkutwadi exists in a very unique location near the Mumbai-Goa highway and industrial infrastructure.

Relationship with the forest:

Our interactions with the people that inhabited Mirkutwadi showed us that the Kathkaristhere had a formal awareness of their older relationship with the forest but had been primarily agrarian even before their shift into industrial employment, possibly due to previous relocation. We were given a detailed account of their understanding of this shift by a spokesperson for the community. According to him, as industrial infrastructure nearby began taking up their cultivable land, the adaptation and reliance on money was their only means of securing resources. Since the government ration system fails to provide for their needs, many took up occupations in the surrounding industries, severing their history of directly gathering resources.

Cultural identity:

While aware of their Kathkari heritage, systematic and deliberate Hindu and Maratha enculturation seems to have almost completely succeeded in getting them to identify more with the Marathas than with the Kathkari culture. Their approach to Kathkari heritage is heavily politicised and organised, existing more as an asset than as a means of identity. They in fact, identify themselves as Marathi in some cases. Hindusim and its practices have been seeded into the community through missionary endeavours which attempt to connecttraditional Kathkari deities to the Hindu canon. To a great extent, these attempts have been successful in adaptation of Hindu perspective by the community.

Gender:

We interacted only with the prominent men of the community who all work for surrounding industries and rely on the ration system and regular salaries for their resources.

Attitude and relationship with the researchers:

Since we were only able to interact with select few people who appeared to be prominent men from their community, our understanding of the community is incomplete. They made it clear that they were seeking financial aid from us and were not entirely interested in our academic goals with their community. Despite the lack of open hostility, it was easy to identify certain subtle tactics of establishing a sort of upper hand with us through the mention of powerful contacts and a unionised Adivasi organisation. The commercial nature of their demands made it difficult for us to establish more abstract dialogue with them.

Kanhau:

Kanhau is a hamelt that exists in a unique political and social scenario. It is also the community we interacted with the most.

Relationship with the forest:

The most isolated among all the communities we visited, Kanhau is also in a sense the most urbanised, with paved roads, electricity and brick houses featuring prominently. Since a large part of their population works wither as migrant labourers or as workers for a nearby industrialist, their relationship with the forest is limited. This is aided by the restriction of access to the forests and ponds nearby by a local industrialist and a politician, both of whom own land in the region.

The land belonging to the

Cultural identity:

Through initial interactions, we learned that while the community was aware of older customs and traditions, their practice was seen to be archaic and had a certain element of shame attached to it due to its ridicule by younger generations. Younger generations seem to conform more with the Maratha identity due to its perceived greater relevance to their lives.Despite this, there is hope with a particular influential youth in the village who is interested in herbal medicine obtained from the forest through a distinctive method of identifying and seeking these herbs.

Gender:

Due to the migrant labour occupation, once more, our interactions were limited mostly to the women on our first visit. However, a male youth from the village has been the most useful in both facilitating our interactions with the community as well as answering some key questions about the surroundings. Women too work on the industrialist’s farm and often, the children are left in the care of the elders and non-working women. Women have also established a savings group which manages to save enough money for them to deal with minor monetary issues its members may face.

Attitude and relationship with the researchers:

The attitudes of the people of Kanhau are complex and even divided. Our interactions with them have led to great acceptance from the community, going so far as to invite us to a house warming pooja for a prominent villager. However, not much traditional knowledge has been acquirable from the community, possibly due to a lack on our part of communicating what we sought. However, Interactions with the villagers grows with each visit and a savings group based workshop in the foreseeable future may be possible. It is important to note that we also encountered a certain social worker from Mumbai who was formerly affiliated with an aid program based in Mumbai. He claims to teach the children there basic computer skills and social sciences. More interaction with this individual is needed to understand his role in theKanhau ecosystem.

Beliv:

Beliv is a remote hamlet near Mangaon that is less touched by acculturation than most other villages we visited.

Relationship with the forest:

Beliv is significant due to the fact that it is an original residence of the Kathkaris as opposed to land allotted by the government. It is situated near Mangaon and is freer from Maratha influence. While their dependence on the forest is minimal, an old man from the village has been identified as a former healer/medicine man. He claims to have a detailed understanding of forest acquired medical resources and more importantly, his abilities and the viability of his medication is recognised by the other members of the community. He has offered to gather herbs and allow us to document his knowledge. The community also recognises the potential economic benefit this medicine can give them, both from saving them money otherwise allocated to hospitals and medical expenses and in patenting and exporting their methods. There is also a deep understanding of the environment and its biological effects on its occupants in the context of medicine.

Cultural identity:

This group identifies itself as distinctively Kathkari and are closest to their roots due to their occupation of the same land. They have an understanding of their property and acknowledge the distinction between an outsider living on their land and a member of their community doing the same. There is also a strong resilience in retaining their land along with a sense of ownership. The village is Hindu, with the Bhagat of the village interesting having been qualified for the role by another Adivasi guru.

Gender:

Upon questioning, the villagers revealed their practices of marriage and inheritance. A man from the village may remarry after a wife dies or runs away while the wife only remarries if the husband dies (which too appeared mostly taboo). Wealth was inherited by the son and the daughter is bought gifts and jewellery from the inheritance on religious festivals. A married couple could choose anywhere within their land to build their house. While a deeper hierarchy surely exists, it is yet to be identified by us.

Attitude and relationship with the researchers:

The villagers displayed a very positive and friendly attitude with the researchers, devoting much of their time to talk to us. There is promise in the openness the village displays as well as their dawning understanding of the benefits of their traditional medicine. There is also and understanding of mental health through an old man who displays signs of dementia and schizophrenia. Future interactions with the community are promising.

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