Education in the 21st century is heavily augmented by the internet. Students no longer have to sift through libraries for their information, nor actually interact with their subject of study in order to conduct research. However, heavy reliance on secondary data creates disconnect between the ground reality of things and the theoretical frameworks that apply to them. Thus, seeking a middle ground of sorts, I registered for the Indigenous Knowledge and Communities class. My understanding of what the subject would involve in terms of fieldwork was vague, vagueness being something I instinctively avoid. However, I came to the conclusion that my distrust of vagueness in this scenario, came not from some sort of educated rationality, but from a lack of data. I simply had no idea what fieldwork was. Realising that fieldwork in psychology, especially cultural and social psychology is essential to research, it further reinforced my decision to take this course. I expected it to be a typical LCS class, filled with the usual bunch of students, however, the difference in its design struck me the minute I entered the room. The class was comprised of both LCS and Performing arts students, a bunch I had never seen together in class before. Unfortunately, scheduling conflicts resulted in a large part of the LCS batch to leave, but I decided to stay on, determined to push myself out a comfort zone I did not want to be stuck in.
The course began with an introduction, first to the Kathkaris, a community that has occupied parts of Raigad district for generations, and second, to the nature of this course, which would sound brutal to those not hooked onto fieldwork yet. After the initial exodus of students due their inability to manage classes, we began gathering information about the community along with any laws that affect them. We would make our first field visit andwhile it would be a mere introduction to the community, a considerable amount of sensitization was required to interact with them. Me, being one of two people in the class who spoke Marathi would have to be especially careful since even the words of our Professor, as well chosen as they may be, would still have to be translated by me. I am personally not a very social person and face difficulty interacting with people that have been around me for years, let alone talking to a completely new community that I had no real experience with. Realising for the first time the sub-standard quality of my Marathi, I was initially very nervous about the prospect. In order to hone our observational skills, we were sent to a part of campus and asked to spend an hour there, noting our sensory experiences. This exercise allowed me to ground myself a bit more into the fact that I would be visiting a completely alien environment which cannot be compensated for by any sensory heuristic. Thus, on a fine Sunday morning, touched with signs of anxiety, we set forth for Raigad to meet the Kathkaris.
Our first visit, one among three which the class would make, began at a village calledMangaon. We were led to a school where the entire class was present, in uniform. We were treated as guests of honour and welcomed with a formal introduction and a song in the Maratha manner. Apart from feeling terrible about being the reason these children had to be at school, in uniform on a Sunday, I began feeling uneasy because of the Marathiness of the whole situation including our welcome. I further observed that there was a segregation between two groups of footwear. This school as we later learnt, was attended both by Maratha and Kathkari children, with Maratha culture being dominant. The Kathkaris of the village lived at its edge and made a clear distinction between themselves and the Marathas.They were also more in connect with the forest than any community we visited henceforth, still using it for some of their resources. Beliv, the next village we went to was quite remoteand has been occupied by the Kathkaris for a very long time. We were able to find a man here who claimed to be a herbal healer at one point in time, although his knowledge was ever passed on to his children. The third village, Mirkutwadi was a very different atmosphere from the first two. Heavy Hindu and Maratha influence is immediately apparent in the village and the Kathkaris there identified themselves as Marathi, despite acknowledging their Kathkariroots through a unionised effort. The last village is Kanhau, sandwiched between land owned by a prominent politician who uses it as his personal vote bank and a wealthy businessman that backs him. This village, although possessing a remarkable number of amenities, can no longer visit the forest or the lake due to restrictions placed on them by the landowner.
From the field visits, an important observation we made was the rarity of male adults in every village we visited. The men in these villages are migrant workers who travel to their place of work, mostly brick kilns and remain there for months, wither with or without their families. Either way, this negatively affected the children of the community. In order to develop normally, the child needs to observe their adult peers in culturally contextual environments. This is essential to the child’s development of identity and sense of community in later life. Due to the lack of proximal learning, children in all the villages we visited were turning to the nearby Maratha culture to contextualise themselves. However, taking into consideration the Maratha perceptions of the Adivasis, the image transferred to them, of themselves is not empowering, to say the least. This could lead to a slew of maladaptive behaviour patterns among the children when they grow up. Another danger this creates is the tremendous cultural gap between the newer generation and the elder, and the devaluation of traditional knowledge. Knowledge relevant to the Kathkaris such as information on forest resources has not been transferred to the younger generation, bringing on the near extinction of Kathkari cultural practices and religious beliefs. The aggressive missionary Hinduism in those parts as created a scenario where politicians and developers are able to exploit them based upon their common beliefs. The first step in reversing this process would the reintroduction of adults into the children’s environment. This is only possible through a forest resources based occupation which can be taken up by the adult members of the community such as the gathering and production of herbal medicine. This would also make their cultural practices relevant once again, allowing them to reintroduce certain systems which would benefit the Kathkaris, both by empowering them and solving their current state of poverty within the monetary system.
The larger learning that I can personally take away from this course is sense of humility and purpose, only emergent in fieldwork. The need for knowledge straight from its roots rather than from a website or a book is distinct and more overpowering that plain academic curiosity. There is a responsibility that one acquires when collecting primary data, due to its primary nature, where one’s depiction or interpretation of it may shape an entire movement based on it. Thus, although my class was unable to conduct adequate research, I hope that whatever information we have gathered and the contact we have established leads to a more fruitful Indigenous Knowledge and Communities class in the future, us being just the first step in a long line of batches involved in understanding and befriending the Kathkaris.