It was with the beginning of the Indigenous Knowledge and Communities course that I got a chance to explore a whole new field of knowledge. The course required us to quite literally plunge ourselves into the field, studying about a community that we had not even heard of before. All the students in the room on the first day were from entirely different backgrounds making the study group extremely diverse. We had Literature and Cultural study majors, Communications students, psychology majors; and then you had us- three performing artists, who had absolutely no experience or education in research methodology and ethnographical research.
The course was focused towards learning and documenting the Kathkari community, a Denotified Tribe located in the Raigad district of Maharashtra. Denotified, meaning, that the tribe was classified as a criminal community by the British, and remained one for years after India’s independence. The course was focused on gathering as much primary data possible, requiring us to go into field and interact with the people of the community. We focused on learning of their origin, the rituals, customs and folklore. However, as time went by we learnt a lot more, not only of their ethnicity, but about them as a community in a contemporary society. Apart from gathering data in field, we also referred to a number of web pages, watched documentaries on similar indigenous groups and studied about methods of on field research.
We also learnt in our classes of how all the tribal communities have their origins in the regions of Africa. All these tribes have wandered over thousands of years across the world and found themselves to be Aboriginals in Australia or Kathkari in Maharashtra. This was probably one of the most intriguing theories I’ve ever come across. It is supported with evidences from all over the world- right from DNA sampling to the discovery of an artefact in Harappa.
Another interesting way to trace the common thread that flows between all the communities would be to literally trace back to times when the Earth was still comprised of one large landmass and the sea- Gondwanaland. It would require studying the fossils and artefacts of the very first humans, and tracing their migrations and evolution. It would be a study not just through time, but civilizations and societies from the world over.
Specially focusing on tribal and aboriginal customs another interesting project we came across was to find parallels in their Tribal folklore and arts. Be it in the form of a visual art, ritual, custom or even clothing; researchers are finding means alternative to DNA testing to discover the roots of all mankind.
Over the years, however, these tribal groups have been abused, isolated and discriminated against. They have submitted, revolted and fled. However, while the times have changed their situation still remains the same. Through our research and classes we traced historical events in which the tribal groups, in India, have played a major part. Some of these were the Siddu Kanhu revolt and the Birsa Munda revolt. We also studied of the various laws that have been imposed and revised by the government, their history as Denotified Tribes and their states of livelihood.
Each one of us before heading into the field chose a specific area that we wanted to focus on. Some chose to study the music, some went for understanding the social hierarchies. Another interesting topic was cultural production- the unique product that can provide the community a sense of belonging and livelihood. A couple of students also focused on the problems women of the community face and the effects of being separated.
At first I was curious about their social situation, keen on observing the social hierarchies and the problems they may face from their surrounding communities. Later it moved towards understanding their rituals, their stories. However, after the first visit we found that it would be a task to simply get comfortable with the community. Our first visit centred to simply participatory observation, where we let ourselves be guided by our senses; just understand the place, the people and get a feel of what really lies there. The basics that we practiced in a class activity where each of us when to various locations of the campus and observed the people who worked or lived there.
In this class activity, I visited the Flame Carpenter’s shed, near Kaki Tapri. This was because it is a place I look at almost every day, but never was I aware of what truly happened. Never did I stop to consider how it was built, or maintained. This class I finally stopped to “really” look at the space, the people in it and spend some time there.
Our exercise was driven by one instruction only-To completely absorb the space using all 5 of your senses. The senses are the basic tools for observation. It is the means by which we unconsciously take in the environment and surroundings. It is only when one becomes conscious of it that we can actually reflect and understand our environment.
It was this activity that became a foundation for making observations when we really went in field to work with the Kathkari community. The Carpenters of FLAME are at least somewhat acquainted with us. The Kathkari on the other hand, have no clue of who we are and why we were there. It was a daunting fact that we might not be welcome; it was a fact that we had to prepare ourselves to deal with. We had nearly nothing to give them; how willing would they be to share a part of their lives with us. This drove in us a sense of responsibility and humility.
We experienced this feeling even when we went into the community. The moment we walked into a community everything would change. People would stop working; they would peek from behind doors and windows and observe us. A number of them would be shy, even nervous when we would say hello or ask them a question. They would bring out chairs and would be surprised when we rejected them and sat on mats placed on the floor.
However, it was these methods that have somewhat opened a path for us to tread between the community, especially Kanhau- the Hamlet that is situated near an industrialist’s property. We learnt to use our skill to get people to open up and become comfortable. Music proved to be highly valuable in situations where people seemed very inhibited. We also began to approach first the children or the elderly as they were always willing to talk.
It was through these groups of children and the aged that we learnt the most. They told us of the situation of the communities; the way the live and from where they earn their livelihood. We also learnt of their identity and the problems that they face.
They have been visited before by groups of researchers, activists, students. Hence, some of them were sceptical of dealing with us. They felt that it was a waste of time. I remember one boy even saying something along the lines of, “It’s no point mingling with us, go look at the forest, enjoy the lake. Why bother if nothing is going to change?”
It was after the first visit that we began to really reflect on our objectives of going into field. We realized how the communities closely guarded their traditions and their unwillingness to open up. Hence, all of us came to a common ground. Our goal now was to simply realize and restore the cultural identities of these people. Their cultural identities comprised of their language, stories, rituals, songs and folklore. We wanted to learn this and through application of a certain media create a platform through which they can be known by the rest of the world.
Thus we decided to initiate the creation of a webpage, where we document our work done with the Kathkari communities. We used this webpage as a platform for the documentation of our ethnographical research- putting up the products of social mapping exercises, interviews, musical performances, etc.
It also required us to carefully categorise and sort out all of our research matter. This also meant really understanding which methods of research we used. We documented our work using photographs, videos and audio recordings. These audio recording were largely recordings of interviews with members of the communities.
The interviews we constructed were largely unstructured or semi structured. This gave us room to probe further and gain a wider amount of knowledge from the community. The crux of our research was to gain an understanding of who they are, hence most of our interviews were like general conversations which address highly mundane things. These interviews were also to help us understand their rituals, histories and folklore.
Our sample was the entire community. Everyone was a prospective source, thus, we often found ourselves snowballing through the settlements talking to people from various age groups- women, to aged and even children.
By the end of our research we learnt that we not only documented a community, but more importantly, we learned how to connect with other human beings-humans from completely different backgrounds, and worlds. People, who, under normal circumstances, we would never come into contact. It was with such a community that not only did we get in touch, but we put them in touch with the world.
The webpage is not our story of them; it is merely a collection of our memories with them. The page is the acceptance of an understanding which we established with these people as fellow citizens of the world. It is a collection of memories and of our time spent with them.
All over the web we find articles of other people’s views on the Kathkari tribes. We felt that we did not want to give our judgements. They are humans, just like anyone else; they just have different customs and practices. Thus living in a society where everything is standardized, I have come to realize that development cannot be standardized. It has to come from within the community. None of us have the capacity to truly understand their needs and wants. It would be imposing for us to change them, restructure their identity and then label it as “development”.
Development, however, is not the most important task. A lot of members from the community have already begun to alienate themselves from it. This applies especially to the youth, who see no scope to grow while they are a part of the community. They plan on moving away and settling in the big cities. However, it is important for some sort of archiving or means of documenting the cultural identity of the community. This however, is a process that would require immense amounts of time to be spent with the community. It would require a number of activities to be done.
The Kathkari have over generations been politicised and systematically been integrated into the suburban Hinduised populace of rural Maharashtra. Thus, there has been a fading away and overlapping of traditions. Most people appeared to have little or no knowledge of their roots and customs. It is this systematic metamorphosis that has taken place over generations and transformed this community, which needs to be turned back.
A key way to deal with this issue would be to trace back the footsteps. One would need to visit nearly every age group and work with all the factions of the settlements. Thus not only the Kathkari would require taking part, but also the Marathas. This is because it is important to gain an understanding of how the Marathas remember and saw the Kathkari.
It is only when this middle ground of preserving identity and yet encouraging the community to develop from within is found that the Kathkari, would once again flourish and truly understand themselves, and how the world sees them.
The Indigenous Knowledge and Communities course is a great opportunity to truly gain some hands on learning experience of working with communities. The learning from this course is not for the classroom and academicians; rather it is a much more holistic development. It teaches you how to approach the world, how to be more human and connect oneself with the society they live in. It makes us understand that we are privileged and the importance of giving back to the world. The course opened my eyes to the reality that none of us are alone. We are all tied, bound together, we’re all from one source and we have simply divided ourselves. Each one of us is indigenous, this course will make you look at yourself and realize this.