When there is Respect – A glimpse of Bastar, India

July 30, 2014

In a land as diverse as India, even the smallest administrative segment – the Taluka or District – is home to a few dozen communities. Therefore, no matter who is in power, there will always be groups that are not represented directly. Although this fact has the potential of becoming a problem, it is not really a problem as long as the basis of all dealings is respect. Respect that is felt and respect that is expressed. Just as one interprets the presence of disrespect through signs of words & actions, so also respect is construed through signs. In fragmented societies the expressions of mutual respect go a long way in creating and maintaining harmony. And in this age of strife it is a surprising delight to see very visible signs of respect for smaller communities. Further, the fact that the community to which respect is offered is not only small in number but also lower down in the scales of conventional metrics of economics & education, makes this phenomenon all the more touching to my naive eyes. It is easy to respect an Ambani and to raise monuments for him, but to see the greatness of the below-the-poverty-line Bhopa is not commonplace in the finance-driven era that we live in. And so on a recent trip to Raipur I was charmed by the respectful attitudes of the people of my socioeconomic strata towards the tribal people of Bastar district – one of the poorest districts financially but rich by many other metrics. The individuals that I interacted with and were learned academicians & practitioners in the field of medicine & highly placed officials in the government and of the highest castes. And as is the commonly held view, I expected to see some elitist views. I am glad to say that I was totally wrong. There was none of the snobbery that attracts the gleeful brahmin-bashing that is often seen in the infradig media. On the contrary many of my conversations with them were founded on the awe & respect that they felt (and subsequently infected me with) for the tribal people of Bastar, their lifestyle, their ethnographic stories and their art. To narrate an example: My wonderful hostess, although she was tired from a whole day’s work as a professor, attending a necessary social event, cooking hot rotis for the dinner of the joint family,  insisted on taking me out to show me her city sights that a visitor should not miss. She could have chosen to show me the newly constructed malls – a novelty concept in most towns in India. But the single must-see spot that she chose to take me to, was a spectacular series of traditional art installations created by the tribal people of Bastar. She enjoyed showing it to me as much as I enjoyed seeing it. (Presented here using images of a phone camera) 20140730-102034.jpgWhen there is Respect – A glimpse of Bastar, India

20140730-102148.jpg 20140730-102531.jpg Along the way we passed all the imprtant state government offices. Those were also decorated with 3-d art in concrete(?) depicting the tribal art of Bastar. This made me see that the respect was present not only in the minds of the individuals but also in the spirit if the community and the city. The fact that the space occupied by the tribe was a respected one was truly a source of delight for me and reminded me of my experience in Odisha. Both these places seemed so contrary to the paradigm in which I had been raised. In our convent schooling, there were constant contrasts drawn between ‘us’ – the ones that they’d hoped to groom into ‘ladies’ and ‘them’ – the ‘ junglees’, the ‘uncivilised’ and the ‘orthodox’ who ate with their hands, etc etc. At the age of 6-15 years who questions? We just assimilate all these values that we are surrounded by. And it is only at this ripe old age of nearly 50 that my real life experience is leading me to examine the ideas that my head was filled with in the past. As much as I am grateful for many aspects of the convent schooling, I have no doubt that some of those teachings were biased, imbalanced, unjustifiable and disrespectful. As a young impressionable mind trying to please my adult reference points, I too absorbed some of that disdain / prejudice for tribes which meant nothing really since I had yet to meet a tribal person. An when I did, there was a huge conflict between my real experiences, the the thoughts I had inherited from the legacy of an Imperial world that I lived in in my formative years. Over time that conflict resulted in a drastic shift in my personal views on the metrics of ‘civilisation’ and the concepts that ‘ideal’ lifestyle! But even today when I  come across people with backgrounds similar to mine, who share my views and have overt respect (not sympathy)  for tribals my reaction is surprise & delight! Jaina Mishra July 2014

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