Custodian of culture: How an activist is fighting for the preservation of tribal art

Custodian of culture: How an activist is fighting for the preservation of tribal art

By PREETI SINGH | | 2 July, 2016
Bulu Imam
We wouldn’t have known about the Sohrai and Khorav styles of painting, among the oldest of tribal art forms in the country, had it not been for the research work and writings of Bulu Imam, a critic and activist fighting to preserve Jharkhand’s tribal heritage , writes Preeti Singh.

Bulu Imam is an environmental activist working for the conservation and protection of tribal art and heritage in Jharkhand, who has devoted most of his life to reviving the cultural traditions of the adivasi community of this region. 

He is the winner of the 2011 Gandhi International Peace Award at the House of Lords in London,  and is the grandson of Syed Hasan Imam, who was a leading Barrister and judge at the Calcutta High Court (from 1912–1916), and the President of the Indian National Congress (Bombay Session, 1918).

Imam has written extensively, several books and essays, and various aspects of Jharkhand’s culture. Antiquarian Remains of Jharkhand, The Flowering Branch, Nomadic Birhors of Hazaribagh and Manjhi Santals of Hazaribagh are some of his influential titles, published over the years. And today, at the age of 72, Imam is still leading from the front in a region-wide movement to conserve the cultural and physical heritage of his home state.  

 “In 1991, I first discovered rock art in this region which was approximately 8,000 years old. Then I noticed the villagers used to do the same kind of paintings on their mud walls. Then I realised that there must be some connection between the two paintings. And then I discovered over a dozen rock art sites at north Karanpura valley, some dating back to 70,000 years old from 14 caves confirming the connection between the two.  I understood it was not the matter of just protecting these paintings archaeologically but it was a matter of conserving long standing traditions. I started collecting such stones tools in my museum and it is one of the recognised museums by the government. Thus, these mud wall paintings are not new creations but existed in the Chalcolithic and Iron Age period, and it is still practiced by the villagers,” says Imam, who now wants to raise the issue of hardships faced by the tribals in this region, thanks to the mining industry, at the United Nations.

For Imam, the local tribes do not need to be promoted. As it’s often under the garb of such promotion, that they are exploited. He says, “I will give you an example, the government wants the tribals of Andaman to be urbanised and wants them to live in cities. But my question is why are we doing this? Why can’t we preserve their way of life as it is now? I remember Jawaharlal Nehru had said in the five principles for the policy to be pursued vis-a-vis the tribals that, ‘People should develop along the lines of their own genius, and the imposition of alien values should be avoided.’”

Bulu Imam heads an organisation, Sanskriti Centre at Hazaribagh, which he founded in 1992 along with the Museum of Tribal Art and Culture. The Sanskriti Centre functions to protect the art and culture of the region and has worked for many tribal arts projects here. It also has a very good museum plus an art gallery. The museum contains the complete archaeological record of the Hazaribagh region from the Lower Palaeolithic to the present. The art gallery contains fifteen styles of painting from the Khovar and Sohrai schools, and over 300 paintings are exhibited in the gallery. Imam says, “This is self-funded and I did not get any help from any of the governments in power to conserve our tribal culture and their art forms.”

Tribal art mural of JharkhandImam has had a long association with the tribal people going back to his childhood days. He founded the Tribal Women Artists Cooperative (TWAC) in 1993, a project funded by the Australian High Commission, New Delhi. There are, Imam tells us, great challenges involved in such projects.  “It is very hard to convince a tribal woman’s family that she will be safe and secure abroad. I remember when I took five women artists to Australia for mural painting events. It was a tough time to get them to feel confident enough. Throughout my journey I was not supported by the government, only by my wife and daughter,” says Imam.

Not only this, Imam is credited for bring to light the Khovar and Sohrai paintings done on mud houses in Hazaribagh villages of Jharkhand. The Khovar and Sohrai village murals are part of a tradition that is a matriarchal one. The art is made by married women during the wedding and harvest seasons. Young girls learn the art from their mothers and aunts.  

Imam says, “The marriage art is called Khovar, named after the bridal room and bridegroom. It relates to an ancestral cave dwelling, or kho meaning cave, and var means bridegroomThe paintings usually are full of depictions of plant forms and fertility symbols, which are related to the Chalcolithic mandalas in rock art. There are also wild animal forms tracing their genesis to an earlier Mesolithic period found in rock art. The highlight of Khovar art is the painted walls of the marriage house to welcome the bridegroom who is sometimes compared to the god Indra on an elephant, with decorations of wild animals of the forest who are companions and of plants that symbolise
fertility.”

Imam goes on to add: “The harvest art of Sohrai derives its nomenclature from the Mundaric word soroi meaning ‘to whip, or beat’, relating to cattle, and finds its root in soro, meaning  ‘to close the door,’ and thus points to the first domestication of cattle in a Mundaric society. Since the marriages of the young girls take place within a radius of less than 100 km, these traditions in their exchange and development create clear zones of stylistic purity, which becomes even more diverse owing to the existence of about a dozen ethnic groups following their unique and independent artistic métiers within the effulgence of a common creative genre.” 

Thanks to Imam’s continual efforts, these tribal forms are now part of our contemporary creative discourse, and are being taken up today by youngsters, both girls and boys, within the tribal community.

 “First of all,” Imam says, “I believe I am a learner more than a teacher. I learnt the art form from these tribal artists to understand how these artists work. Then I applied modern technology to this problem, so that these neglected forms can reach out to a wider audience. Our work has empowered 300 tribal women so far. Not only women, but there are also some men who got the chance to paint the Hazaribagh city walls. ”

Tribal art mural of Jharkhand.According to Imam, these tribal artists are not really getting the benefit of their labours as they do not get the full payment under the government-organised scheme. Women artists are mostly exploited. Imam says, “There is involvement of agents and intermediaries in the government who take the maximum amount of share rather giving the money over to the artists. I am really worries about this, and have received many complaints related to such scamming. And I will tell you frankly, the artist’s works are more recognised and appreciated abroad than in India. India does not have the habit of appreciating talent.”

What is remarkable about Imam is that he continues his struggle to give voice and support to tribal artists, despite the many hardships and challenges he has been facing on a regular basis. His idea of success is to keep on trying until you succeed.

As of now, Imam is leading the Karanpura campaign,  which is an attempt to prevent the annihilation of the upper Damodar valley, a beautiful forested and agricultural region inhabited by indigenous peoples.  Here you have lush fields and forests, rare archaeological heritage of the Palaeolithic, Mesolithic, Megalithic, Neo-chalcolithic, Buddhist and Jaina provenance, as well as sacred sites and villages — home to centuries-old tribal culture.

Imam says, “The government wants this to be Asia’s biggest coal mine which is very unfortunate. Our campaign began almost 23 years ago and is now entering its final phase. The campaign is closely associated with my TWAC under the aegis of the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH) and it involves women artists of these villages.”

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