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1 Citation in this Annotation:
Adhrita Roy on In Forest, Field and Factory
29 August, 2023
Emerging from Gauri Bharat’s travel experience and interactions with the Adivasi populations, (focusing more on the Santal community) in the regions of Jharkhand, West Bengal and Bihar over the course of the author’s PhD research, the book weaves a captivating narrative of the daily life, housing nuances and social customs of this otherwise near-invisible community. Vividly illustrating how the rituals of daily life and religious beliefs find themselves ingrained in their dwellings, it explores the curious relation the Adivasis establish between the ever-growing industrial city and their hinterland society. They form a lively and colourful community. Living in forests away from the chaos of modernity, they come to the city searching for job opportunities or to sell their wares in the local markets. They have public fairs and events where dressed in their traditional garb, they take part in song and dance. While this brings several people from the surrounding areas and cities to their villages; their presence in the city is still diminished.
The Santals in particular, are well known among the different Adivasi communities for the refined design of their traditional houses. The houses show well finished and smoothened mud walls, often with a band of solid colour – blue, red, ochre or black running along the outer wall of the house. Arranged in rows, the houses have thatched or tiled roofs, and the streets in between are kept clean and organised. While it does not indicate that this form of dwelling is particular only to the Santals (due to their complex cultural and societal links with other Adivasi and non – Adivasi communities in the region), this form of dwelling is something which is not entirely very common either.
The outer walls of the houses (35 to 45 cm thick) are generally blank to protect the inhabitants of the house from any ill-wishers wanting to cast an evil-eye. Visually impervious from outside, the houses generally open inwards – either to a courtyard or the backyard. With different rooms being assigned as spaces for designated functions – one of the more interesting spaces is the room called ‘bhitar’. An interior private space which according to beliefs is the residing space of ancestors and spirits. Even with these few facts, it is hardly enough to give a sense of how the house becomes a seamless extension of the lives of the people. With separate rooms for offering prayers, handcrafted fences, garden for growing their own vegetables, storage rooms for grains, separate place for washing utensils to allow water to flow to the vegetable patch for reuse, sometimes an addition of a shelter for cows, storage of objects off the ground on shelves or the in the eaves of the house – the house comes alive as a theatre stage against the backdrop of which people go about with their daily activities. Houses also reflect how spaces are occupied by successive generations, subject to availability of land; where either new houses are built adjacent to the older one on the same plot of land, or spaces within the same house are divided internally among the residents.
The houses are also shaped about the availability of local materials. Wood, leafy branches, straw, mud and so on – cut and sliced, tied together and infilled – generational knowledge of these materials allows them to use the sources efficiently. Nowadays, the taxation rules and restricted access to forests has also changed how these houses are built with the residents having to purchase uniformly cut thinner wood sections from outside, as opposed to 20 – 30 cm diameter wooden trunks – due to low availability of wood from the forests. The houses tell a story of family, of place, of culture and of time. Santals care more about their houses than their own appearance.
The level of maintenance of a house – speaks of the degree of solidarity within. The task of painting the walls – mural painting – takes place from September to October, when the rains stop and right before the harvesting of paddy. Generally done by women, these paintings become markers of the family’s property, apart from their value as a decoration. Each of their activities and beliefs are entrenched in the idea of identity and representation. Stories of individuals brought together as families and families brought together as community is what sustains their societies. While their customs bring them together as individuals, what is interesting is that, these customs also act as a device which excludes – not only people who are not part of the community; but women in general. It was during a conversation with the author that I was made aware of the fact that Santal women do not take part in any rituals of the community. Thus, earlier studies on the Santal community were mainly done by male anthropologists who lived with the community in their villages and were adopted by one of the Santal families there. This allowed them to witness rituals which they would otherwise have been forbidden from taking part in. This had been a hindrance that the author had faced at the time of writing the book – being excluded as she was a woman. Being adopted into the family also was not a possibility for her, as she would have to ask her husband to be taken into the community for a chance to witness their rituals. This is however just one of the myriad stories one can narrate. These tales are long and varied. The 926 words of this annotation barely doing any justice. Some stories are best experienced when it is the book that you immerse yourself in.