Orissa Adivasi Mela-2010 – A Travesty of Ethnic Exoticism
by Lipipuspa Nayak on 28 Feb 2010 3 Comments

Once, as they wrapped up about one-third of the demography of the eastern coastal state of Orissa, they inevitably contributed to her share of Oriental Exoticism. Five decades into the process of their ‘assimilation’ into mainstream civilization, they line up the underbelly of this beautiful state where about every second human now lives with hunger.


Doesn’t matter. Welcome to the Orissa Adivasi Mela – 2010, the annual phenomenon of the Dept of SC & ST Development, Govt of Orissa, to showcase slices of the state’s ethnic repertoire that went through the ritual from the eve of Republic Day till 9 Feb.


The press religiously kept the state abreast about the event, no doubt swankier and growing in stature with each rolling year, and testified to the expansive canvas of the feat with impressive daily dossiers of numbers and figures, both for cash and crowd attendance: about 135 (even 235, some stated) stalls were put up through 92 groups. About Rs. 10 lakhs changed hands daily as forest produce from wild lentils to choir mats and chaste honey and fragrant myrrh lumps and exotic medicinal herbs entered households of the urban rich and middle class.


Food items of the communities, mentioned by their virgin names (mudhi mansha – an ensemble of puffed rice and cooked meat of jungle fowl sold for Rs 50 a plate; joleto – a porridge of assorted wild plums sold for Rs 15; and so on) did brisk business. An exhibition displayed their household and kitchen items, and cultural artifacts, handicrafts, costumes and jewellry – all with tags in their native languages.


The press told us that physically challenged Jashmi Hembram represented the world of Santhali art and some other artist from Dongria Kandh community brought alive on canvas their festivities, harvest, mourning and purification rituals. Evening performances by the representatives: stage adaptations of the Savara legends about Lord Jagannath, dramatized versions of diverse legends and narratives of the communities, folk dance items and instrumental recitals were sashayed on stage to the appreciation of VIPs and peoples’ representatives, and were also performed across isolated venues of the ground, often ritually.


But was the story told in full? According to some, only a handful of communities were represented out of the existing 62: members from communities of Kandh, Bonda, Santhala, Koya, Juanga, Kolha, Orang, Lodha, Gadaba and few others walked up the fair ground with various replicas of their everyday lifestyles. Bhubaneswar has hogged up an area of 135 sq km, from 16.5 sq km since inception some six decades earlier, to accommodate a population of nine lakh (from 40,000).


The forest communities have wizened themselves during this march of civilization. They now comprise about one-fourth of the populace, a fact vindicated at the fair ground. The transactions at this huge mela were routed through sundry Self-Help-Groups largely run by women from mainstream communities and Govt-run stalls. In fact, you could not distinguish, if you take away the intermittent tippler-couples who bumped into you with their musical instrument and Samba steps, whether the mela was different from the hundreds Bhubaneswar witnesses round the year (the Maghamela was running at the famous Khandagiri caves at the time).

The fairground, stacked sparsely with a few tailored mud-huts and huts of twigs and dried sal leaves, was actually a work of fancy of the organizers, which they certified as Lanjia Saura’s shelter at Putta Singh of Gunupur (a sub-divison of district Rayagada; Singh means a settlement atop a hillock). The cultural artifacts with ostentatious ‘ethnic’ tags on them were neither inconspicuous, nor testified to authenticity of the theme.


The Melas now thrive more on sentimentality of the urban crowd as the years roll on. I am a third-generation Bhubaneswar-ite and have been trailing the changing dynamics of these yearly extravaganzas and other cultural events of this burgeoning city. I remember my nostalgic visits to these fairs three decades down memory lane, when I as a child accompanied my (now late) grandma, who bought silky tassel-brooms and rare forest produce items from shy, reticent men and women wearing intricate hairdos and facial tattoo motifs.


I can see clearly now that the number of representative participants dwindles each passing year, and the items and artifacts sold in these fairs are available at any congregation of self-help cooperative societies. The women at the counters are no longer native forest dwellers or their slightly-literate middlemen; they even speak prices in English currencies. A lot of glitz and hype accompanies the fairs, lending them an urban facelessness stripped of the antique exclusiveness of years before.


The organizers feign strategic ignorance of certain truths. The real machinating circumstances cannot be any less ironical; the corporate houses and mining barons, responsible for the destitution and systematic extermination of these communities with the implicit approval and connivance of the state machinery, chip in as co-patrons to conduct this state-sponsored event. The cycle of usury and exploitation has come a full circle!


The Dongria Kandhs of Kalahandi, who fight a loosing battle against deforestation and bauxite mining from Niyamgiri Hills by the British FTSE-100 mining company Vedanta Resources, may someday find a messiah in that corporate house to market their ethnic aura! Niyamgiri Hills constitutes part of the collective religious unconscious of the Dongria Kandhs. Other communities, routinely displaced by mining magnates, are hardly compensated with permanent employment and other means of livelihood, and battle toxin-contaminated water, terminal diseases, tuberculosis, chest and skin diseases, beside pollution, noise and ferocious goons and power brokers of these houses. We can now add to this list of woes the extra threat from extremists. In Narayanpatna of Koraput, Maoist violence ensures that a forest-dweller is slit to death from time to time for no rhyme or reason.


Yet the organizers wallow in their conceited sense of success, and shamelessly cough up tall falsehoods, saying they have ‘a long way to go to integrate the forest-communities into the social mainstream’. Nothing else explains the brazen reality that the Native maiden, picture-perfect in her unsullied infectious smile and ethnic multiple hairpins and nose-rings, beamed as the mascot of Adivasi Mela-2010 from fluorescent bill-boards and hoardings under lamp-posts along the manicured widened roads of Bhubaneswar, walked the mela ground only through her concrete look-alikes and mannequins. The real beaming virgin-beauty toils in urban Orissan centers to widen the roads her picture-book photograph will find a pedestal for.        


The author is a senior academic and literary and art critic. She has published eight books in English and can be contacted at lipipusparbn@yahoo.com 

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