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The invisible Adivasis of Jamshedpur

A book on Santal houses and architectural practices sheds light on the erasure of the Adivasi from Jamshedpur, often held up as a shining example of modern, industrial India 

The outside of Santal homes are window-less 
The outside of Santal homes are window-less  (Third Eye Portal)

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In his short story Where Is Gopal?, published on 1 January in Lounge, author Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar writes about the lives of two Adivasi factory workers, Purnima and Gopal, who are from the Santal villages surrounding Jamshedpur in Jharkhand and work at one of the industrial townships on the fringes of the city. Hansda (his family name) writes of them walking hand in hand in the 500-acre Jubilee Park, visiting the new and posh PM Mall, sitting beside the river Kharkai in Kanderbera.

Growing up in Jamshedpur, I didn’t know any Purnimas and Gopals. I hadn’t met them in Jubilee Park, in PM Mall (or its less swanky predecessors), or during a picnic in Kanderbera. They were not to be found in my neighbourhood of predominantly middle-class Bengalis and Biharis, or among my friends, who were mainly the children of Tisco executives, nor even in my slightly more heterogenous school, which did have a sprinkling of students from the nearby Muslim neighbourhood. 

Jamshedpur is often held up—mostly by people like me who grew up in this clean, green, well-ordered city and continue to cherish it with a deep, abiding, nostalgic love—as “cosmopolitan”. Despite these claims, however, we failed to notice that the Adivasis had been systematically erased from its cultural, social and economic life. We didn't even realise that the original inhabitants of our city were entirely missing from it.

They at least had a name for us—we were the diku, the non-Adivasi.

A few months ago, it was an essay/review by Hansda that made me see this more clearly than ever before. In his review of the book In Forest, Field And Factory: Adivasi Habitations Through Twentieth Century India by Gauri Bharat for the Third Eye Portal, he writes: “Do Adivasis build cities? Yes, they do. Aren’t they the ones mixing cement and water, the ones carrying mortar on their heads and climbing up scaffolding, the ones working amidst scalding tar fumes under the hot sun? But do these Adivasis build these cities for themselves? Do they own these cities? No.”

Bharat, who is an architect and the head of the architectural history and theory programme at CEPT University, Ahmedabad, is from Jamshedpur too, and mirrors a common enough experience when she writes in her book (published by Yoda Press in December 2019): “As a young person growing up in Jamshedpur, which is one of the largest iron and steel producing centres in south Jharkhand, I was largely oblivious to the presence of Adivasis in the city and beyond. I had heard of them of course, but they were almost abstract, living somewhere deep within unknown forests, far outside the modernity of the city.”

The book is a culmination of 20 years of work researching Adivasi, specifically Santal, homes—a subject on which there has been scant academic inquiry in post-independence India. When and why did Santal families give up building wood houses and shift to building with mud? How did different Santal villages develop distinctly different mural art traditions? What are the different parts of a typical Santal home? Why do Santal houses not have windows on the outside? Bharat set out to answer these questions, and in the process she delves into a new kind of historical narrative—one that offers a glimpse into not just everyday Santal life but also provides important perspective on the erasure of Adivasi history in the narrative of Jamshedpur as a model post-industrial city.

In Forest, Field And Factory by Gauri Bharat published by Sage/Yoda Press
In Forest, Field And Factory by Gauri Bharat published by Sage/Yoda Press

“This powerful narrative not only captured people’s imagination but effectively made the region relevant to the nation almost entirely through the lens of industrial development… for most people, there was no significant history prior to the establishment of mines and factories,” Bharat writes in her introduction to the book.

“It’s almost as if the city sprung into life from nothing…. But we know that that’s not true, that there were Adivasis living here when the first bricks were laid. There are colonial records of the survey and settlement process, which happened through the late 19th and early 20th century. If you look at survey maps from this time, you can see that the places that make up Jamshedpur today are dotted with the names of Adivasi villages. They were around in the 1850s,” says Bharat in a call from Ahmedabad. She believes a lot of what we are seeing—and not seeing—today is part of this historical invisibility. “Around 120 years ago, if the Adivasis were not even considered full citizens, there was no question of creating space for them within the fabric of the city. The erasure is historic, but the marginalisation is a continuous kind of process which extends to the present day,” says Bharat.

The clear-headed, non-exoticising yet empathetic way in which Bharat writes the book makes it fascinating reading not just for students of architecture and architectural history but anyone interested even remotely in the lives of Adivasis in modern India. It not only provides a significant lens through which to look at these communities but also records how changes in the way they construct their homes, the orak, indicate changing priorities and social structures. “During one of my research trips, I met a Santal woman who was running a self-help group and had a busy life. She had built a modern concrete house instead of an orak. She told me very clearly ‘now I have time to do other things because I am not sitting and plastering the walls all day’, referring to the mud walls of oraks that need to be maintained with fresh mud. Most of this labour, of course, falls on women,” says Bharat.

She constantly questions established narratives about Adivasis in the book—not just their homogenising (Adivasi communities are distinct and diverse) but also a shift that took place with the creation of the state of Jharkhand, when tribal communities gained more political and social power—at least in theory—and a “specific, simplistic imagination of this culture” emerged. From being ignored, Adivasis became mythologised and romanticised as simple forest-dwellers; “the antithesis of industrial modernity,” as Bharat puts it. 

The complexity of the Adivasi societies in which she did her fieldwork comes through in this book—contrary to a certain narrative that imagines Adivasis as somehow more egalitarian and sexually liberated than the mainstream, for instance, her book reveals that most villages and communities are patriarchal and hierarchical, just like most of Indian society. Women are still not allowed into the jaherthan or jahera—the sacred groves of the Santals—and it’s always the eldest man of the household who is allowed to offer worship to the family deities in the bhitar, which is the sacred spot within the orak.

A similar complexity underpins our understanding of what Santal houses “should” look like and how significant they are, says Bharat. At the end of her fieldwork in each village, she would conduct an exercise where she would display around 30-40 photographs of the village to its residents, and then ask them to pick the most important spots. Unanimously, across the several villages in which she conducted this exercise, people picked the sacred grove, the jaherthan, as the most important place, usually followed by the majhithan, another sacred site for Santals that marks the home of the ancestral headman, or majhi, of the village. After that came the village school, then usually a source of water, and so on. 

The orak almost never featured in this list, and Bharat finds this fascinating. “I told them that this was surprising to me, because as an outsider, I thought their houses are remarkable— they are really stunning bits of architecture. But they were like ‘uska kya hai? Wahan hum sirf sone jaate hain’. Now our way of thinking is that the home is an important place, central and significant to our lives. This is where you begin to see that there is a clear difference in how they value their environment, and the logic behind that value, versus how we, as outsiders, would value their environment,” says Bharat.

Adivasi modernity doesn’t have to look like non-Adivasi modernity but that doesn’t mean there isn’t an Adivasi modernity, she adds. “So you have someone who works in a factory, has a mobile phone, but lives in a mud house and visits the sacred grove. There are so many identities within the one identity that we as outsiders see Adivasis as inhabiting… there are so many points of tension,” she says.

And it is this complexity within a traditional framework that Bharat’s book brings alive. In forest, field and factory, the Adivasi is not just the Adivasi—but perhaps we are always the diku.

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