The Invisible Adivasis of Jamshedpur

In his short story Where is Gopal?, published on January 1 in Salon, author Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar writes about the life of two factory workers Adivasi, Purnima and Gopal, who come from the Sandalwood villages surrounding Jamshedpur in Jharkhand and work in one of the industrial townships on the outskirts of the city. Hansda (her last name) says they walked hand in hand through the 500-acre Jubilee Park, visited the chic new PM Mall, sitting by the Kharkai River in Kanderbera.

Growing up in Jamshedpur, I didn’t know Purnimas or Gopals. I hadn’t met them at Jubilee Park, PM Mall (or its less posh predecessors), or on a picnic in Kanderbera. They were not found in my predominantly bourgeois neighborhood of Bengalis and Biharis, nor with my friends, who were for the most part the children of Tisco executives, nor even in my school which was a little more motley, which had a pinch of students from the neighboring Muslim quarter.

Jamshedpur is often regarded, mainly by people like me who grew up in this clean, green and tidy city and who continue to cherish it with a deep and lasting nostalgic love, as “cosmopolitan”, and this is a sign of the how effectively the Adivasis were erased from its cultural, social and economic life that we never even noticed that the original inhabitants of our city were totally lacking.

They had at least one name for us – we were the diku, non-Adivasis.

A few months ago it was an essay / review by Hansda that made me see this more clearly than ever. In his review of the book In the forest, the field and the factory: Adivasi dwellings in 20th-century India by Gauri Bharat for the Third Eye Portal, he writes: “Do the Adivasis build cities? Yes they do. Are they not those who mix cement and water, those who carry mortar on their heads and climb the scaffolding, those who work amid the scorching tar fumes under the scorching sun? But are these Adivasis building these cities for themselves? Do they own these cities? No.”

Bharat, who is an architect and head of the History and Theory of Architecture program at CEPT University in Ahmedabad, is also from Jamshedpur and reflects a fairly common experience when she writes in her book (published by Yoda Press in December 2019): “As a youngster who grew up in Jamshedpur, which is one of the largest centers of iron and steel production in southern Jharkhand, I was largely oblivious to the presence of ‘Adivasis in the city and beyond. I’d heard of them of course, but they were almost abstract, living somewhere deep in unknown forests, far outside the modernity of the city.

The book is the culmination of 20 years of research work on adivasi houses, particularly Sandalwood, a subject on which there has been little academic research in post-independence India. When and why did the Sandalwood families give up building wooden houses and turn to earth construction? How did the different sandalwood villages develop distinctly different wall art traditions? What are the different parts of a typical Sandalwood house? Why don’t Santal houses have windows on the outside? Bharat set out to answer these questions and in doing so she immerses herself in a new kind of historical narrative, which not only offers insight into the daily life of Sandalwood, but also provides an important perspective on the erasure of the 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


“This powerful narrative not only captured people’s imaginations, but actually made the region relevant to the nation almost entirely through the prism of industrial development… for most people there was no meaningful history. before the creation of mines and factories, ”writes Bharat in his introduction to the book.

“It’s almost as if the city has come to life from nothing…. But we know that’s not true, that there were Adivasis living here when the first bricks were laid. There are colonial records of the surveying and settlement process, which took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. If you look at the survey maps from that time, you can see that the places that make up Jamshedpur today are dotted with the names of Adivasi villages. They existed in the 1850s, ”Bharat explains in a call from Ahmedabad. She believes that much of what we see – and don’t see – today is part of this historical invisibility. “About 120 years ago, if the Adivasis were not even considered as full citizens, there was no question of creating a space for them within the urban fabric. The erasure is historic, but marginalization is a type of continuous process that extends to the present day, ”Bharat explains.

The lucid, non-exotic but empathetic way in which Bharat writes the book makes it fascinating read not only for students of architecture and architectural history, but also for anyone interested, even from afar, in the life of the Adivasis. in modern India. It not only provides an important perspective through which to look at these communities, but also records how the changes in the way they build their homes, the orak, indicate the evolution of priorities and social structures. “During one of my research trips, I met a woman from Sandalwood who was leading a self-help group and had a busy life. She had built a modern concrete house instead of a orak. She told me very clearly “now I have time to do other things because I am not sitting plastering the walls all day”, referring to the mud walls of oraks which must be maintained with fresh mud. Most of this work, of course, falls on the women, ”Bharat explains.

At least in theory – and a “specific and simplistic imagination of this culture” has emerged. After being ignored, the Adivasis became mythologized and romanticized as mere dwellers of the forest; “The antithesis of industrial modernity”, as Bharat puts it.

The complexity of the Adivasis societies in which she has done her fieldwork appears in this book – unlike a certain account that imagines the Adivasis as somehow more egalitarian and sexually liberated than the mainstream, for example, her book reveals that the Most villages and communities are patriarchal. and hierarchical, just like most Indian companies. Women are still not allowed to enter jaherthan Where jahera– the sacred groves of the Sandals – and it is always the oldest man in the house who is authorized to offer worship to the family deities in the bhitar, which is the sacred place in the orak.

A similar complexity underlies our understanding of what Sandalwood houses “should” look like and their importance, Bharat says. At the end of her fieldwork in each village, she would conduct an exercise where she would show around 30-40 photographs of the village to its inhabitants, then ask them to choose the most important places. Unanimously, in the many villages where she carried out this exercise, people gathered the sacred wood, the jaherthan, as the most important place, usually followed by the majhithan, another sacred site for Santals which marks the home of the ancestral chief, or majhi, from the village. After that came the village school, then usually a water source, and so on.

the orak hardly ever featured in this list, and Bharath finds it fascinating. “I told them that surprised me, because as a foreigner I thought their homes were remarkable – they really are stunning pieces 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, central, and meaningful place in our lives. This is where you start 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 appreciate their environment. », Explains Bharat.

Adivasi modernity doesn’t have to look like non-Adivasi modernity, but that doesn’t mean there is no Adivasi modernity, she adds. “So you have someone who works in a factory, who has a cell phone, but who lives in a mud house and visits the sacred grove. There are so many identities within one identity that we as outsiders consider Adivasis to inhabit… there are so many points of tension, ”she said.

And it is this complexity in a traditional setting that the book of Bharath brings to life. In the forest, the field and the factory, the Adivasi is not only the Adivasi, but perhaps we are still the diku.

About Norma Wade

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