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Tribal Museum

On June 6 , 2013 President Pranab Mukherjee inaugurated the still incomplete Museum of Tribal Heritage in Shyamla Hills, Bhopal, Madhya Pradesh.

Between the State Museum  on one side , the Indira Gandhi Rashtriya Manav Sangrahalaya with it’s National Museum of Mankind on the other ,  I had observed feverish construction under a green roof round stone tiles, galvalume, and concrete topped with doob grass and ground cover.

As the entrance art reminds you, tribes have thrived along the banks of the Narmada from Paleolithic times and 30% of Madhya Pradesh have tribal heritage.  The museum allows MP’s rich evolving tribal culture a place to express their own ideas spontaneously.

The museum is directly experienced, much as Traditional people experience organic unity with land. The building seamlessly blends outside and in, tribe and urban life subject and observer. Outside, brick plastered with crushed stone, blends inside  into mud plaster walls.

“I love to use tribal motifs because they speak a universal language” said architect Revathi Kemath in Design Matrix (July-Aug 2011). A champion for the use of mud as a building material, she is unapologetic for her ecological and timeless structures.

From the beginning of her career Kenath has bought tradition into the fabric of design.

“For the city it is a repository of information on the tribes of Madhya Pradesh. But for me its important that Tribals participate in making and recording their heritage. Then it becomes a place where people who don’t live in the tribal fold can come and be proud of their culture.”

Certainly I found tribal craftsmen at work in the uncompleted workshops with the rhythms and geometries of their tribe.   What we call art, in the tribe has a purpose within its cultural setting, and immersed in gallery of branch and stone tribal motif is of not de-contextualized. It is beautifully constructed  reflecting the diverse, yet organic harmony, of tribal life.

Museum of Tribal Heritage

Open and still wrapped in plastic

This tribal hamlet of raised galleries over seven acres caresses you along a continuous multilevel  veranda, punctuated by courtyards,  pavilions over looking an amphitheater, permeable to the natures moods, at times dark and primordial, at others juxtaposed by bright earth poly-chrome.

A modern lace-like braiding of steel almost too delicate to hold the domed roof harmonizes Madhya Pradesh Mesolithic, bronze and iron age heritage. Like the tribe, where art is life, observer and observed are one.

The displays

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My immediate reaction on entering the auditorium was overwhelm, The contrast was too great. It envelops you  from every side,  if in a uterine world of primordial archetypes layered one onto another.  My mind immediately digressed to the Australian Dream World fun park with its recreating the myth of the Australian Bush, but Bhopal shows more flair. In the 1930’s as people fled the land the Australian Government celebrated the Bush in stamps and so I wondered if, not withstanding Madhya Pradesh large tribal population, as the world economy again shudders is India’s tribal heritage being lost to myth?

Guest State Chhattisgarh- until recently part of Madhya Pradesh.

Guest State Chhattisgarh- until recently part of Madhya Pradesh.

I dismissed my thoughts choosing to embrace the experience of imagery dimly bathed in earth lit  hues.   I had felt the essence of the tribe within the architecture and am uncertain of the display. New approaches are often difficult to first appreciate. I resolved a second or third visit.  Afterall, I am an outsider looking in and the museum is seeking to engage me as if an anthropologist living within the tribe.  A laid back Australian, I even find the bravado of the USA or the Mediterranean challenging.

It is afterward – when the spectacle had faded – that I begin to doubt the experience.  Just as a living heritage cannot be archived into shelves, Intricacies of tribal art, craft, religion and life cannot be reduced to modernistic  hodge podge of exotica.

I have visited tribal people in MP’s Parliskari district near Bheren,  the Kathotiya Jungle Camp outside Bhopal, and other tribal museums across the country.  So, I searched the web hoping to better understand the symbolism.

There I found a review by Architect Suprid Bhattacharjee with similar reservations: describing a visual cacophony of unrelated object competing for the audience scant attention. Living tribal items are reduced to a crowding of ‘consumer goodies’  in a craft emporium. He accuses the museums bureaucracy of reducing  the meaning culture to exotica.

Tribal life is after-all a living being, not something of the past to be cast on shelves.

However, I am also optimistic.

Museum of Tribal Heritage

The TMOTH was pulsing with students dancing and discussing the work of the artistic team.  I found artists carving and painting in  workshops. I don’t know numbers, the IGM seems sparely visited except during special events like Aranya-Naad National Tribal Dance Festival or the Tribal Healers festival, which paralleled the International Herb Fair promoting Madhya Pradesh herb farming industry.

Tribal Museum (146)res

Is this modernism needed to attract even a sprinkling of people to truly appreciate indigenous  view of life?

As a local friend told me: “They should have done this long ago.”

What matters is the rhythm, feel and spirit of the gallery allows a people to speak their own voice.  As a phirengi, I must remember that Tribal is an imposed colonial label. Revisiting the the exhibit of children’s games reflected a simpler side, more at peace with my soul.

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India praises her architectural heritage, especially its northern monuments designed to conquer time. It praises the Taj Mahal yet acidifies the nearby Yamuna that dissolves its marble foundations to Calcium Carbonate.

Tribal Museum

I love India, and find it so incredibly disheartening.  Modernity is like tourism – it destroys the very beauty you come to see.

I am surprised by many Indians who lose interest once seeing a heritage site, or who dismiss MP’s eritage listed Sanchi ot Bhimbetka as boring.

Lamenting the destruction of Delhi delicate havalis, historian Wliiliam Dalrymple

“You must understand,” he said, “that we Hindus burn our dead.” Either way, the loss of Delhi’s past is irreplaceable; and future generations will inevitably look back at the conservation failures of the early 21st century with a deep sadness.”

So, while the modernist presentation overwhelms the craft work compared with the display at the IGM or the craftsmanship at the State Museum, perhaps  Madhya Pradesh is hoping to breathe life into tribal life encroached on by expanding Urban India.

Lets hope beautiful  tribal traditions will not face cultural cremation.