Adivasi Art and Activism: Curation in a Nationalist Age

Hope Marie Childers

What does it mean to be “adivasi” in contemporary India? Indigenous groups worldwide have long used visual and performing arts to express their traditions, identities, and worldview, but what happens when these forms are put into a museum context? And what is the museum’s role in representing tribal culture and heritage at a time when an ascendant political force seeks to rewrite history?

Alice Tilche, an anthropologist, tackles these and other thorny questions in her insightful, timely volume, Adivasi Art and Activism: Curation in a Nationalist Age. The book offers a thoughtful, well-organized, and highly engaging account of her field work in Gujarat, where she trains her lens upon Vaacha: Museum of Voice. Vaacha, meaning voice in Gujarati, was founded in 2004 in Chhota Udaipur, Gujarat. Her study is particularly current, addressing the rising popularity of nationalist politics and religious cultural initiatives in an India led by populist strongman Narendra Modi, India’s Prime Minister since 2014.

As Tilche reminds us, there is no simple definition of adivasi, an umbrella category that encompasses many of India’s vast number of indigenous tribal groups and ethnic minorities, who remain among the country’s most marginalized communities. But self-assertions of adivasi identity can often be at odds with legal, administrative, governmental, and political definitions of the term. The situation is even further complicated by not only India’s colonial history, but also its caste system, resulting in an enormously intricate, socially fraught discourse of inclusion, exclusion, and claimed vs. imposed identities.

Similarly complex, a tribal museum resides at the hub of numerous cultural dichotomies: “East vs. West”; the art/craft divide; high vs. low culture; historical vs. contemporary; traditional vs. modern (once framed as “primitive vs. civilized”); and collective vs. individual art, identity, and authorship. In moving beyond such binaries, Tilche draws from the disciplinary frameworks of both anthropology and art history in support of a richly informed and nuanced analysis of Vaacha.

The book’s strength lies in its clear demonstration of how the museum space serves as a staging ground for continual, and sometimes paradoxical, shifts in its modes of meaning-making – even as the museum can seem, simultaneously, to fix objects timelessly in amber. Tilche achieves this through sustained examination of a single institution – Vaacha – for nearly two decades. Showing how the museumization of indigenous identity via its material culture can upend traditional narratives, she argues that “a model of social revivalism based on preservation has failed against the growth of religious movements” (p. 5). The upshot is that the preservation of culture in the museum is often coupled with its simultaneous erasure in contemporary India.

The first two chapters provide the interdisciplinary foundation to Tilche’s study. Chapter One, “Tribal Art, Museums, and the Indian Nation,” gives a well-rounded literature review of museum studies generally, and within modern India specifically. The author notes how museums were just one tool in the nation-building project of a post-independence India – an ongoing effort with uneven results, as political leaders, religious figures, and culture-makers have sought to shape various notions of an “authentic” India, such as the rural village or ancient heritage. Tilche also deftly summarizes a parallel account of how tribal art and objects have been folded into art historiography and the art market.

Chapter Two, “Social Reform in Gujarat,” fills in the socio-political history of the region, with a rendering of reform movements that have shaped Gujarat since the late colonial period and following India’s 1947 independence. Here, Tilche introduces us to the project and her informants – a cohort of young adivasi curators who were students of the Adivasi Academy, an educational center established in 1996 by activist scholar Ganesh Devy. The school was “conceived as a project of reverse anthropology/museology in which adivasis would be curators of their own culture rather than objects of display” (p. 6). She outlines a helpful distinction between Gandhian traditions of development and institutional patronage vs. the rising Hindutva model, which ties patronage, opportunities, and status to conformity with religiously inflected behavior and social norms. This approach is increasingly dominant in much of India, but especially so in Gujarat, the birthplace of Mohandas Gandhi, an iconic leader of the independence movement, but also the birthplace of Modi, who has made Hindu nationalism the centerpiece of his politics.

Chapters Three to Five form the heart of the volume, where Tilche offers a close reading of Vaacha and the many contradictory impulses and external pressures that impacted the conception, design, and filling of the space. Chapter Three, “A Museum from the Tribal Point of View,” explains that, from its inception, Vaacha was conceived as a rather undefined project, with a stated mission and objectives but few parameters: an open architectural space, with no glass cases or pedestals, and with no guidelines about collecting objects. This blank slate, intended to offer the new curators total freedom, in fact generated a kind of paralysis, as the group was compelled to confront the practical realities of museum work and its larger implications. Through long group discussions, along with trial and error, they grapple with display strategies, access, and the fundamentals of looking, as well as with determining their audience and cultivating a shared sense of understanding.

Chapter Four, “Broken Gods,” is the most poignant section, highlighting the often wrenching generational shifts among adivasi families during a period of accelerated social and technological change. Tilche describes how Vaacha becomes a receptacle for adivasi memories of rituals and beliefs, as the outside world moves on. While the curators themselves are engaged in a paradoxical dynamic of recuperating their past, they are also beginning to consider new identities and opportunities with local Hindu reform groups, a dynamic that causes tension among their families and community elders.  

In Chapter Five, “The Making of Tribal Art,” Tilche narrows the focus to a particular medium that has come to define adivasi identity as genre of Indian folk art: these are pithoras, ritual paintings traditionally found inside the homes of local adivasi groups. When such art was promoted, from the 1980s onward as a kind of national folk art, the format, aesthetics, production, and availability of pithoras shifted towards that of a mass-produced, art market commodity. The curatorial project of how to display an “authentic” version in Vaacha casts into relief the trade-offs of progress and modernization. The gain can be prosperity and status for some, while the cost is one of loss and erasure of adivasi art, labor, and traditions.

In Chapter Six (“Curating the Home, the Body, and the Landscape”) and Chapter Seven (“Performing Adivasiness”), Tilche recounts her most recent field work at the museum, now in a local landscape that has changed considerably: the saffronization of the political sphere under Modi is in full swing, and the curators themselves have undergone significant transformations with regard to their understanding of the museum’s role and their contributions as curators. Tilche chronicles the uneven upward mobility of some of them as they embrace consumerist habits and give in to pressure to conform to the Hinduization of Indian identity. Meanwhile, others continue to struggle materially. She makes plain how status can hinge on the degree to which they buy into the socio-cultural, economic, and religious initiatives promoted by Hindutva groups and institutions.

Ultimately, we learn that the museum has opened new avenues for some in the adivasi community, but perhaps in surprising ways – even disappointing, for some readers. Throughout the book, Tilche takes key moments to step back, assess her own assumptions and expectations, and engage in methodological critique. She is candid about the struggles of fieldwork, endeavoring to practice an engaged anthropology while also confronting the “inbuilt” problems of too much intrusion or influence upon her informants.

Her forthright approach makes for a very readable account of contemporary culture in India. With its comprehensive bibliography, this well-sourced volume should appeal to a broad range of scholarly interests. Pitched primarily towards the disciplines of anthropology and art history, the book should also attract readers interested in the history of modern India and the intersection of politics, culture, and right-wing Hindu nationalism. The book would be a good fit for college-level courses on South Asia, modernization, museum studies, and cultures of religion. The list of abbreviations and glossary make it especially accessible for those who may be new to Indian politics and concepts.

Perhaps most significant is the book’s contribution to a growing body of literature on indigenous curatorial studies. The book offers a fascinating case study that, on the surface, is about a new museum of indigenous expression. The story runs much deeper than that, however, and Tilche skillfully weaves together interlocking narratives about identity, belonging, religion, and politics. Anthropologist and author Prashanta Tripura has observed an “indigenous turn” since the early 1990s, signaling not only a growing awareness around tribal identities and representation, but also a shared indigenous consciousness around the world. As such, the book would also fall under the rubric of Global Studies, with its sharp focus on a local indigenous institution that has lessons for us all.