Shades of Summer at the Adivasi Academy, Tejgadh

“Have you ever burnt your hand on a mango?” Although it was meant to be a serious question, it evoked laughter from everyone I asked. It is summer in Tejgadh and everything is hot. The floor, the chairs, the water, the fruit… everything! Daytime temperatures regularly touch 45 degrees C, and the nights settle in the uncomfortable 30s. Through the day, cicadas sing loudly as if they are complaining about the heat to some unknown authority.

The fragrant madhumalati in full bloom!

Summer brings out many different sides of Tejgadh. Many trees have shed their leaves and the landscape seems so dry that a single spark could set everything alight! Yet nature, in its infinite glory, seems to mitigate the harsh sun by the shade of old trees. Sit under a mango tree long enough and you may be forgiven for mistaking it to be the night sky and the ripening mangoes which hang from it to be stars. This is also the season where the mahuda tree blooms. Each tree is capable of producing about 300 kilos of fleshy, sticky flowers which have the consistency of grapes (Ratnagar 2010, p. 25). Through the day, flowers carpet the ground and have a heady smell. While on their own the flowers are delicious and become sweeter when cooked, they are distilled to make mahuda daru which is a popular intoxicant across tribal India. Mahuda is not the only intoxicant which grows on trees in these parts! The toddy palm tree is another source for the making of tadi or neera. Pots are hung high on the trees which collect toddy juice overnight. Climbing them is a task requiring special skill but well worth the effort since tapped toddy when fresh is a nourishing drink and ferments through the day to make the alcoholic tadi. While Gujarat enforces prohibition, tadi and mahua form an important part of adivasi identity and religious practice. This has historically resulted in tensions between the state and various communities. (See further David Hardiman, 1985)

Summer has more to offer. The fragrant smell of the flowers of madhumalati and mogra is plentiful, intoxicating but not even illegal. Chikoo and tamarind trees bear fruits which, when freshly picked taste like summer itself!

Silhouette of a Mahuda tree.
The grape-like fleshy, heady mahuda flowers.
Chikoo tree at the Adivasi Academy.

Water is at a premium and cool water more so. With frequent power cuts and the costs of transporting a refrigerator, few in Tejgadh have it. Fortunately, the Adivasi Academy has a number of earthen pots which dedicated staff members keep refiling. Despite standing in the heat, the water becomes cool and is a near-magical thirst quencher. I say magical because when empty, the same earthen pots are used for their warms to ripen semi-ripe chikoo.

Water pots near the museum’s wooden idols.

The lack of water means that many of the nearby fields are dry and barren. Irrigation is not available to a majority of the small and marginal farmers in this area. The weekly market bears a different look since few vegetables other than okra, brinjals, tomatoes and some beans are available. This seems to matter little since all sentient beings, human or otherwise, seem to be singularly in the quest for moisture in its different forms. Fortunately, the sandy soil means that different kinds of gourds and melons are plentiful and cheap.

Summer also means that the school is on vacation and the sounds of little children— so integral to the Adivasi Academy— have fallen silent. The teachers, who are from different adivasi communities in Gujarat, have gotten a much-needed break. In a month, they will travel to different villages and convince parents to enrol the next batch of students in this school. Initially, they faced resistance since many of the parents have not themselves gone to school and feared that the children would be trafficked. However, the school is now well known in many adivasi communities and now consistently gets double the number of applicants the school can accommodate.

The rest of the Adivasi Academy continues to perform their designated tasks uncomplainingly. The number of visitors the Academy has dropped significantly and only a few groups from nearby places visit once the day’s heat has reduced. This means that the staff-members are able to take on essential maintenance work. The school’s roof needs re-tiling and the kitchen and artist workshop’s cow-dung floors needs touching up.

School without a Roof (for now!)

Despite the heat, the village of Tejgadh bears an almost festive atmosphere and there are wedding festivities almost every night. Traditionally this was wedding season so that the bride can help her new family during the soon approaching sowing season. Village weddings require no invitation and the entire village usually shows up. The wedding venue can be located easily as loud electronic music can be heard from a mile away (probably even further!) as it blares out of over-sized loudspeakers of a DJ. A DJ is not to be confused with a disk jockey, but rather a truck heavily laden with speakers, disco lights and pre-mixed sound-tracks. While there are many who are critical of the takeover of traditional tribal wedding songs and music by synthesizer-based music, it seems to have acquired an almost mandatory wedding tradition in these parts. Speaking to visitors from other districts in Gujarat and other states bordering Gujarat (Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Madhya Pradesh) suggests that even there, electronic music has largely drowned out traditional music. Resultantly, the makers of the instruments and the performers face an uncertain future. Bhasha for its part has documented wedding songs of the Rathwa tribe who are the major tribe in this district and works with an entho-musicologist who works on documenting traditional tribal music across India.

Rathwa Samajna Lagnagito (Rathwa wedding songs) compiled by some staff members of the Adivasi Academy.

At most weddings, there is a large buffet table area where food— usually rice and dal with some vegetable curry and some sweet preparation— is served. Nobody is denied since it is seen as being uncharitable to do so. Both the bride and the groom’s families, including their neighbours and large extended families, pitch in by buying supplies and cooking. Until recently, it was uncommon for professional caterers to be engaged to prepare and serve food. The weddings last late into the night with the groom and their family and friends visiting the bride’s house or village in a festive procession to receive her.

Despite the late nights at weddings, and the day’s oppressive heat, people still come to the library. With its high ceilings, large window and fans, it is a great place to spend their afternoons. While many of the government examinations that some students were regularly studying for have ended, some are still to be conducted. For some who used it as a study space, coming to the library has become a matter of habit and they still do that for a few hours every day. As they await the results of their examinations, some have ventured into the book-stacks or to the nearly 70 magazines that the Adivasi Academy subscribes to. Others who believe that they have not performed according to their expectations are readying themselves for another bite at the cherry (perhaps one fruit that actually does not grow here!) The library too is currently in the process of stock-taking and re-arranging books to ensure they are easier.

Summer though also means that the fellowship year is almost at a close. I will be leaving before the next batch of students join the school and before the monsoon rains properly set in. As sweet as the summer sun makes the fruits, it cannot mitigate the bitterness of parting. Much like summer— uncomfortable and inevitable— it provides an opportunity to see things in a new light and explore other horizons.

References:

Hardiman, David, From Custom to Crime: The Politics of Drinking in Colonial South Gujarat. In: Subaltern Studies IV: Writings on South Asian History and Society. Delhi: Oxford University Press, pp. 165-228 (1985).

Ratnagar, Shereen, Being Tribal. Delhi: Primus Books, 2010.

Rathwa, Nita et al. Rathwa Samajna Lagnagito (in 3 parts), available here.

Scientific names for Plants from http://www.efloraofgandhinagar.in/

  • Mahuda: Madhuca longifolia 
  • Chikoo: Manilkara zapota
  • Madhumalati: Combretum indicum
  • Toddy Palm: Borassus flabellifer
  • Mogra: Jasminum sambac

Nishant graduated from West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences in Kolkata in 2011 and received his LL.M. degree from Harvard Law School. He clerked with the Supreme Court of India and later litigated a diverse range of cases in and around New Delhi with a litigation chamber. His most recent engagement was with the Centre on the Death Penalty at the National Law University, Delhi where he was one of the founding members and assisted inmates sentenced to death secure legal representation. At Harvard Law School, Nishant wrote about the impact of colonialism on tribal groups in India and pursued diverse interests ranging from natural resource issues, law and neuroscience, food law and criminal justice policy. He frequently writes about criminal justice issues in academic and popular publications. Through the AIF Clinton Fellowship, Nishant will be working on issues related to de-notified "criminal" tribes in India and hopes to better understand the law's impact on the lives of marginalized peoples.

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One thought on “Shades of Summer at the Adivasi Academy, Tejgadh

  1. I love the title of this article! The descriptions are so vivid… I feel like I’m there. Great work ~

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