Before delving into the specifics of an Adivasi museum, it is important to consider why museums should matter at all. For as long as I remember, I have always been fascinated by the very idea of a museum as an institution that can render voices and memories of the past to interact with the present. As Suzanne Oberhardt eloquently says, “museums make human conversation across time and place possible” (2001: 17). I remember visiting the Indian Museum in Kolkata several times. And the overarching need I felt to know more about the displays and exhibits. My professional interest in museums and heritage developed much later. It emerged out of a curiosity to know myself, where I am from, and who my forefathers were. This is because both my paternal and maternal grandparents were born in the erstwhile Bengal province. They migrated from East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh) to West Bengal during the partition of India. Growing up, I often heard stories regarding the partition, where they recollected their memories about their journey from the village in Bangladesh to Kolkata, the hardships of starting their life from scratch, difficulties of settling in a new house and so on. These stories were often followed by a desire to visit their lost home. In 2016, I made a visit to Bangladesh in order to know my ancestral roots. And to my surprise, it turned out we still had distant relatives living there with whom we had no contact. I did not know them and neither did they know me. This whole experience was so overwhelming that it made me think about the importance of documenting oral history and oral traditions of knowledge. As a result, during my first year of college, I decided to work on behalf of the Partition Museum, Amritsar, and document the stories of partition survivors in West Bengal. This research internship made me realize the role of a museum as a safe space in the present society that can bring strangers together without any confrontation through objects and oral narratives. In a museum, as the director of Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology says, “visitors are enabled to look beyond themselves, to understand and accept differences” (Vaizey 2017: The Art Newspaper).
But why do museums matter more than ever in present times? Of course, there are no straightforward answers to this question. If one looks at the famous painting of the nineteenth-century French post-impressionist artist Paul Gaugin, drawn in a remote Polynesian Island when he was slowly dying, on the top left corner of the painting reads: “where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?” Every year 1.2 million people stand in front of this painting at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and think about these questions (see Leth 2016: TEDxOxbridge). The museum, just like art, also provides answers to these essential questions. It seeks to address the continuing conversation human beings share across culture and time (ibid). It is in this context that I raise the question; why should an Adivasi museum matter? The latter half of the twentieth century and the twenty-first century has opened new means of communication as many of the previously colonized states of Asia, Africa, and Latin America gained independence. With the advancement of digital modes of documentation, the newly freed states can effectively document their heterogeneous society, values, and knowledge systems. As the Indian linguist Ganesh Devy says, “the twenty-first century can also be referred to as knowledge century”. Needless to say this label may be debatable, but it still does not change the unique opportunity that lies in front of us. During colonial rule, the Europeans had created a taxonomy for knowledge traditions. Anything outside this European taxonomy of knowledge would be considered as non-knowledge or knowledge that is inferior (see Devy 2017). Thus, as Devy says, in the field of knowledge, there are first-rate and second-rate citizens (ibid). The twenty-first century provides one with the opportunity to break away from this traditional European taxonomy of knowledge.
For far too long have the traditions and cultures of the indigenous population in India and other South Asian states been invisibilized in history and literature. Sometimes it is due to the conflict between the state and the natives but mostly because there has been no previous attempt to systematically understand the complexity of the history of indigenous tribes. Most importantly, contrary to the colonial imagination, all indigenous tribes of India do not share any common attributes. For instance, the Santhals of East India and Bhils of West India are two prominent ethnic groups. These groups have sub-groups and sub-sub-groups which makes it harder for the mainland population to understand the indigenous struggles and the heterogeneous nature of their society. And in many of these cultures, there are no written histories as they mostly rely on oral traditions, folklore, myths, and other art forms.
As an AIF Clinton Fellow (2020-2021), I am working on conceptualizing new collections, presentations, displays for the ‘Museum of Adivasi Voice’ located in Tejgadh, Gujarat. Adivasi museums such as Vaacha – Museum of Voice, located within the sight of Mount Koraj (the location of prehistoric rock paintings in rural Gujarat), is of significant importance as it seeks to provide the natives a platform to express their concerns in an idiom of their own (see Coates and Coates 2011: 256). It is run by local men and women from the Rathwa tribe who understand the complexities of documenting indigenous history. The museum features many photographs, domestic objects, paintings, and musical instruments of Adivasi communities across India. The initiative – alongside its parent organisation Bhasha Research and Publication Centre based in Baroda city – not only documents the indigenous struggles, expressions, and ways of life but also seeks to provide the locals a platform to contest. Thereby also sustaining the lives of the local communities. The location of the museum acts as a constant reminder of the history of the communities and their enduring power (ibid). Like me, many young men and women must also think about who they are, where they come from, and who their forefathers were. Vaacha acts as a reminder that the indigenous voice and memory are as much relevant as any other. Overall, the twenty-first century provides us the opportunity to eliminate the colonial barriers and aim for democratisation of knowledge (Devy 2017). An opportunity one must fully utilize in order to achieve inclusive growth.
Coates, Brian; Coates, Eileen. (2011). Vaacha: Voice and Memory in the Museum. In Voice and Memory: Indigenous Imagination and Expression. Edited by G.N. Devy, Geoffrey V. Davis, and K.K. Chakravarty. Published: Orient BlackSwan. New Delhi, India.
Devy, Ganesh. (2017). Democratization of Knowledge. Accessed here: https://youtu.be/db7XK7Tm0Tg.
Leth, Colleen. (2016). Seeing the Past as Present: Why Museums Matter. TEDxOxbridge. Accessed here: https://youtu.be/SehKVHo601c.
Oberhardt, Suzanne. (2001). Frames Within Frames: The Art Museum as Cultural Artifact. Published: Peter Lang, New York, United States.
Vaizey, Marina. (2017). What they do and how they do it: why museums matter. The Art Newspaper. Jan 19. Accessed here: https://www.theartnewspaper.com/review/what-they-do-and-how-they-do-it-why-museums-matter.