Navjot at a meeting with the villagers
Gare, Raigarh, Chhattisgarh, 2015

State of Nature in India — by Navjot Altaf

Anthropocene conference August 2018
August 23rd – 25th 2018
Venue: Gallery MMB, Goethe-Institut / Max Mueller Bhavan- Mumbai, India

My paper is based on my research and experience of living and engaging with Adivasi [Indigenous] artists, communities [in Chhattisgarh] and the process of their ongoing struggle for justice, for their existence and the knowledge systems, which are orally transmitted across generations through their myths and performances, which are intimately linked to the land and their belief in the cyclical processes of nature and their relationship between humans and non-humans which co-produce the world.

The paper is titled ‘Patterns that Connect’ – derived from an anthropologist Gregory Bateson’s study of cybernetics, which is concerned with the interwoven nature of all phenomena and the underlying importance of these connections. This makes me think of Edgar  Morin, a French philosopher and sociologist [known for his work on the theory of complexity known as complex thought] who acknowledges Bateson’s perception/understanding of totemism and animism vs. modern knowledge as a degeneration of these earlier forms of human knowing. “Anthropologically, it would seem from what we know of the early material that man in society took clues from the natural world around him and applied those clues in a sort of metaphoric way to the society in which he lived. i.e. he identified with the natural world around him and took that empathy as a guide for his own social organization and his own theories of his psychology. This was what is called ‘totemism’.

In a way it is all nonsense but it makes more sense than what we do today, because the natural world around us really has a systemic structure and therefore is an appropriate source of metaphor to enable man to understand himself in his social organization.

The next step seemingly, was to reverse the process, and to take clues from himself and apply these to the natural world around him. This was ‘animism’- extracting the notion of personality or mind to, mountains, rivers, forests and such things. This was still not a bad idea in many ways. The next step was to separate the notion of mind from the natural world and then get the notion of gods. But when you separate mind from the structure in which it is inherent, such as in human relationships, the human society, or the ecosystem, man already embarks on a fundamental error, which in the end will surely hurt…” [Kagan,S. Art and Sustainability – Connecting Patterns for a Culture of Complexity; Transaction Publishers, UK, 2011]

His idea makes sense when he says that “Our whole way of thinking and seeing has got to be renovated from the inside out” [ibid]. To see the connections and re-discover our part within the web of life, is an intellectual, spiritual and emotional revolution. Throughout my interaction and collaboration with Adivasi artists and local communities over two decades, both in the Northern Central and in South Bastar in Chhattisgarh State, what I have seen and experienced is that the Adivasis still believe in the web of relationships, their cosmo-vision does not view humans as outsiders, apart from nature.

What I want to point out in short is that as I was experiencing the Adivasi way of life in Bastar to enhance my aesthetic experience, I got more interested in the indigenous knowledge system and the concepts of learning in a larger context.

So the writings of Gregory Bateson, John Dewey and specifically Edgar Morin furthered my interest in the notion of complexity / the science of complexity, that led to questions like – how do we engage in the processes of inquiry?  How can we live and think in a pluralistic cosmos or universe, How any intervention or experimentation, alternation in nature without sensitivity and concerns for the vision and lived experiences of local communities could disrupt systems of relationships and subvert the ecosystem. [This is not to say that there were no short comings in the traditional techniques, for example technique of iron smelting… or the amount of wood cut required to make coal can be quite shocking].

Concepts of ‘ecological aesthetics’ which calls for rethinking human and non-human relations interests me.

My engagement with the rural Adivasi struggle for justice in mining affected districts in Raigarh and Korba, made me think of the concept of ‘aesthetics of sustainability’ more deeply as it enquires into the meanings and implications of justice, in a pluralistic way. I would like to share a few examples of how the human and non-human shape each other and how do they converse.

In a ritually enacted oral epic ‘Lachmi Jagar’, which is an extended allegory of the origin of the rice production, there is a conversation between an associate of the king and queen of the clouds and a spider. When Bhima Ajgal is asked by king Megh to go down to the middle world to see the condition people live in, that he asks the spider to spin and suspend a thread for him to slide down. The spider refuses because she was not free as she had to look after her off springs. But she agreed to spin and suspend the thread when Bhima offers to take care of the spiderlings while she spun the thread…So in the myth, the spider is not represented as a being with no ability to think or reason, it has its own independent equal status.

On her visit to the middle world, queen Megh plants a mango tree and gets the pond dug for the villagers and they celebrate it by marrying the pond to a mango tree. The ritual is called ‘Tarai Amba bhiyah’, this way they establish a relationship between themselves, the water and the tree. Gregory Bateson in his book, ‘The steps to an Ecology of Mind’ writes about examining the nature of the mind, seeing it not as a nebulous something, somehow lodged, somewhere in the body of each man, but as a network of interactions relating the individual with his society and his species.

Another example is from ‘Kokerenge’ a dance form. Kokerenge means a cock-like walk, this dance form is performed by the Muria community of Bastar once a year after the harvest. The performers travel from village to village to pay tribute to the ‘Lingopen’, the head of all deities who symbolizes the entire earth. The dance involves the movement between human and non-human forms… men and women move while singing and performing to gradually form a circle over three hours. The form of a circle is common in many indigenous cultures, which signifies continuity. In my sensibility, it expresses a sense of connection. Even though animals are hunted for food, but in their myths and creative expressions they are shown respect. Kokerenge makes one think how the arts enable the body and mind to interact and collaborate and how the experience could produce moments of sensorial intimacy and reciprocity.

Generally, like the animals in a zoo, domesticated animals too are considered to be the property of the human beings without any status of their own.  But till date during a festival called ‘Gobar-Dhan’ in Bastar, the food cooked with all the grains cultivated in that area, is eaten together by both human / non-humans placed in the winnowing fan made of bamboo. These rituals signify their belief in treating their animals as part of the family and with equal status. The Gobar-Dhan ritual also recognizes the animals’ contribution towards food produ-ction. On ‘Amus Tihar’ called ‘Hariyali’ as well, animals are given their first shot of medicinal herbs for them to remain in good health.

The [Yup’ik] Eskimos of Alaska view animals as non-human persons and the ongoing relationship between animals and humans as central to their worldview. This relationship is seen as one of reciprocity…with the animals only surrendering themselves to the hunters who have respect for them as persons in their own right. Here rather than the differences, the similarities between humans and animals are emphasized. Both are believed to have souls, which participate in a cycle of birth, and death. They are also seen as sharing the ability for self-awareness and the ability to control their own destinies… [Roger, B. Author of Humanity’s Test;]. These multiplicities, in my opinion are to be re-read in the present context.

Despite the right wing forces in India trying to Hinduize the Adivasi culture by reinforcing the patriarchal values and the mainstream education system, which neutralizes the cultural difference by ignoring the Adivasi or Dalit histories and culture or the capitalist vision of endless appropriation of nature for quick profits for the few, at any cost for coal or iron ore mines, power plants, dams, other industries etc. and the laws for forest and the tribal land being violated with violence, there are histories of resistance to save and protect nature.

One can look at the case of Niyamgiri Hills from a mountain range in Orissa, it was defended by the Dongria Kond community against the multinational, Vedanta, a company forcibly wanting to mine [aluminium ore] in their sacred mountain – the local communities spiritual belief and resistance has saved the rich wildlife and the forest. Sacred groves in forests are considered reservoirs of rare vegetation and there are thousands of reserved parts of forests in the country which can be saved. Different art forms are associated with the deities in these groves-  In Bastar district, beautiful forms of animals are created in terracotta for the offerings at such sacred sites.

‘The Koyla Satyagraha’ in Raigarh, [Chhattisgarh] is another example. It is similar to Gandhi’s salt Satyagraha, for which thousands of people had walked hundreds of miles in defiance against the British salt monopoly, it also reminds me of the ‘The Red Power Movement’ by the American Indian youth in the 1960’s and 70’s, which had taken a confrontational and civil disobedience approach to incite change. Since 2011, people from mining affected communities in Raigarh, every year on October 2nd, march from Gare and 70 to 80 adjoining villages to the banks of the Kelo River to challenge the monopoly of the coal industry, and to claim, their rights over their natural resources – including coal under their lands, to protect their rights over continuing agriculture as their occupation and to generate solar power by using their own resources. These villagers as a community of resistants’ have been protesting against the forced acquisition of tribal land for development projects mentioned above. A similar movement has taken place in Jharkhand’s Hazaribagh district as well. According to the judgment given by the Supreme Court of India [case no 4549/2000] in July 2013, the ownership of ores and minerals beneath the ground belongs to the landowner. With Jan Chetna’s [an organization working closely with villagers in the Raigarh area] intervention in the High Court and Supreme Court, the NGT- National Green Tribunal Act was established in India in 2010.

Agriculture, according to them, apart from giving security, does not affect and harm the soil and the living organism. Their belief in harmony with nature encourages co-operation within the environment, communities, family and the individual. They believe that if humans do not co-operate and respect their relationship with the land, water and forests which protect life, their existence will be in danger. So one can see that their belief is in the unified action to bring in change. That’s why it is difficult to understand within the commonly accepted notions of ownership or property, Adivasis’ relationship to land, forest, animals or water. So the land cannot not be generally assessed as a base for development and enterprise to increase the GDP.

Perhaps as Bateson points out “The need is to rearrange our mental landscape, as there is a necessity  for an awareness of  being part of relational contexts…persons, groups, populations, genders and all species”.