Representing the Self: Urban Tribals and Identity

Tracing the stories of tribals in Mumbai for whom everyday customs and traditions have become means of representing one’s identities.

On a bright March morning in Aarey, Manisha Dhinde is bustling around the 30 people seated in her compound, instructing and aiding them as they learn to make natural holi colours out of flowers, coal, leaves etc. Back in the kitchen, her mother is preparing food while her brother is wiping the stack of banana leaves they will be serving lunch on. Her grandmother watches excitedly as kids begin to splash colours on each other’s cheeks, running and hiding around the trees in anticipation. This gathering is a part of an event called ‘Picnic with Adivasis’ that the family organizes on a weekly basis. “Till 2017, barely anybody knew that Adivasis existed within the city” says Manisha who is a media graduate and a social activist. “Even the state’s position was to regard us as encroachers and deny the very existence of tribals on this land. So we would drape our sarees in traditional Lugda manner and protest by singing our songs, doing our dances.” Here, representing oneself as a tribal became the key to survival. 

Manisha Dhinde’s house and compound in Aarey, Mumbai where she conducts various events.
Manisha Dhinde’s family along with some participants at their residence.
Photo by Nikita Goenka
Some participants making natural colours for the festival of Holi. Photo by Tushar Warankar.

“Our network grew when city people joined the ‘Save Aarey’ protest and came in to replant the trees that the government had cut overnight.” For a while, she worked through organisations and was in charge of providing refreshments to the volunteers. “I realised that people had no idea about our lives, our principles or the customs we followed. So I decided to start this event and tell the story ourselves.” The event starts with a walk around the house, their field and the neighbouring forest patches where they collect certain fruits, flowers and veggies for the day. The activities vary-  a farming class during harvest season, warli painting during summers, kitchen gardening, compost making, nature trail, weaving handicrafts and a lot more. “I want people to see meaning in a life close to nature so that they value us being here. There’s a lot that we can learn from each other and co-exist in Mumbai.” She runs a facebook page and is active on digital platforms to grow a network of allies.

A group of participants extracting rice saplings from a nursery bed under the guidance of Manisha and her grandmother, Chimna Bhurkud. Photo by Anurag Karerkar.
Lunch consists of tribal dishes cooked by Manisha’s family and is served to the participants post the activities of the day. Photo by Tushar Warankar

Social media is being used extensively to assert agency and identities across tribals in Aarey as well as the Sanjay Gandhi National Park- a forest enveloped by the city. “I work in a cashew packaging company during the day and make content for social media in the evenings”, says Neha Varthe, who boldly professes herself as a tribal queen and a lioness on her instagram but smiles shyly when asked about the same in person. Her reels largely encourage people to be proud of their tribal identity, which she does by walking in slow motion and lip syncing to tribal songs. She often collaborates with Mahesh Vanjre also from Navshachapada, whose account handle reads ‘Adivasi King’. Together, they have around 4.5k followers. “Why can’t adivasis be influencers?” she asks. By showing up on people’s feeds, they generate a familiarity with the otherwise ‘other’. Reels, videos of raps etc. can be seen as a millennial counterpart to the traditional songs that were performed to spread essentially the same messages of solidarity, resistance and self acceptance. 

Neha Varthe at her maternal grandmother’s house in Aarey. She works at a cashew packaging company and is also a tribal influencer on Instagram.
Neha Varthe’s maternal home in Navshachapada, Aarey.

A couple years back Neha, Manisha and a few others made short films to spread awareness about International Tribal Day. “It’s all about putting ourselves out there. Our Warli art is present everywhere, it’s on Amitabh Bacchan’s compound wall and in so many rich people’s posh houses as paintings. We want people to think of the lives behind them when they see it.” says Manisha. Lately, she has been traveling to Palghar where some tribals have been commissioned to paint warli art on the Collector’s office walls. “It acknowledges that we exist in the region and is very empowering, ” she admits. The group calls themselves ‘The Dhavleri’ and their goal is to make warli paintings that talk about their current issues.

Warli art on Macchindra Vaijal’s façade.

Adivasis are increasingly painting Warli figurines on their facades in order to distinguish themselves from the ‘outsiders’ settled on the land. Macchindra Vaijal from Kalmachapada who recently revamped his house said, “I was only allowed to use tin for the roof because we previously had a mud and brick house. Otherwise people are not allowed to make improvements and are always under the forest department’s radar.” He was amongst the first people to receive formal education in the pada and now works in the Film City. His pada is a quaint settlement and one can see the city’s skyline from his deck. Behind the house, he built a shed to protect an anthill which they also revere. “The ants have never disturbed us, how will they as long as we don’t cause harm to them?” He smiles as he makes his way towards the wadi. A wadi is a plantation where fruits and vegetables are cultivated. Women sell the excess produce at the outskirts of the forest.

Macchindra Vaijal’s recently renovated house in Kalmachapada
Macchindra’s wadi behind his house.
Anthill revered as a tribal God is situated next to his Wadi
A camera shy Macchindra poses in his wadi that overlooks the suburban stretch of Kandivali-Borivali.

“Over the years, political parties have been slowly spreading Hindu religious practices in tribal settlements. I think this is a way to merge Adivasis into the majority. If we stop practicing our traditions and celebrate their festivals- we will lose our status, the rights that protect us.” says Manisha, referring to the Forest Rights Act. “People don’t understand that this can be used against them, in taking away their land and livelihood. Nature is our God and we should protect and worship that only.”  Manisha’s generation is working towards keeping their customs strong to uphold their identity in the eye of the State. “Today you will see religious idols and a Chowk together in people’s homes” she adds, “A Chowk is a wall painting one makes before a wedding in the house. It is a collection of elements that are integral to the Adivasi way of living. The Sun, the Moon, Nature God, Wagh (Leopard/Tiger), crops etc. and a notation for the bride and the groom is also drawn. It is commissioned by painters and is a key proof for tribal identity.”

A photo showing some idols that are worshiped along with a Chowk painted on the wall of Laxman Umbarsade’s house in Navshachapada, Aarey.

One such artist is Dinesh Barap from Navapada who is internationally renowned for his Warli artworks. His practice is in collaboration with multiple organisations and he also makes customised Warli merchandise. “I paint on sarees of all sorts, dresses, bags and make comics.” He said while taking out a bunch of his paintings. “My inspiration are my grandmother’s folklores, I love seeing how they can be translated into drawings.” Dinesh uses Warli Art as a tool to create traditional as well as modern narratives. “The same figures can be used to depict what is happening with us today, I think it is a very powerful medium.”

Dinesh Barap with his paintings at his residence in Navapada in Sanjay Gandhi National Park, Borivali region.
Dinesh Barap’s residence where he lives with his mother and sister’s family in Navapada, SGNP.
Dinesh shelters rescued animals and has created a tiny garden around his house for the same.
Dinesh Barap’s rendition of a traditional Warli Painting that narrates the story of Tulsi Lake

“We are Mumbai’s tribals, of course we are educated and upgraded. People ask me ‘Why are you wearing western clothes?’ and think that we still drape leaves on our bodies” says Manisha as she folds up mattresses post the event. “We only used to dance or sing when we had something to celebrate. Now we are constantly under the threat of being rehabilitated and so these traditions have become a means to demand for our rights. The problem really, is that they want us to progress as per their notions of development and that always leads to our destruction, nature’s destruction. So I question that very definition and urge everyone to do the same.”

All pictures, unless specified have been taken by the author. 

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