Academy of Tribal Learning: Ramachandra Guha on its inauguration by writer-activist Mahasweta Devi – Gujarat

In the first week of February 2002, I got a call from the writer Mahasweta Devi. I had met Mahasweta only once—in a boarding house in Delhi where we both happened to be staying—but knew, of course, a great deal about her. I had not read her novels—I don’t read much fiction—but had been profoundly moved by her field reports on the condition of that most disadvantaged section of Indian society, the adivasis. I had read these reports in the 1980s, as they appeared in those remarkable little journals, Frontier of Calcutta and the Economic and Political Weekly of Bombay. (They have now been collected in book form in Dust on the Road: The Activist Writings of Mahasweta Devi.) These essays detailed, with great sensitivity but also with a sometimes barely suppressed anger, the exploitation of adivasi labour, the stealing of their land, the plundering of their forests. […]

Two years later I met Mahasweta for the second time—in, as it happens, Gujarat. She had come to inaugurate an Academy of Tribal Learning, whose moving spirit is the scholar and activist Ganesh (G. N.) Devy. Devy was once a professor of literature, an esteemed and distinguished one. But, inspired by Mahasweta, he gave up his career to work among the adivasis of western India. His group, Bhasha, has done outstanding work among tribes stigmatized by society and persecuted by the police. They have also published many volumes of tribal folklore and literature—as its name suggests, among Bhasha’s aims is to protect tribal languages from being swallowed up by the wider world.

The new Academy of Tribal Learning seeks to impart humanistic education to adivasi boys and girls. It is located in Tejgarh, in the Bhil country. We drove there from Vadodara, through land looking unnaturally green. […]

We reached the Academy, admired its elegantly understated brick buildings, and had our meeting. Later, Devy asked us to accompany him on a tour of the campus. Mahasweta insisted on coming. The paths were wet—or non-existent. Here and there they had been colonized by thorny bushes. And it was raining. Every now and then, Mahasweta was asked whether she had had enough. The enquiry was made out of sympathy, for at her age and in her physical condition the struggle seemed too much to bear. Someone then said, with impatience rather than in jest, that they didn’t want to be held responsible if she collapsed. Mahasweta answered that would indeed be a perfect death—for where else would she want to be cremated than in an Academy of Tribal Learning?

Watching Mahasweta that day, I was reminded of that she had told me over the phone that morning in February 2002: ‘hum maidan nahin choddenge, hum maidan nahin choddenge’. She is, in a word, indomitable. On 14th January this year she turned eighty years of age. Happy birthday, Mahasweta. May you stay on the field a good while yet.

Source: AN ADIVASI CHAMPION, The Hindu on Ramachandra
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Date Visited: Sun May 19 2013 13:39:16 GMT+0200 (CEST)

[Bold typeface added above for emphasis]

“The tribal world and the tribal way is complete in itself.” – Mahasweta Devi quoted by Gopalkrishna Gandhi in “Swearing by Mahasweta” (The Hindu, 6 August 2016)

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