10 The Changing World of Visual Arts When you look at a work of art – a painting, sculpture, etc. – it may not be obvious that like most other things, art too is influenced by the world around it. You may not realise that what you see also shapes your own ideas. In this chapter we will be looking at the changes in the world of visual arts during the colonial period, and how these changes are linked to the wider history of colonialism and nationalism. Colonial rule introduced several new art forms, styles, materials and techniques which were creatively adapted by Indian artists for local patrons and markets, in both elite and popular circles. You will find that many of the visual forms that you take for granted today – say, a grand public building with domes, columns and arches; a scenic landscape, the realistic human image in a portrait, or in popular icons of gods and goddesses; a mechanically printed and mass-produced picture – had their origins in the period we will discuss in this chapter. To understand this history we will focus primarily on the changes in one sphere – painting and print making. New Forms of Imperial Art From the eighteenth century a stream of European artists came to India along with the British traders and rulers. The artists brought with them new styles and new conventions of painting. They began producing pictures which became widely popular in Europe and helped shape Western perceptions of India. Convention – An accepted norm or style Engraving – A picture printed onto paper from a piece of wood or metal into which the design or drawing has been cut Fig. 2 – Ruins on the banks of the Ganges at Ghazipur, painted by Thomas Daniell (oil, 1791) European artists brought with them the idea of realism. This was a belief that artists had to observe carefully and depict faithfully what the eye saw. What the artist produced was expected to look real and lifelike. European artists also brought with them the technique of oil painting – a technique with which Indian artists were not very familiar. Oil painting enabled artists to produce images that looked real. Not all European artists in India were inspired by the same things. The subjects they painted were varied, but invariably they seemed to emphasise the superiority of Britain – its culture, its people, its power. Let us look at a few major trends within imperial art. Looking for the picturesque One popular imperial tradition was that of picturesque landscape painting. What was the picturesque? This style of painting depicted India as a quaint land, to be explored by travelling British artists; its landscape was rugged and wild, seemingly untamed by human hands. Thomas Daniell and his nephew William Daniell were the most famous of the artists who painted within this tradition. They came to India in 1785 and stayed for seven years, journeying from Calcutta to northern and southern India. They produced some of the most evocative picturesque landscapes of Britain’s newly conquered territories in India. Their large oil paintings on canvas were regularly exhibited to select audiences in Britain, and their albums of engravings were eagerly bought up by a British public keen to know about Britain’s empire. Fig. 2 is a typical example of a picturesque landscape painted by the Daniells. Notice the ruins of local buildings that were once grand. The buildings are reminders of past glory, remains of an ancient civilisation that was now in ruins. It was as if this decaying civilisation would change and modernise only through British governance. This image of British rule bringing modern civilisation to India is powerfully emphasised in the numerous pictures of late-eighteenth-century Calcutta drawn by the Daniells. In these drawings you can see the making of a new Calcutta, with wide avenues, majestic European-style buildings, and new modes of transport (Fig. 3). There is life and activity on the roads, there is drama and excitement. Look carefully at Figs. 2 and 3. See how the Daniells contrast the image of traditional India with that of life under British rule. Fig. 2 seeks to represent the traditional life of India as pre-modern, changeless and motionless, typified by faqirs, cows, and boats sailing on the river. Fig. 3 shows the modernising influence of British rule, by emphasising a picture of dramatic change. Portraits of authority Another tradition of art that became immensely popular in colonial India was portrait painting. The rich and the powerful, both British and Indian, wanted to see themselves on canvas. Unlike the existing Indian tradition of painting portraits in miniature, colonial portraits were life-size images that looked lifelike and real. The size of the paintings itself projected the importance of the patrons who commissioned these portraits. This new style of portraiture also served as an ideal means of displaying the lavish lifestyles, wealth and status that the empire generated. Fig. 3 – Clive street in Calcutta, drawn by Thomas and William Daniell, 1786 Portrait – A picture of a person in which the face and its expression is prominent Portraiture – The art of making portraits Commission – To formally choose someone to do a special piece of work usually against payment Fig. 4 – Portrait of Governor-General Hastings with his wife in their Belvedere estate, painted by Johann Zoffany (oil, 1784) Notice the grand colonial mansion in the background. Fig. 5 – The Aurial and Dashwood Families of Calcutta, painted by Johann Zoffany (oil, 1784) Thomas Dashwood was married to Charlotte Lousia Aurial. Here you see them entertaining their friends and relatives. Notice the various servants serving tea. As portrait painting became popular, many European portrait painters came to India in search of profitable commissions. One of the most famous of the visiting European painters was Johann Zoffany. He was born in Germany, migrated to England and came to India in the mid-1780s for five years. Figs. 3 and 4 are two examples of the portraits that Zoffany painted. Notice the way figures of Indian servants and the sprawling lawns of colonial mansions appear in such portraits. See how the Indians are shown as submissive, as inferior, as serving their white masters, while the British are shown as superior and imperious: they flaunt their clothes, stand regally or sit arrogantly, and live a life of luxury. Indians are never at the centre of such paintings; they usually occupy a shadowy background. Activity• Look at Figs. 4 and 5. 1. In what ways are the Indians depicted as inferior? 2. Notice the clothes the British are wearing. What do they convey to you? Many of the Indian nawabs too began commissioning imposing oil portraits by European painters. You have seen how the British posted Residents in Indian courts and began controlling the affairs of the state, undermining the power of the king. Some of these nawabs reacted against this interference; others accepted the political and cultural superiority of the British. They hoped to socialise with the British, and adopt their styles and tastes. Muhammad Ali Khan was one such nawab. After a war with the British in the 1770s he became a dependant pensioner of the East India Company. But he nonetheless commissioned two visiting European artists, Tilly Kettle and George Willison, to paint his portraits, and gifted these paintings to the King of England and the Directors of the East India Company. The nawab had lost political power, but the portraits allowed him to look at himself as a royal figure. Look at the painting by Willison (Fig. 6). Notice the way the nawab poses, and how he asserts his majesty. Painting history There was a third category of imperial art, called “history painting”. This tradition sought to dramatise and recreate various episodes of British imperial history, and enjoyed great prestige and popularity during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. British victories in India served as rich material for history painters in Britain. These painters drew on firsthand sketches and accounts of travellers to depict for the British public a favourable image of British actions in India. These paintings once again celebrated the British: their power, their victories, their supremacy. One of the first of these history paintings was produced Fig. 7 – Lord Clive meeting Mir Jafar, Nawab of Murshidabad, after the Battle of Plassey, painted by Francis Hayman (oil, 1762) by Francis Hayman in 1762 and placed on public display in the Vauxhall Gardens in London (Fig. 7). The British had just defeated Sirajuddaulah in the famous Battle of Plassey and installed Mir Jafar as the Nawab of Murshidabad. It was a victory won through conspiracy, and the traitor Mir Jafar was awarded the title of Nawab. In the painting by Hayman this act of aggression and conquest is not depicted. It shows Lord Clive being welcomed by Mir Jafar and his troops after the Battle of Plassey. • Activity Look carefully at Figs. 7 and 8. 1. How is Clive portrayed in Fig. 7? 2. What are the ways in which the artist has depicted the victory of the British? 3. Notice the position of the British flag (the Union Jack) in Figs. 7 and 8. Why is it placed there? The celebration of British military triumph can be seen in the many paintings of the battle of Seringapatam (now Srirangapatnam). Tipu Sultan of Mysore, as you know, was one of the most powerful enemies of the British. He was finally defeated in 1799 at the famous battle of Seringapatam. Notice the way the battle scene is painted in Fig. 8. The British troops are shown storming the fort from all sides, cutting Tipu’s soldiers to pieces, climbing the walls, raising the British flag aloft on the ramparts of Tipu’s fort. It is a painting full of action and energy. The painting dramatises the event and glorifies the British triumph. Imperial history paintings sought to create a public memory of imperial triumphs. Victories had to be remembered, implanted in the memory of people, both in India and Britain. Only then could the British appear invincible and all-powerful. Look at the way General Baird, who led the British army that stormed Tipu’s fort, is shown standing triumphantly in the middle. The lantern lights up Baird, making him visible to the spectator. Tipu lies dead (left corner), his body hidden in semi-darkness. His forces are defeated, his royal clothes torn and stripped off. The painting seems to announce: this is the fate of those who dare to oppose the British. Look at Fig. 9 David Wilkie was commissioned by David Baird’s wife to paint this picture. Why do you think she wanted such a picture painted? Fig. 8 – The Storming of Seringapatam, painted by Rober Kerr Porter (panorama in oil, 1800) Fig. 9 – The discovery of the body of Sultan Tipu by General Sir David Baird, 4 May 1799, painted by David Wilkie (oil, 1839) Mural – A wall painting What Happened to the Court Artists? What happened to artists who earlier painted miniatures? How did the painters at Indian courts react to the new traditions of imperial art? We can see different trends in different courts. In Mysore, Tipu Sultan not only fought the British on the battlefield but also resisted the cultural traditions associated with them. He continued to encourage local traditions, and had the walls of his palace at Seringapatam covered with mural paintings done by local artists. Fig. 10 shows you one of these. This painting celebrates the famous battle of Polilur of 1780 in which Tipu and Haidar Ali defeated the English troops. Fig. 10 – Detail from a mural painting commissioned by Tipu Sultan at the Dariya Daulat palace at Seringapatam, commemorating Haidar Ali’s victory over the English army at the battle of Polilur of 1780 Activity• Compare Figs. 8 and 10. 1. What similarities and differences do you see in the themes of the paintings? 2. If you were a nawab fighting the British, which battle scenes would you ask the artists to paint – the ones you lost or the ones you won? 3. Do you think that the mural in Fig. 10 is realistic? In the court of Murshidabad we see a different trend. Here, after defeating Sirajuddaulah the British had successfully installed their puppet Nawabs on the throne, first Mir Zafar and then Mir Qasim. The court at Murshidabad encouraged local miniature artists to absorb the tastes and artistic styles of the British. You can see this in Fig. 11. This is a picture of an Id procession painted by a court painter in the late eighteenth century. Notice how local miniature artists at Murshidabad began adopting elements of European realism. They use perspective, which creates a sense of distance between objects that are near and those at a distance. They use light and shade to make the figures look life like and real. With the establishment of British power many of the local courts lost their influence and wealth. They could no longer support painters and pay them to paint for the court. How could the artists earn a living? Many of them turned to the British. Perspective – The way that objects appear smaller when they are further away and the way parallel lines appear to meet each other at a point in the distance At the same time, British officials, who found the world in the colonies different from that back home, wanted images through which they could understand India, remember their life in India, and depict India to the Western world. So we find local painters producing a vast number of images of local plants and animals, historical buildings and monuments, festivals and processions, trades and crafts, castes and communities. These pictures, eagerly collected by the East India Company officials, came to be known as Company paintings. Not all artists, however, were court painters. Not all of them painted for the nawabs. Let us see what was happening outside the court. Fig. 11 Nawab Mubarakuddaulah of Murshidabad at an Id procession, a miniature copy by a local court painter of an oil painting by the visiting British artist, G.Farrington (1799-1800) In Company paintings, such as this one, people are painted against empty spaces. We get no idea of the social surroundings within which they lived or worked. The paintings tried to identify some of the visible features through which people and communities could be recognised with ease by people from foreign lands. Like the different types of Indian plants, birds and animals depicted in Company paintings, the human figures are shown as mere specimens of different trades, castes and sects of a region. Fig. 12 – Paired couples representing different religious sects of the Tanjore region, Company painting from Tanjore (1830) Scroll painting Painting on a long roll of paper that could be rolled up The New Popular Indian Art In the nineteenth century a new world of popular art developed in many of the cities of India. In Bengal, around the pilgrimage centre of the temple of Kalighat, local village scroll painters (called patuas) and potters (called kumors in eastern India and kumhars in north India) began developing a new style of art. They moved from the surrounding villages into Calcutta in the early nineteenth century. This was a time when the city was expanding as a commercial and administrative centre. Colonial offices were coming up, new buildings and roads were being built, markets were being established. The city appeared as a place of opportunity where people could come to make a new living. Village artists too came and settled in the city in the hope of new patrons and new buyers of their art. Before the nineteenth century, the village patuas and kumors had worked on mythological themes and produced images of gods and goddesses. On shifting to Kalighat, they continued to paint these religious images. Traditionally, the figures in scroll paintings looked flat, not rounded. Now Kalighat painters began to use shading to give them a rounded form, to make the images look three-dimensional. Yet the images were not realistic and lifelike. In fact, what is specially to be noted in these early Kalighat paintings is the use of a bold, deliberately non-realistic style, where the figures emerge large and powerful, with a minimum of lines, detail and colours. After the 1840s, we see a new trend within the Kalighat artists. Living in a society where values, tastes, social norms and customs were undergoing rapid changes, Kalighat artists responded to the world around, and produced paintings on social and political themes. Many of the late-nineteenth-century Kalighat paintings depict social life under British rule. Often the artists mocked at the changes they saw around, ridiculing the new tastes of those who spoke in English and adopted Western habits, dressed like sahibs, smoked cigarettes, or sat on chairs. They made fun of the westernised baboo, criticised the corrupt priests, and warned against women moving out of their homes. They often expressed the anger of common people against the rich, and the fear many people had about dramatic changes of social norms. Many of these Kalighat pictures were printed in large numbers and sold in the market. Initially, the images were engraved in wooden blocks. The carved block was inked, pressed against paper, and then the woodcut prints that were produced were coloured by hand. In this way, many copies could be produced from the same block. By the late-nineteenth century, mechanical printing presses were set up in different parts of India, which allowed prints to be produced in even larger numbers. These prints could therefore be sold cheap in the market. Even the poor could buy them. Popular prints were not painted only by the poor village Kalighat patuas. Often, middle-class Indian artists set up printing presses and produced prints for a wide market. They were trained in British art schools in new methods of life study, oil painting and print making. One of the most successful of these presses that were set up in late-nineteenth-century Calcutta was the Calcutta Art Studio. It produced lifelike images of eminent Bengali personalities as well as mythological pictures. But these mythological pictures were realistic. The figures were located in picturesque landscape settings, with mountains, lakes, rivers and forests. You must have seen many popular calendar pictures of Hindu deities in shops and roadside stalls. The characteristic elements Life study – Study of human figures from living models who pose for the artists In paintings like this you can see the artist’s fear that the baboos will imitate the West and give up all that is valuable within the local culture. The baboo here is shown as a clownish figure, wearing shoes with high heels and sitting on a chair with ridiculously pointed legs. Notice the contrast between this picture and Fig. 15. Which one do you think looks more realistic? This is an advertisement of an Indian brand of cigarette that was banned by the British in 1905. You can see the heads of British soldiers amongst the demons killed by the goddess. Religious images were thus used to express nationalist ideas and inspire people against British rule. of these pictures came into being in the late nineteenth century. These types of popular pictures were printed and circulated in other parts of India too. With the spread of nationalism, popular prints of the early twentieth century began carrying nationalist messages. In many of them you see Bharat Mata appearing as a goddess carrying the national flag, or nationalist heroes sacrificing their head to the Mata, and gods and goddesses slaughtering the British. The Search for a National Art Towards the end of the nineteenth century, a stronger connection was established between art and nationalism. Many painters now tried to develop a style that could be considered both modern and Indian. What could be defined as a national style? The art of Raja Ravi Varma Raja Ravi Varma was one of the first artists who tried to create a style that was both modern and national. Ravi Varma belonged to the family of the Maharajas of Travancore in Kerala, and was addressed as Raja. He mastered the Western art of oil painting and realistic life study, but painted themes from Indian mythology. He dramatised on canvas, scene after scene from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, drawing on the theatrical performances of mythological stories that he witnessed during his tour of the Bombay Presidency. From the 1880s, Ravi Varma’s mythological paintings became the rage among Indian princes and art collectors, who filled their palace galleries with his works. Responding to the huge popular appeal of such paintings, Ravi Varma decided to set up a picture production team and printing press on the outskirts of Bombay. Here colour prints of his religious paintings were mass produced. Even the poor could now buy these cheap prints. A different vision of national art In Bengal, a new group of nationalist artists gathered around Abanindranath Tagore (1871-1951), the nephew of Rabindranath Tagore. They rejected the art of Ravi Varma as imitative and westernised, and declared that such a style was unsuitable for depicting the nation’s ancient myths and legends. They felt that a genuine Indian style of painting had to draw inspiration from non-Western art traditions, and try to capture the spiritual essence of the East. So they broke away from the convention of oil painting and the realistic style, and turned for inspiration to medieval Indian traditions of miniature painting and the ancient art of mural Activity• Look at Fig.25 along with the images of Indian miniatures you saw in the History book of Class VII. Can you identify some of the elements of similarity between them? Look for differences too. Notice the misty background, the soft colours, and the absence of any hard lines in the painting. These are stylistic elements you will often find in many Japanese water colour landscapes (see Fig. 28). Fig. 27 – Jatugriha Daha (The Burning of the House of Lac during Pandava’s exile in the forest), painted by Nandalal Bose (watercolour, 1912) Nandalal Bose was a student of Abanindranath Tagore. Notice the lyrical flow of lines, the elongated limbs and the postures of the figures. Abanindranath and Nandalal did not simply follow an earlier style. They modified it and made it their own. In this painting you can see how Nandalal uses shading to give a three-dimensional effect to the figures. You will not find this in Ajanta paintings. painting in the Ajanta caves. They were also influenced by the art of Japanese artists who visited India at that time to develop an Asian art movement. We can see a combination of these different pictorial elements in some of the new “Indian-style” paintings of these years. Look at Fig. 25. In this painting by Abanindranath Tagore we can see the influence of Rajput miniatures. The influence of Japanese paintings can be seen in Fig. 26, and the style of Ajanta is apparent in Fig. 27. The effort to define what ought to be an authentic Indian style of art continued. After the 1920s, a new generation of artists began to break away from the style popularised by Abanindranath Tagore. Some saw it as sentimental, others thought that spiritualism could not be seen as the central feature of Indian culture. They felt that artists had to explore real life instead of illustrating ancient books, and look for inspiration from living folk art and tribal designs rather than ancient art forms. As the debates continued, new movements of art grew and styles of art changed. Kakuzo and the movement for an Asian art In 1904, Okakura Kakuzo published a book in Japan called The Ideals of the East. This book is famous for its opening lines: “Asia is one.” Okakura argued that Asia had been humiliatedby the West and Asian nations had to collectively resist Western domination. Okakura researched on Japanese art andemphasised the need to save traditionaltechniques of traditional Japanese art at a timethey were being replaced by Western-stylepainting. He tried to define what modern artcould be and how tradition could be retained and modernised. He was the principal founderof the first Japanese art academy.Okakura visited Santiniketan and had a powerful influence on Rabindranath Tagoreand Abanindranath Tagore. Let’s recall 1. Fill in the blanks: (a) The art form which observed carefully and tried to capture exactly what the eye saw is called _________. (b) The style of painting which showed Indian landscape as a quaint, unexplored land is called _________. (c) Paintings which showed the social lives of Europeans in India are called _________. (d) Paintings which depicted scenes from British imperial history and their victories are called _________. 2. Point out which of the following were brought in with British art: (a) oil painting (b) miniatures (c) life-size portrait painting (d) use of perspective (e) mural art 3. Describe in your own words one painting from this chapter which suggests that the British were more powerful than Indians. How does the artist depict this? 4. Why did the scroll painters and potters come to Kalighat? Why did they begin to paint new themes? 5. Why can we think of Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings as national? Let’s discuss 6. In what way did the British history paintings in India reflect the attitudes of imperial conquerors? 7. Why do you think some artists wanted to develop a national style of art? 8. Why did some artists produce cheap popular prints? What influence would such prints have had on the minds of people who looked at them? Let’s do 9. Look at any tradition of art in your locality. Find out how it has changed in the last 50 years. You may check who supports the artists, and who looks at their art. Remember to examine the changes in styles and themes.



Tribals, Dikus and the Vision of a Golden Age

Our Past-3

Birsa was born in a family of Mundas – a tribal group that lived in Chottanagpur. But his followers included other tribals of the region – Santhals and Oraons. All of them in different ways were unhappy with the changes they were experiencing and the problems they were facing under British rule. Their familiar ways of life seemed to be disappearing, their livelihoods were under threat, and their religion appeared to be in danger.

Fig. 1 – Women of the Dongria Kandha tribe in Orissa wade through the river on the way to the market

What problems did Birsa set out to resolve? Who were the outsiders being referred to as dikus, and how did they enslave the people of the region? What was happening to the tribal people under the British? How did their lives change? These are some of the questions you will read about in this chapter.

You have read about tribal societies last year. Most tribes had customs and rituals that were very different from those laid down by Brahmans. These societies also did not have the sharp social divisions that were characteristic of caste societies. All those who belonged to the same tribe thought of themselves as sharing common ties of kinship. However, this did not mean that there were no social and economic differences within tribes.

How Did Tribal Groups Live?

By the nineteenth century, tribal people in different parts of India were involved in a variety of activities.

Some were jhum cultivators

Some of them practised jhum cultivation, that is, shifting cultivation. This was done on small patches of land, mostly in forests. The cultivators cut the treetops to allow sunlight to reach the ground, and burnt the vegetation on the land to clear it for cultivation. They spread the ash from the firing, which contained potash, to fertilise the soil. They used the axe to cut trees and the hoe to scratch the soil in order to prepare it for cultivation. They broadcast the seeds, that is, scattered the seeds on the field instead of ploughing the land and sowing the seeds. Once the crop was ready and harvested, they moved to another field. A field that had been cultivated once was left fallow for several years,

Shifting cultivators were found in the hilly and forested tracts of north-east and central India. The lives of these tribal people depended on free movement within forests and on being able to use the land and forests for growing their crops. That is the only way they could practise shifting cultivation.

Fallow – A field left uncultivated for a while so that the soil recovers fertility

Sal  A tree

Mahua – A flower that is eaten or used to make alcohol

Some were hunters and gatherers

In many regions tribal groups lived by hunting animals and gathering forest produce. They saw forests as essential for survival. The Khonds were such a community living in the forests of Orissa. They regularly went out on collective hunts and then divided the meat amongst themselves. They ate fruits and roots collected from the forest and cooked food with the oil they extracted from the seeds of the sal and mahua. They used many forest shrubs and herbs for medicinal purposes, and sold forest produce in the local markets. The local weavers and leather workers turned to the Khonds when they needed supplies of kusum and palash flowers to colour their clothes and leather.

Fig. 2 – Dongria Kandha women in Orissa take home pandanus leaves from the forest to make plates

From where did these forest people get their supplies of rice and other grains? At times they exchanged goods – getting what they needed in return for their valuable forest produce. At other times they bought goods with the small amount of earnings they had. Some of them did odd jobs in the villages, carrying loads or building roads, while others laboured in the fields of peasants and farmers. When supplies of forest produce shrank, tribal people had to increasingly wander around in search of work as labourers. But many of them – like the Baigas of central India – were reluctant to do work for others. The Baigas saw themselves as people of the forest, who could only live on the produce of the forest. It was below the dignity of a Baiga to become a labourer.

Fig. 3 – Location of some tribal groups in India

Tribal groups often needed to buy and sell in order to be able to get the goods that were not produced within the locality. This led to their dependence on traders and moneylenders. Traders came around with things for sale, and sold the goods at high prices. Moneylenders gave loans with which the tribals met their cash needs, adding to what they earned. But the interest charged on the loans was usually very high. So for the tribals, market and commerce often meant debt and poverty. They therefore came to see the moneylender and trader as evil outsiders and the cause of their misery.

Some herded animals

Many tribal groups lived by herding and rearing animals. They were pastoralists who moved with their herds of cattle or sheep according to the seasons. When the grass in one place was exhausted, they moved to another area. The Van Gujjars of the Punjab hills and the Labadis of Andhra Pradesh were cattle herders, the Gaddis of Kulu were shepherds, and the Bakarwals of Kashmir reared goats. You will read more about them in your history book next year.

Source 1

A time to hunt, a time to sow, a time to move to a new field

Have you ever noticed that people living in different types of societies do not share the same notion of work and time? The lives of the shifting cultivators and hunters in different regions were regulated by a calendar and division of tasks for men and women.

Verrier Elwin, a British anthropologist who lived among the Baigas and Khonds of central India for many years in the 1930s and 1940s, gives us a picture of what this calendar and division of tasks was like. He writes:

In Chait women went to clearings to ... cut stalks that were already reaped; men cut large trees and go for their ritual hunt. The hunt began at full moon from the east. Traps of bamboo were used for hunting. The women gathered fruits like sago, tamarind and mushroom. Baiga women can only gather roots or kanda and mahuaseeds. Of all the adivasis in Central India, the Baigas were known as the best hunters … In Baisakh the firing of the forest took place, the women gathered unburnt wood to burn. Men continued to hunt, but nearer their villages. In Jeth sowing took place and hunting still went on. From Asadh to Bhadon the men worked in the fields. In Kuar the first fruits of beans were ripened and in Kartik kutki became ripe. InAghan every crop was ready and in Pus winnowing took place. Pus was also the time for dances and marriages. In Magh shifts were made to new bewars and hunting-gathering was the main subsistence activity.

The cycle described above took place in the first year. In the second year there was more time for hunting as only a few crops had to be sown and harvested. But since there was enough food the men lived in the bewars. It was only in the third year that the diet had to be supplemented with the forest products.

Adapted from Verrier Elwin, Baiga (1939) and Elwin’s unpublished ‘Notes on the Khonds’ (Verrier Elwin Papers, Nehru Memorial Museum and Library)

Fig. 4 – A Santhal girl carrying firewood, Bihar, 1946

Children go with their mothers to the forest to gather forest produce. 


Look carefully at the tasks that Baiga men and women did. Do you see any pattern? What were the differences in the types of work that they were expected to perform?

Some took to settled cultivation

Even before the nineteenth century, many from within the tribal groups had begun settling down, and cultivating their fields in one place year after year, instead of moving from place to place. They began to use the plough, and gradually got rights over the land they lived on. In many cases, like the Mundas of Chottanagpur, the land belonged to the clan as a whole. All members of the clan were regarded as descendants of the original settlers, who had first cleared the land. Therefore, all of them had rights on the land. Very often some people within the clan acquired more power than others, some became chiefs and others followers. Powerful men often rented out their land instead of cultivating it themselves.

Bewar – A term used in Madhya Pradesh for shifting cultivation

British officials saw settled tribal groups like the Gonds and Santhals as more civilised than hunter-gatherers or shifting cultivators. Those who lived in the forests were considered to be wild and savage: they needed to be settled and civilised.

How Did Colonial Rule Affect Tribal Lives?

The lives of tribal groups changed during British rule. Let us see what these changes were.

What happened to tribal chiefs?

Before the arrival of the British, in many areas the tribal chiefs were important people. They enjoyed a certain amount of economic power and had the right to administer and control their territories. In some places they had their own police and decided on the local rules of land and forest management. Under British rule, the functions and powers of the tribal chiefs changed considerably. They were allowed to keep their land titles over a cluster of villages and rent out lands, but they lost much of their administrative power and were forced to follow laws made by British officials in India. They also had to pay tribute to the British, and discipline the tribal groups on behalf of the British. They lost the authority they had earlier enjoyed amongst their people, and were unable to fulfil their traditional functions.

Fig. 5 – A log house being built in a village of the Nishi tribes of Arunachal Pradesh.

The entire village helps when log huts are built.

What happened to the shifting cultivators?

The British were uncomfortable with groups who moved about and did not have a fixed home. They wanted tribal groups to settle down and become peasant cultivators. Settled peasants were easier to control and administer than people who were always on the move. The British also wanted a regular revenue source for the state. So they introduced land settlements – that is, they measured the land, defined the rights of each individual to that land, and fixed the revenue demand for the state. Some peasants were declared landowners, others tenants. As you have seen (Chapter 2), the tenants were to pay rent to the landowner who in turn paid revenue to the state.

Fig. 6 – Bhil women cultivating in a forest in Gujarat

Shifting cultivation continues in many forest areas of Gujarat. You can see that trees have been cut and land cleared to create patches for cultivation.

Fig. 7 – Tribal workers in a rice field in Andhra Pradesh Note the difference between rice cultivation in the flat plains and in the forests.

The British effort to settle jhum cultivators was not very successful. Settled plough cultivation is not easy in areas where water is scarce and the soil is dry. In fact, jhumcultivators who took to plough cultivation often suffered, since their fields did not produce good yields. So the jhum cultivators in north-east India insisted on continuing with their traditional practice. Facing widespread protests, the British had to ultimately allow them the right to carry on shifting cultivation in some parts of the forest.

Forest laws and their impact

The life of tribal groups, as you have seen, was directly connected to the forest. So changes in forest laws had a considerable effect on tribal lives. The British extended their control over all forests and declared that forests were state property. Some forests were classified as Reserved Forests for they produced timber which the British wanted. In these forests people were not allowed to move freely, practise jhumcultivation, collect fruits, or hunt animals. How were jhum cultivators to survive in such a situation? Many were therefore forced to move to other areas in search of work and livelihood.

Sleeper – The horizontal planks of wood on which railway lines are laid

But once the British stopped the tribal people from living inside forests, they faced a problem. From where would the Forest Department get its labour to cut trees for railway sleepers and to transport logs?

Colonial officials came up with a solution. They decided that they would give jhumcultivators small patches of land in the forests and allow them to cultivate these on the condition that those who lived in the villages would have to provide labour to the Forest Department and look after the forests. So in many regions the Forest Department established forest villages to ensure a regular supply of cheap labour.

Source 2

“In this land of the English how hard it is to live”

In the1930s Verrier Elwin visited the land of the Baigas – a tribal group in central India. He wanted to know about them – their customs and practices, their art and folklore. He recorded many songs that lamented the hard time the Baigas were having under British rule.

In this land of the English how hard it is to live

How hard it is to live

In the village sits the landlord

In the gate sits the Kotwar

In the garden sits the Patwari

In the field sits the government

In this land of the English how hard it is to live

To pay cattle tax we have to sell cow

To pay forest tax we have to sell buffalo

To pay land tax we have to sell bullock

How are we to get our food?

In this land of the English

Quoted in Verrier Elwin and Shamrao Hivale, Songs of the Maikal, p. 316.

Many tribal groups reacted against the colonial forest laws. They disobeyed the new rules, continued with practices that were declared illegal, and at times rose in open rebellion. Such was the revolt of Songram Sangma in 1906 in Assam, and the forest satyagraha of the 1930s in the Central Provinces.

The problem with trade

During the nineteenth century, tribal groups found that traders and money-lenders were coming into the forests more often, wanting to buy forest produce, offering cash loans, and asking them to work for wages. It took tribal groups some time to understand the consequences of what was happening.

Let us consider the case of the silk growers. In the eighteenth century, Indian silk was in demand in European markets. The fine quality of Indian silk was highly valued and exports from India increased rapidly. As the market expanded, East India Company officials tried to encourage silk production to meet the growing demand.

Fig. 8 – Godara women weaving

Fig. 9 – A Hajang woman weaving a mat

For women, domestic work was not confined to the home. They carried their babies with them to the fields and the factories.
Hazaribagh, in present-day Jharkhand, was an area where the Santhals reared cocoons. The traders dealing in silk sent in their agents who gave loans to the tribal people and collected the cocoons. The growers were paid Rs 3 to Rs 4 for a thousand cocoons. These were then exported to Burdwan or Gaya where they were sold at five times the price. The middlemen – so called because they arranged deals between the exporters and silk growers – made huge profits. The silk growers earned very little. Understandably, many tribal groups saw the market and the traders as their main enemies.

Fig. 10 – Coal miners of Bihar, 1948

In the 1920s about 50 per cent of the miners in the Jharia and Raniganj coal mines of Bihar were tribals. Work deep down in the dark and suffocating mines was not only back-breaking and dangerous, it was often literally killing. In the 1920s over 2,000 workers died every year in the coal mines in India.

The search for work

The plight of the tribals who had to go far away from their homes in search of work was even worse. From the late nineteenth century, tea plantations started coming up and mining became an important industry. Tribals were recruited in large numbers to work the tea plantations of Assam and the coal mines of Jharkhand. They were recruited through contractors who paid them miserably low wages, and prevented them from returning home.

A Closer Look

Through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, tribal groups in different parts of the country rebelled against the changes in laws, the restrictions on their practices, the new taxes they had to pay, and the exploitation by traders and moneylenders. The Kols rebelled in 1831-32, Santhals rose in revolt in 1855, the Bastar Rebellion in central India broke out in 1910 and the Warli Revolt in Maharashtra in 1940. The movement that Birsa led was one such movement.


Find out whether the conditions of work in the mines have changed now. Check how many people die in mines every year, and what are the reasons for their death.

Birsa Munda

Birsa was born in the mid-1870s. The son of a poor father, he grew up around the forests of Bohonda, grazing sheep, playing the flute, and dancing in the local akhara. Forced by poverty, his father had to move from place to place looking for work. As an adolescent, Birsa heard tales of the Munda uprisings of the past and saw thesirdars (leaders) of the community urging the people to revolt. They talked of a golden age when the Mundas had been free of the oppression of dikus, and said there would be a time when the ancestral right of the community would be restored. They saw themselves as the descendants of the original settlers of the region, fighting for their land (mulk ki larai), reminding people of the need to win back their kingdom.

Birsa went to the local missionary school, and listened to the sermons of missionaries. There too he heard it said that it was possible for the Mundas to attain the Kingdom of Heaven, and regain their lost rights. This would be possible if they became good Christians and gave up their “bad practices”. Later Birsa also spent some time in the company of a prominent Vaishnav preacher. He wore the sacred thread, and began to value the importance of purity and piety.

Source 3

‘Blood trickles from my shoulders’

The songs the Mundas sang bemoaned their misery.

Alas! under [the drudgery of] forced labour

Blood trickles from my shoulders

Day and night the emissary from the zamindars,

Annoys and irritates me, day and night I groan

Alas! This is my condition

I do not have a home, where shall I get happiness


K.S. Singh, Birsa Munda and His Movement, p.12.

Birsa was deeply influenced by many of the ideas he came in touch with in his growing-up years. His movement was aimed at reforming tribal society. He urged the Mundas to give up drinking liquor, clean their village, and stop believing in witchcraft and sorcery. But we must remember that Birsa also turned against missionaries and Hindu landlords. He saw them as outside forces that were ruining the Munda way of life.

Vaishnav – Worshippers of Vishnu

In 1895 Birsa urged his followers to recover their glorious past. He talked of a golden age in the past – a satyug (the age of truth) – when Mundas lived a good life, constructed embankments, tapped natural springs, planted trees and orchards, practised cultivation to earn their living. They did not kill their brethren and relatives. They lived honestly. Birsa also wanted people to once again work on their land, settle down and cultivate their fields.

What worried British officials most was the political aim of the Birsa movement, for it wanted to drive out missionaries, moneylenders, Hindu landlords, and the government and set up a Munda Raj with Birsa at its head. The movement identified all these forces as the cause of the misery the Mundas were suffering. The land policies of the British were destroying their traditional land system, Hindu landlords and moneylenders were taking over their land, and missionaries were criticising their traditional culture.

As the movement spread the British officials decided to act. They arrested Birsa in 1895, convicted him on charges of rioting and jailed him for two years.

When Birsa was released in 1897 he began touring the villages to gather support. He used traditional symbols and language to rouse people, urging them to destroy “Ravana” (dikus and the Europeans) and establish a kingdom under his leadership. Birsa’s followers began targeting the symbols of diku and European power. They attacked police stations and churches, and raided the property of moneylenders and zamindars. They raised the white flag as a symbol of Birsa Raj.

In 1900 Birsa died of cholera and the movement faded out. However, the movement was significant in at least two ways. First – it forced the colonial government to introduce laws so that the land of the tribals could not be easily taken over by dikus. Second – it showed once again that the tribal people had the capacity to protest against injustice and express their anger against colonial rule. They did this in their own specific way, inventing their own rituals and symbols of struggle.


Why do we need cash!

There are many reasons why tribal and other social groups often do not wish to produce for the market. This tribal song from Papua New Guinea gives us a glimpse of how the tribals there viewed the market.

We say cash,

Is unsatisfactory trash;

It won’t keep off rain

And it gives me pain

So why should I work my guts

From coconut trees

For these government mutts;

Cash cropping is all very well

If you’ve got something to sell

But tell me sir why,

If there’s nothing to buy;

Should I bother?

Adapted from a song quoted in Cohn, Clarke and Haswell, eds, The Economy of Subsistence Agriculture, (1970). 

Let’s recall

1. Fill in the blanks:

(a) The British described the tribal people as ____________.

(b) The method of sowing seeds in jhum cultivation is known as ____________.

(c) The tribal chiefs got ____________ titles in central India under the British land settlements.

(d) Tribals went to work in the ____________ of Assam and the ____________ in Bihar.

2. State whether true or false:

(a) Jhum cultivators plough the land and sow seeds.

(b) Cocoons were bought from the Santhals and sold by the traders at five times the purchase price.

(c) Birsa urged his followers to purify themselves, give up drinking liquor and stop believing in witchcraft and sorcery.

(d) The British wanted to preserve the tribal way of life.

Let’s imagine

Imagine you are a jhum cultivator living in a forest village in the nineteenth century. You have just been told that the land you were born on no longer belongs to you. In a meeting with British officials you try to explain the kinds of problems you face. What would you say?

Let’s discuss

3. What problems did shifting cultivators face under British rule?

4. How did the powers of tribal chiefs change under colonial rule?

5. What accounts for the anger of the tribals against the dikus?

6. What was Birsa’s vision of a golden age? Why do you think such a vision appealed to the people of the region?

Let’s do

7. Find out from your parents, friends or teachers, the names of some heroes of other tribal revolts in the twentieth century. Write their story in your own words.

8. Choose any tribal group living in India today. Find out about their customs and way of life, and how their lives have changed in the last 50 years.

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