Anyone who has had some meaningful interaction with India’s indigenous or, commonly known as adivasi people, cannot fail to be touched by the encounter. There is directness in them, an absence of artifice or guile, an almost childlike innocence in the eyes, born of simplicity with no trace of greed and avarice. I recently had one such encounter with the people of the forests.
A two-day festival to cherish the uncultivated forest food was held for the first time at Sri Aurobindo Centre for Arts and Communication. Tribes from Orissa, Meghalaya, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan presented a variety of fruits, vegetables, and herbs and spices straight from the jungles.
The most captivating thing about the festival was its ambience. The modest decoration that was done by the use of bamboos, baskets and bright cloths gave a very earthy touch to the place. The aroma of the food spreading across the place was strong enough to whet the appetite for the tribal food. A generous amount of rice with boiled vegetables cooked in tribal spices were served on a big pattal (plate made of leaves), along with it a chunky piece of boiled corn was served; the food was steaming hot which made it a perfect lunch on a chilling afternoon in December.
The food was served for free and visitors were asked to donate as per their wish. I personally appreciated the idea of donation; people felt a stronger connection with the tribal communities.
Other than the food, tribal utensils made out of wood and shells of vegetables and fruits, woven baskets of different shapes and sizes, agricultural tools and of course the musical instruments were at display. Almost everyone present were baffled to see them creating music with anything and everything; the list includes various authentic musical instruments and also weird items like, leaves, barks, pots and even animal horns.
Tribal economy is subsistence oriented. It is based on food gathering, hunting and fishing and thus revolves around forests. Even the large tribes like the Santal, Munda, Oram and Gond, who are settled agriculturists, often supplement their economy with hunting and gathering. India is the home to a large number of indigenous people, who are still untouched by the lifestyle of the modern world. With more than 84.4 million, India has the largest population of tribal people in the world. Of all the states in India, Orissa has the largest number of tribes; as many as 62 tribes. In terms of percentage, they constitute 24 percent of the total population of the state.
Over generations, tribal people have developed complex systems to live well, together on their land. They may be poor in monetary terms but they are rich in other ways. They have good reasons to be proud of their communities and the ways of life they have chosen. Studies have shown that tribal people on their own land are some of the happiest in the world – the nomadic Maasaitribe were found to be just as happy as the world’s richest billionaires. Tribal people are not “backward”, they haven’t been “left behind”. They choose to live on their land, in their own ways.
The forest food festival brought with it the distinctive colours of tribal India. The life of jungle, its beauty and its struggles.
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