Accommodating an Indigenous History

India’s financial capital does infantilise its own indigenous history. But it also celebrates the past.

The city of Mumbai is located close to regions with significant adivasi populations—the Kathkaris, Warlis and Thakkars, for instance. The metropolis has been carved out as much from the hilly forested lands that surround its northern regions, as from the sea in the south.

While the global image of the metropolis is dominated by density, epitomised in the statistical extremes of its slums, what is often overlooked is that it also manages to conserve—under huge constraints no doubt—tropical forests within its metropolitan region.

Within these forests, and often spreading into the agrarian hinterlands beyond, are traditional indigenous communities squeezed between urban and rural land regimes, both of which view them suspiciously. For trekkers in Sanjay Gandhi National Park their humble weed-and-mud structures look a lot like an urban slum, while for settled farmers they are an inconvenient presence on the peripheries of their fields, only useful as a cheap source of labour.

An oversimplified history

In the standard narrative of human societies, indigenous groups are seen as being low on an evolutionary scale, which eventually evolve into rural societies before finally becoming complex urbanised ones. Such a scale, like most evolutionary tales, is an oversimplification. Such claims are not testified by history. Even a casual look at a big city like Mumbai will show right away that an urban fabric is often discontinuous and contradictory. Mumbai continues to have urban villages—even without a rural economy, and remains home to several indigenous communities.

Many are absorbed into its workforce doing simple traditional activities like broom-making, some as municipal workers, or as regular participants in its mainstream commercial activities. At the same time there are impoverished itinerant communities that occupy streets and pavements much like they would live on the edge of settled villages in rural areas. Then there are those that manage to survive in traditional forested habitats amongst the still green periphery of the expanding megalopolis.

Like the colonial gaze that shaped the city’s perspectives on migrants and marginal groups, Mumbai also infantilises its own indigenous history. It does, however, absorb, co-opt and celebrate aspects of that history—like the Warli art which is so ubiquitous in the city that it makes people overlook the powerful imagination that artists from the community continue to project on their realities around. In spite of the rich scholarship on Warli art, it is often dismissed as a naive celebration of nature and primitive habitat.

Forced into expected roles

Indigenous communities have for long been represented as custodians of human innocence. If they strayed from this imposed image, they were quickly pushed back. If the Agaria ironsmith tribes of central India worshipped the metal, and saw the first railways as an enterprise that could be absorbed into their traditional mythology, they were actually thwarted from doing so.

Colonial legislation not only prevented them from mining in their traditional, sustainable way but also ensured that they were stripped of these ‘modern’ taints. Like many other tribal communities with complex worldviews, they were pushed back into their expected role as simple nature worshippers, and ultimately converted into cheap labour in the same iron and mining economy that they once dominated.

Mumbai’s own colonial physiology also makes it ambivalent to its indigenous legacy. Yet it has begun to relate to some of its aspects with a degree of openness. And the communities also respond with vigour and spirit. This interplay of contrary impulses continues to make the city’s relationship to Warli art for instance, relevant, and worth harnessing, celebrating or at the very least acknowledging as being an extension of the rural-urban complexities that make up life in India—even for its most modern of metropolis.