Oral History

Modern constructs of linear time become superfluous in interactions with the tribal communities of western India. For the Warlis, Koknas, Malhar Kolis. Katkaris scattered acrosss the foothills of the Sahyadari range in north west Maharashtra, life is one continuous spiral beginning with the onset of the monsoons and the planting of rice, to reach a crescendo with harvest. Life and death are part of an eternal continuum deeply linked with nature.  Death came upon man because he humilated Mother Earth, they say. 

Communities with a legacy of exploitation and cultural subjugation, the Warlis currently living in Dahanu, Jawahar, Mokhada, Talaseri, Dadra Nagarhaveli upto the south of the Dangs district in Gujarat, have no recorded history of their own. With a chequered history of colonisation by the Portuguese, the Marathas and the British, the Warli identity has inevitably been constructed by the 'outsider'.  

The Tribal Worldview
For the Warlis, recollections of their past and interpretations of the present continue to be passed down through oral traditions. A vibrant oral culture is expressed in their language and symbols, myths and rituals, legends and sagas. A tongue and cheek folklore recited by the Warli village story teller, (the “thalawala”)  warns of the greedy Parsi landlord and his ways. The myth of creation and of death reveals a deep reverence for nature.

However, tribal cultures are considered to be societies without a history. Conservative historiography has passed its judgement by more often than not, considering their vibrant living traditions to be the only within the rubric of myth and ritual.

Moreover oral folklore and narratives have been devalued, privileging literate societies over oral ones thereby exerting a cultural domination over these societies. Invariably these societies are culturally marginalised and the voices of the community remain confined to the collective memory of their story tellers. Communities thus stand disqualified from self represention - to speak for themselves, about the world in which they live and the one they would want to create.

Documenting the lives of the “Warlis” is but a small  attempt to redress this huge disadvantage. For tribal societies do have a rich oral tradition in which their collective memories are recorded. It is a living tradition and a changing one precisely because  it is still alive today. Contextualising, interpreting and presenting these stories would contribute in reconstructing a proud subaltern identity.

With this belief, Tamarind Tree, in collaboration with Nomad initiated the community driven Oral History project in the western region of India with an emphasis on the Warli and Kokna tribes.   Under this we have collected more than 100 hours of archival footage.