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Media imaginations of the collective: A subaltern perspective

in: Imaginations, Narratives and Mediated Performances of Solidarity and Community. Ed. by Nadja-Christina Schneider and Maitrayee Chaudhuri (2021)

Published onDec 22, 2021
Media imaginations of the collective: A subaltern perspective

In this paper, I draw from my study of media archives, literature review, in-depth interviews with Adivasis, development actors, government officials, and NGO activists. It involved a year of ethnography in Attappady Hills between 2016 and 2017. This paper starts with the description of the community and the region and goes on to examine the social construction of the Adivasis through media. It examines how Adivasis understand this representation and how they are beginning to engage with new media opportunities to create new collective identities and solidarity with Adivasi struggles. Through this paper, I seek to bring out (I) indigenous repertoires of communal life, and (II) how their everyday expressions in work and leisure can become an archive for communal ways of living.

Beyond Social Cohesion: Global Repertoires of Living Together (henceforth Replito) takes marginalized repertoires of living together as its starting point to rethink social cohesion from a transregional perspective. Its interest is in imaginations, narratives, and mediated performances of solidarity and community. It conceptualizes solidarity from various perspectives; ubuntu a relational and interconnected approach to the experience of living together. Quilombo involves political strategies and practices of living together. Quilombo is a politics of and for life. The Mohalla, the smallest societal organization in the cities of Central and South Asia is also brought out as a repertoire of living together and welfare.  The concern of this article is with indigenous repertoires of coexistence and how the fourth world can contribute to the discussion on social cohesion. Adivasis value their ethnic identity over that of the individual or the state. Their societies are non-hierarchical and have had high levels of cooperation.  There is also a contiguous relationship in the indigenous world between the human and non-human world. Although these relational values are altering nonetheless, they have been hallmarks of these societies.

This article seeks to answer the following questions. Could indigenous notions of solidarity among themselves and between the human and non-human world help in re-envisioning our imaginations of solidarity? Could indigenous repertoires of living that have been neglected be part of a knowledge system? Can media production engage with indigenous modes of coexistence? How can indigenous ideas of coexistence help us rethink our imaginations of solidarity?

This is not easy. For both dominant common sense, policymaking and academic writings on indigenous people have long tended to see them as subjects of poverty and privation[Singh, B, 2021]. They fail to see the community as people in the manner a member of the community would. For instance, an Adivasi development worker in Attappady Kandaswamy who has a degree is employed in the state department and is a development worker cringed when he was asked about malnutrition among his people. Instead, he wanted media representation of Attappady to be multidimensional and capture the richness of their quotidian lives. He wanted to feel proud of their heritage, their homeland in the hills, and themselves as a people.

The wider social fields within which media operates are crucial in understanding these contestations of the emergent Adivasi identity. Media is not an external institution but is entangled in almost all spheres of political, economic, social, and cultural life [Chaudhari, M, 2015]. Adivasis are also consumers of cable television and through that sport and cinema. They are not aware of the media portrayal of their own society but watch football on television. They hire people to advertise their healing through websites. There is access to media but asymmetry in knowledge. There is a convergence of ignorance and instant access with the emergence of new media. It gives instant access to people and institutions but does not mean equal or informed access to content (Ibid).

Adivasi homes with dish antennae for cable television. Almost all the homes in the settlement of Bommyampady in Pudur Panchayath had cable television.

At the same time, there are attempts by the community to represent themselves as models of solidarity and coexistence.

The Communities and the Early Representations

Irulas, Kurumbas, and Mudugas are the indigenous communities of the Attappady Hills. Ethnographic accounts from the 20th century by E. Thurston mention that these forest tribes had taken to agriculture but most of them continued to keep to the hills living upon roots and wild animals and bartering forest produce or grains[Thurston, 1909]. The Postcolonial Indian State’s Western Ghats Development Scheme of the ’70s was targeted at the settlement of Adivasis in cooperative farming societies. The farms raised plantation crops like coffee, cardamom, pepper. Among the Irulas and Mudugas shifting cultivation had come to a standstill by 1971. Today only the Kurumbas practice slash and burn cultivation in designated zones. Irulas live in the buffer and the fringes of Attappady forests and the Mudugas and Kurumbas live in the core areas.

The earliest media reports on Attappady were from the “newspaper archives of The Hindu” archives in the ’60s while ethnographic accounts were from the 20 century. In both sets of representations, the forests are depicted as remote and illegible and the Adivasis as frontier communities who have to be brought under the gaze of the state.

One of the earliest media reports on the Attappady Valley is a heroic expedition by a government official from Cannanore to make a settlement investigation. WRS Satthianadhan’s report written for The Hindu is written like a colonial shikar (hunting) expedition in the native forests into deep elephant territory. “Attappady Hills was deadly malarious and no officer was supposed to stay the night in this valley[Satthianadhan, 1961].“Villages were widely spaced about 10 miles apart and cultivation was simple and crude consisting of a few pieces of cultivation with coarse millets and paddy. The hillmen ate practically everything they could get their hands on roots, rats, mice, and a coarse type of rice and whatever vegetable was available[Ibid]” In the development discourse of the ’70s, these Adivasis were reported to be living in a state of primitiveness. According to a media report, tribals lacked knowledge of modern agriculture, and farming cooperatives of plantation crops were established. Joint farming was also a strategy to sedantarise Adivasis and bring the forests and people under the state gaze. “Adivasis were unwilling to give up their nomadic existence in the forests though a better life was awaiting them in the settlements.” There were reports of malnutrition from Anavayi, an interior forest village of the Kurumbas in early 1980. The District Collector send a medical team to Anavayi after reports of distress and “affliction of an unknown disease” [(The Hindu, 20.12.1981)]. The team found that the disease was malnutrition. As the monsoon had lasted longer that year the Adivasis ran out of their subsistence stock of millets.

The reports in the media in the ’70s were portrayals of tribals as “backward,” “living in a state of primitiveness” and lacking interest in postcolonial India’s modernization process. “Resistance to modernity from tradition,” read the report on the reluctance of the Adivasis in joining cooperative farms set up for them(The Hindu,1979). In the seventies, the Kerala government proposed a hydroelectric project in Silent Valley National Park in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve adjacent to the Attappady Forests. A multi-disciplinary team from various scientific institutions and government departments carried out an expedition and lead the protests against it. The Hindu carried their findings in a one-page special report of the findings of scientists and the Kerala Sahitya and Shastriya Parishat.  The Silent Valley is the “Cradle of Biological Evolution” it said.  It contains India’s last substantial stretch of tropical evergreen forests with the most complex and diverse vegetational communities. “Once you cut away the forests, No soil No agriculture.’’

An interesting media report from the ’80s on the Kurumbas of Anavayi mentions that the money spent on tribal development has benefitted the settlers. The demand for development now comes not from the tribals but from settlers. “They want roads, electricity, irrigation, drinking water, schools, and so on. The money will have to come from the funds for tribal development.” The tenuous relationship between the Adivasis and the settlers has dictated development. From 2013 to 2017 infant mortality and malnutrition dominated the media coverage. The titles of the media reports read: “Victims of development,” “Criminal Neglect takes a toll on Adivasi Tribes,” “Why death stalks infants of Kerala’s lone tribal block” “The Land Betrayal” “Infant deaths continue in Attappady”, “Restore land to tribals Allow them to be self-reliant.”

It was with the malnutrition deaths that the representation of Attappady crystallized not just as a region of deep poverty but as a symbol of deprivation both within Kerala and nationally. Alternate media highlight the glaring paradox that in March 2017 Kerala state-reported India’s lowest infant mortality rate-six per 1000 children under the age of one according to the National Family Health Survey 2015-16. It was reported that the infant mortality in Attappady at 66 is closer to that in South Sudan and is much higher than India’s national average of 40[Sreedevi RS, Indiaspend, 15.4.2017] . In fact, the startling disparity that equates  Attappady in Kerala state with an African country becomes the trope for stark deprivation on several human development indicators within a state that otherwise has achieved European standards on these indices.


Source: These are figures from Census 2011, World Bank 2015, All India Institute of Medical Sciences from Indiaspend

Right from the eighties, Attappady has been appearing in the national media for the precarious situation of the Adivasis in terms of health especially malnutrition. The AHADS status report of 2008 mentioned that there were hunger deaths before the project began. But it was in 2013 at the end of the project that the deaths increased. In 2013 the headlines read “Silent Genocide in Attappady” “Death of a way of life” “One more tribal infant death in Attappady” “Another child dies; malnutrition death toll goes up to 35”[1] “Survey: 80% of infants in Attappady malnourished” “Deaths from poor protein intake”. The Pioneer that year reported an All India Institute of Medical Sciences Delhi study that found the average life expectancy of the Adivasis in Attappadi had fallen from 70 years in 1975 to 66 in 2002 and further fell to 59 in 2010. The average life expectancy for Kerala as a whole is 75 years. While the infant deaths came down in the following three years the headlines were the same “Death stalks Attappady babies” “Tribal infant dies in Attappady.” With eight deaths already in the first six months of 2017 Attappady story continues “Death continues to stalk Attappadys tribal infants.” The malnutrition deaths were not however seen in earlier reports even if there were accounts of how medicine was taken into the interior villages which people clamored for. 

The tracking of infant deaths which had risen from 10 to 30 for 500 odd Adivasi births from 2010 to 2013 was definitely a cause for concern. The sustained attention that the media gave to the agrarian distress helped to bring down the infant deaths by 2016 to 8 and 2017 to 13. The Kerala Health Department has been able to improve the health indicators of this region. The media in its part highlighted the anomaly. Collating a UNICEF Report (2013), Institute of Nutrition Report (2013) and an independent study from Dr. Ekbal Committee Report (2013), a report in the economic and political weekly found that infant mortality had increased due to the loss of indigenous food systems, poor public distribution systems, loss of employment opportunities had lead to malnutrition [A.D. Mankandan, EPW, 2014]. 3 “Why Kerala’s development story does not reach Attappady’s tribals”, read an alternative media report that dealt with the debate on why the years of development have not translated to better living standards for Adivasis([Sreedevi R S, Indiaspend, 2017].

The Adivasi perception

Adivasis themselves knew little of “sishu maranam” or infant deaths happening in their midst. Some of them have not even heard of it, others said it is not something that happens in their village but they had heard of it in other parts of Attappady and still others said they know nothing about it except they remember watching it on television. Adivasi mothers who had lost an infant complained that it brought various press persons and television crews to their inaccessible villages and only then did the health workers begin to share some concern.

Years of the social construction of Attappady as a forest frontier inhabited by Adivasis has driven the raison d’etre of the development discourse. The spike in infant mortality has been controlled but at the cost of exerting biopower over the Adivasi population. The Adivasi has become a symbol for a slew of development interventions but the community is facing near-drought and discrimination in caste-ridden Kerala society. In its social construction as a forest frontier and indigenous homeland, the region becomes a site of consumption for its natural resources by the plains.

New Avenues and being sidelined in media production

Baby D, an Adivasi animator and a development activist in a women’s self-help group was in a hurry to go to the development office when I approached her with a questionnaire in her village Nakupathi Pirav in 2014. She along with a few other women were called to be part of a film that was being made on Adivasis by state development officials. Baby, at 33 years was the mother of three children, having got married at the age of 13. As an animator, she was part of many activities like this documentary film and was also training to retake the school-leaving exam. Although her own daughter had fallen in love and wanted to drop out of school, Baby was keen on the opportunities that came from development including media productions. On another day, I ran into Kadamma, Nanjamma, and others at Gulikadava where a bunch of Adivasis had gathered. They were being called to the development center for a performance as a minister was visiting. I joined them and learned that 65-year-old Kadamma is a dancer and Nanjanna is a very talented singer. Nanjamma trained a bunch of Adivasi boys to sing and do their traditional dance in a ring on some mornings. Adivasi singers and those who played the drums were often called to perform at festivals. Recently my mother told me that she saw an Attappady Adivasi lady singing on Malayalam regional television channel. It turned out that Nanjamma had sung for “Ayyappanum and Kosyhiyam”, a Malayalam film, and was on various Malayalam television channels. Some of the Adivasis also danced in Valutha Rathrigal (White Nights), a film adaptation of Dostoyevsky set in Attappady. Although some individual Adivasis are getting recognition in the media sphere and it is opening new avenues, most of their talent and pride in their performance traditions is being lost. Alcoholism is high among Adivasi youth including drum players. Most of the films on Adivasis are made by state or independent development actors. “Aggedu Nayaga” or “Mother Tongue” is a film directed by the teacher and filmmaker Sindhu Sajan on the lives of Adivasi children in Malayalam Medium schools. It is a touching portrayal of Adivasi children who do not understand the language of instruction and are punished for it. Adivasis of the region have their own performances of theatre, song, and dance which bind them together in kinship through the enactment and performance. “The alienation of culture, performance, and development of the Adivasi Kurumbas of Attappady” is an account of the rupture in the performative element of their lives with settler colonialism[Mokeri, R. (2000)] Adivasis continue to have their songs and dances during sowing, harvests, death ceremonies or “chir” however, its social significance has reduced and it has acquired some display value[( Benjamin, 1935) ]. Some of Attappady Adivasi songs and dance performances have started to appear on youtube. While these media clips have removed it from the realm of tradition it has helped forge trans-local connections and create solidarity with indigenous peoples.

The traditional drum of the Kurumbas in Anavayi Moopans house and tea shop in Anavayi

Adivasi youth often sing and dance in friendly competition at the Attappady Adivasi Development Initiative at Mattathukadu. This non-state establishment that has worked in the region for 20 years was set up to promote and preserve culture, language, art forms, and indigenous knowledge of Adivasis. It has an ethnobotanical center where Adivasi healers provide treatment as also a kala sangham and adi kala sangham where children’s talent is nurtured. While state development initiatives have focused on livelihoods, conservation, and women’s self-help groups this initiative focuses on cultural traditions and practices of Adivasis. Fr Lenin Antony who has been in charge of this Jesuit institution has traveled across Attappady and documented Adivasi songs. “The values in world religions you can see among the lives of the Adivasis here. I have found they have a tradition of strong community ties and also protect forests while living of it,’’ Fr Lenin Antony told me in an interview at AADI. Adivasi youth are being encouraged to keep their performance and healing traditions alive. The world is at a juncture where it needs the performance-based knowledge of indigenous people. Nonstate interventions could harness the media potential of Adivasi Arts to forge solidarities within and with other communities. As state media has an inbuilt risk of manufacturing consent for the development enterprise building the alternative spaces for Adivasi arts will allow for their future self-representation through media.

“Broken Dreams of Adivasi Women” is a mural represented by broken pots. This was made by a theology student at Attappady Aadivasi Development Initiative which is promoting arts and proving media training for Adivasi youth in Attappady.

Irula communal celebration of Mariamman deity brought many villagers together for the festival

Conclusion: Indigenous repertoires of living together and media imaginations of solidarity

The nature of your heart

determines your mind:

So how can you be enlightened

if you smother your heart?

Bhakthi poetry that started as an oral tradition resonates with indigenous ontologies that recognize the mutuality of all living beings. Attappady Adivasis of the Western Ghat forests of Kerala have had communal and non-hierarchical ways of living that have sustained their agro-pastoralist lives. . Postcolonial development has hastened land transitions brought them under the ambit of the state and settler domination. Their worldview which recognized the entanglements of the human, non-human, and spirit worlds has changed as they imitated settlers. Yet my case study finds that Adivasi women and the forests are forging bonds of solidarity from their marginal positions and are being co-constituted[Kozhisseri, 2020].  Adivasi healers recognize these interconnections and mention they can heal only if they have “manasakshi” or heartfelt empathy.

While media has helped to monitor agrarian distress among them it has socially constructed them as backward marginalized people. This paper argues that this is a problematic social construction of the Adivasis. It examines the representation of the emerging Adivasi subject through media by state development actors and other civil society actors. It finds that although Adivasis are finding new avenues through media they continue to be marginalized. Indigenous communities like theirs have had communal ways of living, working on their lands, in their performances, songs, and arts. New media has liquidated the cultic dimension of their songs and performances but also allowed for trans-local collective identities to emerge. Attappady Adivasi themselves are attempting to represent themselves through new media avenues. While these attempts so far have not destabilized current property relations or internal colonization of the Adivasis it has been vital in forging trans-local solidarity. The media representation of Adivasis here and their early attempts at self-representation form an important local context in media configurations[Schneider, 2015]. Their relational indigenous ontology finds token media representation and is also showing signs of renewal with the new Adivasi women’s collectives and forest resurgence. The fourth world then broadens our imagination of communal ways of living to add to Replito’s transregional conversations of coexistence.

Aggedu Nayaga 1 ( the mother tongue - part 1 )



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