SOAS University of London

From Tribal Forest to Urban Jungle

Maria Gond funerary pillar made of saga wood as a memorial after a cremation.   ©Verrier Elwin, India
Photographs from Central India by Verrier Elwin

Date: 12 January 2018Time: 10:30 AM

Finishes: 24 March 2018Time: 5:00 PM

Venue: Brunei Gallery Room: Exhibition Rooms

Type of Event: Exhibition

The traditional Adivasi cultures of Central India are steeped in mythologies, songs and rituals that connect them to their natural environment, but today we hear little about these stories.

Back in 1926, as a young graduate from Merton College Oxford, Verrier Elwin had the promise of a brilliant career ahead. However, his life took an unexpected trajectory when he left for India to engage in social work for the poor as personal reparation for what he perceived was the injustice of British colonial rule.  

This Exhibition of Photographs from Central India was first shown in 2017 in Patangarh village in eastern Madhya Pradesh. From Tribal Forest to Urban Jungle now brings these photographs of the tribal people and cultures of Central India as seen through the lens of Verrier Elwin, back to the UK.  The photographer’s own

words that accompany his images present a portrait of Verrier Elwin as a romantic, sensitive man who was drawn to field research and activism over a career in the academy.   Despite the criticism that he has provoked from some fellow anthropologists, many of his personal methods were well matched with the values that are upheld by marginalized indigenous communities worldwide.

Elwin took the unprecedented decision to move into the tribal village community in Central India and to work amongst the Gonds.  He showed a remarkable ability to step out of his own familiar environment and to adapt to the local way of life and he went on to live with and study the tribes of Central India for almost three decades.  The village people of Patangarh would refer to him as ‘Bara Bhai’ (elder brother) and he twice married Gond brides, and thus he became part of the extended village family.  During this period he documented hundreds of folktales and songs which were published in several volumes and his sensitivity to the way that they viewed the world is reflected by his concern to neither add to nor omit from the original recordings of the oral text in the translation process. 

In contemporary India where no firm demarcation exists between the original inhabitants and settler populations, the term ‘indigenous’ is contentious; yet Verrier Elwin was acutely aware that certain ethnic groups did have unique cultural traits that set them apart from the wider rural population of India. The longer he spent with these communities, the more urgent became his mission to protect them from the certain exploitation that he anticipated would come with the sudden exposure of these people to the modern world.

The exhibition is organised in collaboration with the Adivasi Arts Trust and Ashok Elwin.

Sample images from the exhibition