Tribal studies in India: Perspectives of history, archaeology and culture

Book Review

Editor: Maguni Charan Behera
Pages: 318+
Published by: Springer Nature Singapore Pvt Ltd

Itanagar, Jan 27: It is noteworthy that studies on tribes in India began during the colonial period, but with different purposes. Its historical beginning can be traced to 1784, when the Journal of the Asiatic Society of Bengal (established in 1774) was published, containing papers on ‘Nature and Man’.
During the colonial period, Indian interest visibly emerged in the first decade of the 20th century to study tribes for national cause and define its scope in the Indian context. Judged either from colonial interest on the subject that made literature available widely from the second half of the 19th century or SC Roy’s monograph on the Munda, a comprehensive study on a tribe first time by an Indian ethnologist published in 1912, tribes undoubtedly have been studied for more than hundred years. Roy undoubtedly stands at the start that marks the shift from colonial interest to national understanding of tribal studies.
Institutionalization of the study began with the establishment of the department of sociology in the Bombay University in 1919, and the department of anthropology in Calcutta University in 1920. In recent years, many universities and academic institutions of India are offering degree and diploma courses in tribal studies, besides in disciplines such as history, literature, law, economics, environmental studies, developmental studies, folkloristics, archaeology, medicine, political science, indigenous studies, Dalit studies, subaltern studies, linguistics, etc.
Tribal studies form a crucial component, though its recognition is peripheral. For common understanding, socio-cultural anthropology is taken as a synonym for tribal studies, and the contributions of other disciplines do not figure beyond their respective disciplinary boundaries. On the other hand, etymologically, anthropology studies human beings and apparently its scope is inclusive, in which tribe assumes a peripheral significance.
A historical scrutiny of the evolution of the discipline of anthropology is indicative of divergent topics covering all issues of humanity in general forming the core of the discipline. Another point in this context is worth mentioning. Many universities which initially opened the department of tribal studies reorganized it by prefixing anthropology to it. The reasons are many, but the apparent one is the absence of a perspective. The scholars who are engaged in the formulation of curriculum are conditioned with disciplinary background, and so the syllabus gets oriented to the discipline of the experts. The perspectives of tribal studies as reflected in several disciplines are missed grossly.
Only the Arunachal Institute of Tribal Studies (AITS) has overcome this hangover and formulated a syllabus – the first of its kind in the country – in which tribal studies has been attempted in its own right. The volumes are in line with developing a perspective on tribal studies.
The present volume examines how history and archaeology have immensely contributed to the study of tribes in India. Accordingly, the papers are organised under three sections: ‘Tribes in history’, ‘Ethno-dimension of archaeology’, and ‘Historicity in cultural understanding’. Evidently, the volume provides comprehensive information on enlargement of theoretical, methodological and empirical choices, and thus possibilities to evolve disciplinary perspectives in tribal studies.
Undoubtedly, the papers challenge the monopoly of possessing tribal studies in the confinement of conventional disciplines. The papers are suggestive of grand theories of tribal interaction over time and space, by dispelling colonial stereotypes and prejudices within a frame of composite understanding of the Indian civilization. Arguably, with distinct cross-disciplinary analytical frames, the papers provide a deep insight into the emerging trend of perspective shifts in tribal studies, thus mapping multidimensional growth of knowledge in the field and providing a roadmap of empirical and theoretical understanding of tribal issues in contemporary academics.
The papers deal with theoretical and empirical issues, covering a large number of tribes in Arunachal Pradesh, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Manipur, Assam, Meghalaya, Odisha, Nagaland, Goa and Andaman & Nicobar Islands. The topics are diverse, but at the core lie the approaches to study culture from multidisciplinary perspectives over time and space and within interactive mode with environment and other forces.
The book reviewed is one of the edited volumes by the editor from 2014 to 2020 on the perspectives of tribal studies as an emerging independent academic discipline. The others in the series are Shifting Perspectives in Tribal Studies: From and Anthropological Approach to Interdisciplinarity and Consilience (2019, Springer); Development and Tribes: Contemporary Issues and Challenges (2019, New Delhi: Serials); Dimensions of Tribal Studies: Development and Culture in Perspectives (co-edited with Dr Ganga Nath Jha, 2019, New Delhi: Nation Press); Tribal Language, Literature and Folklore (2019, Jaipur: Rawat Publications), Revisiting Tribal Studies: A Glimpse after Hundred Years (2018, Jaipur: Rawat Publications); Interventions, Familiarity and Continuity: Dynamics in Tribal Communities (2016, New Delhi: Commonwealth Publishers), and Resources, Tribes and Development (co-edited with Prof Jumyir Basar, 2014, Jaipur: Rawat Publications).