Friday, August 29, 2008

A FRIEND OF THE TRIBALS....REMEMBERING VERRIER ELWIN


Verrier Elwin, one of the most interesting Englishmen to have worked in India this century, came to his adopted country when he was only 25. A few years later, he moved to a tribal village in the heart of India. He lived most of the rest of his life among the tribals of India, whom he loved and worked for, and about whom he wrote beautifully, intensely and extensively.


His friend, W.G. Archer, who was in the Indian Civil Service before becoming a curator at the Victoria and Albert Museum, had asked about Elwin: "What makes a man change his nationality, abjure civilization, and, in the upshot, become a blend of Schweitzer in Africa and Gauguin in Tahiti?" That question cannot be answered, but it prompts curiosity about his life.


Elwin was born the son of an Anglican bishop. He graduated from Merton College, Oxford, with a first in English literature and won a scholarship to support his degree, which the family tradition directed to be in theology. A doctorate in divinity had prepared him to be ordained as a priest, but his associations and interests had turned Elwin, while at Oxford, into a mild Indophile, with his heart turned wistfully towards Tagore and Gandhi. At a Students' Christian Movement meeting, which Elwin had attended at Stanwick, he met J.C. Winslow, who had come back from India to recruit young men for his Christian mission. Winslow, a product of Eton and Balliol, had gone to India to spread the gospel, and was so awed by the astonishing richness of Hindu spiritual and cultural heritage and ideas that he thought that Jesus could "take all those elements that were of permanent value and bring them to a richer completion".


Elwin was already looking eastwards and was easily seduced into joining Winslow's Christa Seva Sangha, which drew its inspiration from the traditional ashram ideal of the Hindus, as reinterpreted and actualised by Gandhi's ashram at Sabarmati, a centre of abstinent and religious life, dedicated to the service of the poor.


After a view years of living in the tradition of service to the church and in compliance with the Gandhian ascetic ideals, Elwin felt impelled to break all links with his past. He decided to work among the lively, sensuous, forest-dwelling tribals - materially the poorest of the poor in India, but blessed with a capacity to endure much and enjoy life fully.


They were rich in their capacity to love, in their sensitivity to beauty, in their delightful songs and dances, and in their ability to make fine, strong and beautiful things.


Elwin had not planned on anything other than being of service to these people when he and his lifelong volunteer colleague, Shamrao Hivale, moved to a Gond tribal village in Central India to have their own ashram. The events that followed - shifting their base deeper into the forests, establishing a home for lepers there, doing research work among the tribals as a friend and helper, practicing a "philanthropology" that brought with it a need to defend the tribals against all external aggressions, cultural or economic,and writing volumes about them - appear, with the benefit of hindsight, to be Elwin's unfolding destiny, as were his becoming an Indian citizen, receiving one of the country's highest honours, and becoming a friend and advisor to Jawaharlal Nehru.

Elwin had begun his work in India as a very unusual Christian missionary with Gandhian leanings, unacceptable both to the British Raj and to his own church in India. He soon became disenchanted with the pretentious aspects of Indian spirituality and with Gandhian puritanism and self-righteousness. India's "primitive" tribals won his heart, eventually; and he gave his brilliant mind and devoted his enormous energies, towards helping them, writing about them and defending their rights and their waysof life.


His beginnings were those of an earnest, somewhat uncertain and self-doubting but deeply religious man, and, although he later rejected all formal religions, he never could choose any other than a selfless, dedicated way of life. But the roles he took on were always nonconformist. Consequently, he had to fight powerful opposition and persecution from organized, conventional people all his life.


Although Elwin was able, in his lifetime, to have some influence on India's policies towards its tribal peoples, one fears that, with time, much of what he lived and stood for is in danger of being ignored, misunderstood or forgotten.

Courtesy: Sunil Janah on Guhas book

This great man was born on 29th August......remembering him on his birth anniversary

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