Friday, February 12, 2010

guha on verrier elwin

Wrote in detail, so only one book in this post.

#14 Savaging the Civilised, Ramachandra Guha

I have wanted to read this book for ages in spite of the fact that I knew almost nothing about Verrier Elwin until I finally cracked it open. I was dimly aware that he had loomed large over the early years of the Anthropological Survey of India and the government's tribal policies, and that he was some sort of English eccentric who'd decided to take off and live in the jungles of the Central Provinces with the adivasis, when the rest of his compatriots on the subcontinent were oppressing us brown people and falling in love with Jawaharlal Nehru.

This much is true. Verrier Elwin was one of those chaps who went native quite thoroughly - much like white men have been known to do throughout the modern history of European empire. But he was not an explorer, or an adventurer, or even an artist like Paul Gauguin [someone Elwin once deplored as the primary reason for the Western world's phony fascination with 'the primitive' and 'the elemental']. He was a lapsed missionary turned Gandhian freedom fighter, turned social worker, turned hedonist, intellectual and anthropologist; someone who dedicated his life to documenting and chronicling the culture of several Indian tribes, promoting their welfare throughout a nation that seemed to have alternately no clear idea, or several bad ones, about how best to integrate the First Peoples of the subcontinent into the new, independent India.

...skeevy, right? An Oxonian priest travels down to the Raj to bring the love of Christ into the hearts of heathen natives and suddenly chucks it up for wine, women and song in a tribal ghetto. Spontaneous blech from post-colonialists ensues. But Guha writes a supple and beautifully readable biography that recasts the appearance of Elwin's orientalism in subtler lights. It becomes a scrupulous history of some of the cultural transactions that underscored the end [as they did the very beginning] of the British Raj. Elwin's love for India is the love of an enthusiast. He is also, in Guha's biography, a man given over to transforming the evils of Empire - and the majoritarianism of the nationalist project - into something that would benefit the people with whom he made his home, and whom he was committed to serving.

It is a story of multiple transformations, and Guha controls that narrative extremely well. He builds an especially vivid background for the early chapters of Elwin's life in India, when Elwin rebelled against the English religio-imperialist mandate [in itself a fascinating and nuanced thing, since Christian missionaries and their supporters back home were by no means all on board with the un-Christian exploitation that was the Raj's raison d'etre]. He became first a disciple and a foot soldier of Gandhi, and then a private sceptic of Gandhi's own hyper-religious agenda. Already ensconced among the Gond people in present-day Chattisgarh, his missionary hut became a secular centre for education and healthcare, and his own interests turned to the lives and culture of the Gonds and their neighbours, the Baigas, about whom he wrote several books, and among whom he married. His work took him further afield over the years: through Orissa and then, to his great delight, to the North-East Frontier Agency [present-day Arunachal Pradesh].

As a public intellectual with tremendous clout both in England and in India, he advocated fiercely at first for protecting tribal culture, arguing that there was no 'civilisation' that could truly offer tribal people a social order that would even integrate, if not outright destroy, their own ways of life with those of the urbanising world. This earned him many enemies among sociologists who disapproved both of his methods and of his perceived commitment to hobbling the notion of a united, unilaterally forward-focused India; but it also won him friends in high places. It is amazing today to read of the philanthropic endowments for Elwin's cause from men like JRD Tata, who consolidated the corporation that is currently, among others, closing in fast on the resources of tribal land in central India. Elwin's views were moderated over the years, partly because of the necessity of staying on the right side of the Indian government, but his studies influenced the upper-est echelons of New Delhi - Nehru looked on him as a friend and an advisor, and his work with government agencies and the Anthropological Survey of India, Guha demonstrates, set benchmarks for the administration and understanding of tribal areas.

This book is not an unproblematic read. It is one thing to disengage from orthodoxy for its knee-jerk characterisation of Elwin as a white man playing at being Indian. It's quite another to ignore the question of how Elwin's trailblazing work and his wide circle of influence was even possible; Guha is certainly aware of the forces at work there, but touches on the symptoms without ever acknowledging the system. In other words, Guha scuppers tender pinko expectations as always. [The things we put up with.] But he doesn't let his fondness for Elwin get in the way of thorough - although never sensationalist - reportage, and his ability to balance out the story of an individual life with glimpses at the complex larger history makes this book a very valuable record of a certain period in twentieth-century India.

Savaging the Civilized came out in 1997. I would very much like to see a present-day assessment of Elwin's policy-related work, and the ways in which it may have impacted tribal life and administration over the decades. Guha writes that Elwin [who spent years near Amarkantak, the source of the Narmada] would definitely have been on the activist side of the national divide over the Narmada dam. Would he have solutions to offer to Chattisgarh now? A lot of Elwin's early predictions about the impact of the state running roughshod over its first peoples seem to broadly prefigure the current situation in central and eastern India. It doesn't take an unreconstituted Gandhian to condemn violence - a disgruntled one could still do that. What are the odds that an anthropologist, even if he was an inspired lunatic like Elwin, might have known how to address it? These may seem like unfair questions to ask, but historians do so all the time. This is a book that invites engagement with the present in many ways. In some ways, it ought also to provoke people to read it in spite of that.

1 comment:

  1. N.S. Rajaram9:20 am

    Verrier Elwin was an unscrupulous opportunist who married a 13 year old tribal girl and abandoned her after he found another. He was a pious fraud posing first as a priest and then as Gandhian. As a white man who lived in India he was a hero to Nehru and later to the Nehru worshipper Guha.

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