A few months back I travelled to British Columbia on the invitation of Canada Tourism. I expected it to be a place filled with natural beauty and it sure did not disappoint. Falls colours were enchanting, to say the least. However, what fascinated me most was its Aboriginal Tourism – the presence of First Nations communities in public spaces and in spaces specially designed to showcase their heritage. Totem Poles could be seen almost anywhere, sculptures with folk tales sit proudly at the airport. I went museum hopping learning about the tribes like Lilawat, Squamish, Songhees, Saanich, Esquimalt. In a few days that I spent there, these names became familiar entities.
I came back, read a bit more about First Nations of British Columbia and wrote a log piece on them. As soon as it was published, my thoughts went back to all the tribal museums I have visited in India – be it Tribal Museums in the heart of Delhi or in Posh Banjara Hills of Hyderabad, or in situ tribal museums in Araku Valley, Silvassa, and Ratnagiri. I had hardly seen a soul at any of these museums. At one place, I had to request the caretaker to open the museum for me, which he did rather reluctantly. The museums where they exist, have a series of dioramas depicting tribal lifestyles.
At one of the museums, I wanted to take pictures and I was told strictly no photographs. I asked to meet a senior official to understand why no photography is allowed. After all, all that the museum has is recreated models of tribal landscapes and lifestyles. There are some items of personal use on display, but none that would be damaged by photography like say paintings of Ajanta would.
I was told if the photographs of the museum are published online, who would come to the museum? In a state of near shock, I asked them have you seen how many people post their pictures with Taj Mahal, has it stopped people from coming to Taj Mahal or has it inspired more people to come and see it for themselves. No answer came and there was no inclination to even think about it, forget about changing the photography policy.
Imagine the lost opportunity of free publicity by visitors. Imagine the images on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter that will, first of all, tell people that such museums and such tribal communities exist, and then hopefully encourage people to visit them. Imagine the connect it would create for these tribal communities with the rest of the world.
I wonder why do we not have our aboriginal art in public spaces? The only exceptions I have seen are the two railway stations across the country – Ratnagiri station with Warli art and Bolpur station with Shanti Niketan inspired art. Recently, I read about Madhubani station in Bihar being painted by local women & I thought it was a great tribute to Madhubani Artists like Ganga Devi. Why do we not have our public spaces depicting our local cultural roots? Given the diversity of our country, it would make our public spaces a riot of colour and designs while reminding us of our rich roots.
Souvenir shops in Canada were full of First Nationals inspired souvenirs. In India, it is an exception when I discover truly tribal inspired souvenirs. I think if I have to choose a tribal gift, I would have to go to Tara Books or some ethnic jewellery shops. Almost none of the tribal museums I have visited had a souvenir shop where I can buy something. They did not even have the literature about the tribes they are showcasing. At every museum, I look for books on the subjects being showcased. I am yet to find one that does not disappoint.
Guided tours can generate employment while enriching the visitor experience. Today, it is a such a dry experience to go through tribal museums of India, with almost no documentation and no reading material. It is not too difficult to publish books for children as well as adults. How lovely it would be to listen to some tribal music or instrument.
The government has already spent crores of rupees in setting up these museums, lakhs must be spent every year to maintain them. With a little thought and effort, the spaces can become our cherished cultural spaces.
Having said that there are two tribal museums that give me hope. One is Don Bosco Museum in Shillong, which presents the tribes of North East India in an elaborate and engaging manner. Second is Purkhauti Muktangan on the outskirts of Raipur in Chhattisgarh which is a vast open-air museum. Both these museums stand out because of their unique and thoughtful designs. I hope they get great storytelling guides, books and souvenirs also to complete the experience.