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The modern tribal way

A Pune professor’s latest exhibition examines how tribals of Maharashtra are balancing tradition and modernity

Professor Gajraj Chavan has been visiting the scenic hill station of Matheran for 33 years now. Though it’s not just the hills that are calling out to him, but the nomadic tribals of the area — the Warlis, Thakars and Katkaris, who live on the foothills of Matheran. “Whenever I visited my wife’s family in Matheran, I would notice these adivasis who would climb up the hill to sell their hand-made wares,” says the principal of the Fine Arts Faculty at Abhinav Kala Mahavidyalaya, Pune.

Tribal man with cellphone
Tribal man with cellphone

Chavan admits being first struck by their simple living. “They would earn just enough to sustain themselves. There was no haggling,” he says. It’s this fascination with their lifestyle that has inspired him to give them life on canvas. While he has primarily portrayed them as hunter-gatherers and nature worshippers in his paintings, Chavan’s perception of the adivasis underwent a dramatic change in his last two years when he saw elements of modernity creeping in. “During one of their visits, I noticed two young girls listening to music on one cellphone as they shared a pair of earphones. Till now, this was something I had seen only in cities and towns,” says the 57-year-old.

Prof. Gajraj Chavan
Prof. Gajraj Chavan

Curious to see how these tribals were embracing change, Chavan started visiting the wadis (colonies) where they live. “Every wadi has about 25 houses. All the houses had murals on the walls. The paintings were rudimentary using a very basic graphic vocabulary: a circle, a triangle and a square,” he says. The scenes portrayed revolved around hunting, fishing and farming, festivals and dances, trees and animals. Traditionally, the women of this region would wear the lugden, a one-yard saree worn till the knees. And some would drape a loin cloth around them after wearing this one yard sari. This loin cloth would cover the upper half of their body. The padar or loin cloth is a garment that is draped around on the opposite side of the pallu thus covering the upper part of the body completely. “That has also changed now. Now they wear readymade kurtis, and sport modern hairstyles,” he says. And some men even own laptops!

Tribal women listen to music on their mobile phone
Tribal women listen to music on their mobile phone

This modern adivasi has inspired Chavan’s latest collection, Tradition and Modernity, a collection of 25 paintings that he will exhibit at Jehangir Art Gallery.

Chavan feels technology and education have been a harbinger of change for the tribals. “Since the tribes of Maharashtra keep travelling, they would remain backward due to the lack of education. But now they are realising the importance of sending their children to school,” he says. Chavan feels the fact that they aren’t resisting change is what is making the community move forward. “The most intriguing aspect is the way they have balanced tradition and modernity.”

WHERE: Jehangir Art Gallery, 161-B, MG Road, Kala Ghoda
WHEN: March 22 to 28, 11 AM –7 PM
CALL: 09226712019

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