How non-Adivasi journalists trivialise and misrepresent Adivasi culture

The exoticisation of the Bhagoria festival is a case in point, with almost all mainstream media reports missing the mark in their ‘interpretations’ of it.

ByGeetanjali Gurlhosur
How non-Adivasi journalists trivialise and misrepresent Adivasi culture
Photos: Prateek Pamecha | Artwork: Kartik Kakar
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Locally known as Bhagoria or Bhangoria, the indigenous harvest festival celebrated by central India’s Bhil tribes and subtribes is often incorrectly branded as the “fest of gulaal, paan and elopement” by the Indian media. For almost half a century, Indian anthropologists and journalists have been decoding and writing about Madhya Pradesh’s Adivasi culture and marriage customs to associate it with the Bhagoria festival.

This year, I spent a few days attending Bhagoria fairs in the villages of Madhya Pradesh’s Alirajpur district to find evidence of this media representation. But I only found rejection, disapproval and irritation regarding the unchanging portrayal of Adivasi culture by non-Adivasis.

As early as 1973, the few Indian anthropologists and researchers who wrote about the week-long festival of the indigenous communities referred to it as a “form of marriage” in their academic papers. Decades later, non-Adivasi Indian journalists continue to repeatedly rely on the same anthropological works to write about Bhil culture without seeking to even engage with the community. Till date, print and digital journalists consistently write tokenistic and romanticised reports of Bhagoria’s culture and traditions for non-Adivasi readers, using phrases such as “love fest”, “marriage market”, and “the tribal way to Tinder”.

In my interactions with young and old Bhil and Bhilala people – activists, students and intellectuals from Alirajpur and Jhabua districts – I was told multiple times that the Indian media gravely “misrepresented and distorted” the meaning of the Bhagoria festival and with it Adivasi culture and traditions. Between anthropological papers and media reports, the Hindi-speaking population conveniently associated the festival name with the Hindi term“bhag gaya”, or eloped, while the equivalent in Bhili language is “dhaas diya”, which changes across Bhili regions. Near the Gujarat-Madhya Pradesh border, where Bhagoria is widely celebrated, the tribal expression for eloping is “naahi ja”.

Almost all narratives of the origin of Bhagoria among non-Adivasis are related to eloping or myths of eloping, except the one that the Bhil people will tell you.

Shankar Tadwal, a member of the Dhas Gramin Vikas Kendra, has transcribed the folktale of Bhagoria. Tadwal, who has been a tribal activist for over 25 years, explained it to me.

“In western Madhya Pradesh, it is said that a king of Ratlam used to get watermelons delivered to him from the village of Bhagor which is situated in today’s Jhabua,” he said. “Every year, he asked for carts full of watermelons for free. After a point, the king of Bhagor got angry and filled the watermelons up with dirt before sending them to Ratlam. The king of Ratlam was dejected when he saw the dirt-filled watermelons. However, his mother said that this is a sign of invitation from the land of Bhagor to conquer it. So, he invaded Bhagor and celebrated his victory with a big fair. Bhagor is a place that exists today as well and it is still populated by the Adivasi community of Bhagora.”

Another writer from the community, Rajendra Dindor of Salar village in Jhabua, wrote in Hindi for members of Vanvasi Kalyan Parishad and for social media: “Fairs during the rule of King Bhoj of Malwa region were referred to as Bhangoria. At the time, two Bhil kings, Kasumar and Baalun, organised huge fairs in Bhagor. Over the years, this spread to 150 surrounding villages. Earlier, these fairs used to be the only way to meet people and get news from other villages.”

Today, Bhagoria, also called Bhangoria, is celebrated in multiple districts of the Malwa region, up to the borders of Gujarat and Rajasthan.

But Manoj Singh, a sociology professor and the director (skill development) of the Madhya Pradesh tourism board, is clearly unaware of these versions of Bhagoria’s history.

When I asked him about the nomenclature of Bhagoria, he said, “The name of the festival is obviously linked to the custom of elopement. But everyone knows now that the custom of eloping is no longer prevalent due to social development. Last year, I was at different fairs in Jhabua and did not see anyone eloping in this manner.”

Arranged marriage is the convention

Not only is the celebration of the biggest social festival of the Adivasis unfailingly misattributed to match-making, the sporadic practice of eloping to marry is blown out of proportion by non-Adivasi writers. Someone as old as 70-year-old Paar Singh in Kukrul village got married by the custom of maangni-jodke or “arranged marriage”. Members of the tribe insist that the act of eloping is an exception punishable in their society, and not “the traditional way of marriage” as depicted in the media.

“After working hard for months on the farm, harvesting, storing and selling the yield by January-February, Adivasis used to meet their relatives and friends once in a year at the Bhagoria haat,” Tadwal said. “Earlier, they applied a mark on each other’s foreheads as a welcoming gesture, which is called gulaal. People bought paan (betel leaf) for themselves and others, and also offered each other a sweet, colorful drink. Sometimes, these would be couples who are already betrothed to each other. The natural way of meeting at Bhagoria was portrayed as the youth’s ‘match-making’ fair with false narratives. But, marriages here traditionally happened only through the arranged way (maangni-jodke).”

Tadwal, who is also a member of the executive council of the Adivasi Ekta Parishad, added that the elderly of his community were angry when they heard about the media reports. “They said, ‘Why are they writing like this about us? They’re disgracing our community!’” he said. “When this narrative of the festival became prevalent in the country, people from everywhere came here hoping to witness it.”

Naagar, 40, a member of the community who works in the state waterworks department, told me that a month before Bhagoria haat begins, a baas ka danda or bamboo stick is stuck into the ground and no wedding can take place in the village until it is removed after Holi Dahan. Therefore, all weddings in the Bhil villages happen after March, he said.

While most marriages here happen with the family’s consent, only a minority of youth elope, he explained, as is the case with the urban diaspora too. According to the community, only about 10 percent of their youth elope.

But these incidents are not exclusive to Bhagoria. Naagar himself eloped with his now-wife Lalita 22 years ago, a couple of months before the Bhagoria festival. When I met Lalita at the Bhagoria haat in Umrali village, she said, “My parents were meeting with a boy, but I had fallen in love with my husband. So, I ran away with him. After two months of differences and after paying a dand (fine) of Rs 5,000, my family accepted us. We actually had a wedding only after we had our first two children.”

In instances of elopement, family disputes are common and sometimes last for months and years. To end these disputes, or “jhagda todna”, and customarily validate these elopements, the groom’s family is imposed with a pecuniary fine to be paid to the bride’s family. This fine, or “dand”, is much higher than the bride-price (dahej) paid in arranged marriages, meaning that eloping is a punishable social offense and not a convention.

Bride-prices today go up to Rs 1-1.5 lakh today and the dand on eloping can be twice as high, Lalita said. So, the number of elopement cases has also reduced significantly.

Lalita, who is meeting prospective grooms for her daughter, added that if any of her daughters elope, she will face social stigma “because they belong to an educated family”.

In Kulwat village, a few kilometres from the Narmada river, Sita was walking back to her house from the haat. As she walked, she told me that her husband had forced her to elope with him while she was still in school.

“Both the families did not accept us for a year,” said Sita, who is now pregnant with her second child. “We never had a wedding. After the dand was paid off, it was like we are married.”

For a year after their elopement, Sita and her husband did not return to their village, spending nights in a friend’s truck. Families with educated members, like Sita’s, are more embarrassed to admit that their children did not marry the conventional way.

The fallout of misrepresentation

The media’s romanticisation of Adivasi culture and social life, by using tropes of “singing, dancing and eloping with consent”, leaves gender violence in the community unnoticed and unreported.

At the Bhagoria fairs, “eve-teasing” and sexual harassment is more common than before. At Walpur and other villages, I saw many young men harassing women into giving their phone numbers. Groups of women at different fairs told me they are tired of men troubling them at the haat.

Apart from explaining their culture to non-Adivasi media, Adivasi groups are also burdened with stopping Hindu nationalists and political outfits from misappropriating their festival. Over the years, the state government has repeatedly proposed plans to promote the festival through tourism and competitions, but tribal organisations have vehemently opposed this idea. Madhya Pradesh’s Bhil community is currently fighting the state-supported Hinduisation, politicisation and commercialisation of Bhagoria. Meanwhile, their cultural resistance is being eclipsed by continued misrepresentations of Adivasi culture by non-Adivasi media.

Tadwal suggested that urbanism and the misrepresentation of Bhagoria in the media has drastically changed the culture of the festival. For close to 10 years, tribal activists and organisations in the state have been trying to correct the misrepresentations but Indian mainstream media seems to pay no heed to the practitioners of the culture it writes about. As Dindor wrote in his article: “When it comes to Adivasi culture, nobody wants to get to the bottom of it.”

More than a decade ago, Tadwal said, they approached the district collector who suggested putting up a “marriage registration tent” at Bhagoria fairs to stop couples from eloping.

“Of course, we did not let this happen,” he said. “Then we distributed pamphlets to spread cultural awareness about the festival and its original values. We gave out statements to the print and digital media too.” Tadwal and his colleagues also attempted to stop the usage of the term “Bhagoria” and to instead call it “the Adivasi utsav or festival”.

But Rajaram Katara of Shivganga, a non-profit organisation for tribal rights in Jhabua, said he wants to preserve the social and cultural values of the Adivasi festival without changing its name. “How old is Bhagoria?” asked Katara, who attended his first Bhagoria fair 25 years ago and works to reduce state policing at the village fairs. “I think the name need not be changed, otherwise the character and values attached to the festival will change.”

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