Further reading

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For a subject that has grown in the interstices of disciplines, and whose practitioners come from different disciplinary provenances, it is difficult to create a bibliographical canon. So our recommendations here, three different ones from three of us, are offered from our particular journeys to anthropological histories of tribal worlds, and should be treated as just a few of the many paths possible into the subject. These bibliographical suggestions are therefore not comprehensive and exhaustive but merely idiosyncratic invitations to explore this fascinating subject further.


A good place to begin would be Morton H. Fried’s The Notion of Tribe (Cummings Publishing Company, Menlo Park, 1975), which is a masterly global genealogical history of the notion of tribe. Fried traces the journey of the term ‘tribe’ from its earliest use in its parent language among ancient Romans, through the vagaries of its historical travels over time, to its eventual more or less fixed, pejorative application in colonial administrative vocabulary to mark communities of recalcitrant peoples across the world as primitive.

For South Asia specifically, there are several works that study the construction of the idea of the primitive and the understanding of tribal peoples as such through the use of the term ‘tribe’ during the colonial period in governmental practices and literature, including the overall understanding of social stratification in this process. A few of them I mention here: Arjun Appadurai, ‘Number in Colonial Imagination’ in Carol Breckenridge and Peter van der Veer (eds.), Orientalism and the Postcolonial Predicament (University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 1993); Andre Beteille, ‘The Idea of Indigenous People’, Current Anthropology, 39(2), 1998; Prathama Banerjee, The Politics of Time: ‘Primitives’ and History-Writing in a Colonial Society (Oxford University Press, Delhi, 2006), and by the same author, ‘Culture/politics: The curious double-bind of the Indian adivasi’ in Gyanendra Pandey (ed.), Subaltern Citizens: Investigations from India and the US (Routledge, New York, 2009); Vinita Damodaran, ‘Colonial Construction of the "Tribe" in India: The Case of Chhotanagpur’, Indian Historical Review 33(1), 2006, among others.

The best full-fledged work in my mind that attempts to enter an alternative tribal cosmos properly, locates this in a sound theoretical question of disciplinary crisis and inter-disciplinary possibilities, and achieves a bold, non-linear contrapuntal narrative that switches between tribal history and historian’s history, is Ajay Skaria’s Forests, Frontiers and the Wilderness in Western India (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1999). Skaria’s subjects are the tribal peoples of the Dang region of Western India, whose open, dynamic if also power-filled sense and life of wildness is pitted against the managerial and restrictive perceptions and regimes of modernizing polities from the colonial state onwards. Nandini Sundar’s Subalterns and Sovereigns: An Anthropological History of Bastar (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 1997) weaves together traditional archival material and village histories to study the historical relations between rulers and tribal subjects in Central India from the latter’s point of view.

The chapter ‘Minority Histories’ in Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe: Postcolonial Thought and Historical Difference (Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2020) is arguably the single most important meditation on the problems and prospects of rendering tribal worlds in historical prose. Gyan Prakash’s essay ‘Subaltern Studies as Postcolonial Criticism’ in The American Historical Review 99(5), December 1994, is a cogent early statement of the possibilities offered by the cultural turn in the Subaltern Studies to ‘radically rethink knowledge and social identities authored and authorized by colonialism and Western domination’, precisely what Chakrabarty offers.

A systematic attempt to lay out the inter-disciplinary terrain of anthropological histories is Saurabh Dube’s Historical Anthropology (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007); and a good history of anthropological histories in South Asia is Saloni Mathur’s ‘History and Anthropology in South Asia: Rethinking the Archive’, Annual Review of Anthropology 29, 2000.

A range of inventive anthropological histories from Africa and Latin America that offer provocative directions of study for those dealing with the histories of tribal peoples in South Asia but have long been ignored could round off this list. Michael T. Taussig’s The Devil and Commodity Fetishism in South America (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1980), Clifton Crais’ The Politics of Evil: Magic, State Power and the Political Imagination in South Africa (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2002), Harry G. West’s Kupilikula: Governance and the Invisible Realm in Mozambique (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2005), and Nicolas Argenti’s The Intestines of the State: Youth, Violence, and Belated Histories in the Cameroon Grassfields (University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2008) are all brilliant studies of the ways in which peoples’ pre/non modern beliefs negotiate the political, economic and cultural pressures of modernity.

Aditya Pratap Deo

St. Stephen’s College, Delhi


It would not be particularly audacious to state that historians and anthropologists have traversed a long route in the reading of tribal worlds. Indra Munshi, in introducing us to the ‘Adivasi Question’ in The Adivasi Question: Issues of Land, Forest and Livelihood (Orient BlackSwan, Hyderabad, 2012), edited by her, has identified issues which have long been considered central to our understanding of the tribe. Issues of land alienation and displacement, and vexed questions of forest degradation and erosion of community rights have been the pivots around which the tribe has been discussed.

The specific position that the ‘tribe’ found itself in, as a legal subject as well as a cultural one, has attracted the attention of generations of scholars, who have looked at precolonial and colonial constructions of the tribe, and its continuations and disruptions in independent India. A good treatment of these questions can be found in Adivasis in Colonial India: Survival, Resistance and Negotiation, ed. Biswamoy Pati (Orient BlackSwan, Hyderabad, 2013 [2nd edition]), and Histories for the Subordinated, David Hardiman (Permanent Black, Ranikhet, 2011). While those questions remain pertinent today, we have now been alerted to the need to reassess our understanding.

We have witnessed the ideological, political and anthropological journey of the tribe as it metamorphized into the adivasi: cultural exclusivity was now to be celebrated as the harbinger of resistance to the market, to the colonial and the postcolonial state’s destruction of natural habitats and customs. Daniel J. Rycroft and Sangeeta Dasgupta edited The Politics of Belonging in India: Becoming Adivasi (Routledge, London and New York, 2011) has a good discussion of these themes. The secular catechism of adivasis as exclusively forest dwelling communities, as inveterate enemies of the state, continues, as argued by Felix Padel et al. in Ecology, Economy: Quest for a Socially Informed Connection (Orient BlackSwan, Hyderabad, 2013), even as we discover evidence to the contrary.

Nandini Sundar (ed.), editing Legal Grounds: Natural Resources, Identity and the Law in Jharkhand (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2009), among others, speaks of the multiple dimensions of the adivasis’ relationship with the law and the state, a relationship which is hardly one of one-dimensional antagonism. Elsewhere, in Subalterns and Sovereigns: An Anthropological History of Bastar (1854-2006) (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2007), Sundar introduces us to the fact that adivasis have always been part of the ‘mainstream’, even as the contours of their relationship with the state have shifted over time.

In Unruly Hills: Nature and Nation in India’s Northeast (Orient BlackSwan, New Delhi, 2011), Bengt Karlsson reminds us that the local elites, drawn from tribal communities in the north east, are active participants in the process of accumulation of lands and environmental degradation. Archana Prasad’s Against Ecological Romanticism: Verrier Elwin and the Making of an Anti-Modern Tribal Identity (Three Essays Collective, New Delhi, 2011) provides us with evidence from historical sources to suggest that adivasis in Central India have hardly been confined to the forests from time immemorial; several political and economic developments played a role in the process.

Related to this journey has been the move from the savage to the noble savage. As Alpa Shah puts it, in ‘Eco-incarceration? "Walking with the Comrades"’, (Economic and Political Weekly 47(21), 26 May 2012), the ‘savage’ – criminalized by the law and subjected to the proselytizing discourse of religion and development – is now the ‘noble savage’, the savior of humankind and the illuminator of paths that we desperately look for in our search for ‘sustainability’ and a dignified life.

This theme has been explored and unpacked by several scholars studying the daily, lived relationship of adivasis. Gail Omvedt speaks of the role adivasis have played in ‘reinventing revolution’ (Reinventing Revolution: New Socialist Movements and the Socialist Tradition in India (M.E. Sharpe, London, 1993); Alpa Shah underlines how and why adivasis in Jharkhand are finding themselves constrained by these stubborn and enduring categories In the Shadows of the State: Indigenous Politics, Environmentalism, and Insurgency in Jharkhand, India (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2015); Sujata Patel speaks of the irony of how colonial binaries play out in new ways in post-colonial India (‘The Challenge of Doing Sociology Today’, Economic and Political Weekly 51(46), 12 November 2016), much to the disadvantage of our understanding of complex adivasi realities; Prakruti Ramesh tells us of the performances of indigeneity that this irony has engendered (‘Rural Industry, the Forest Rights Act, and the Performance(s) of Proof’, in Kenneth Bo Nielsen and Patrik Oskarsson (eds.), Industrialising Rural India: Land Policy and Resistance (Routledge, London and New York, 2017). In this context and backdrop, the adivasis’ attempt to navigate modern politics takes on many forms, as Luisa Steur shows us in Indigenist Mobilization: Confronting Electoral Communism and Precarious Livelihoods in Post-Reform Kerala (Orient BlackSwan, Hyderabad, 2017). In other words, our understanding of the tribe has indeed taken us down fresh and fascinating paths.

Radhika Krishnan

International Institute of Information Technology, Hyderabad


Stories of adivasi life-worlds – of their multiple inheritances and entanglements – are always set in media res. Ganesh N. Devy’s collected essays, titled A Nomad Called Thief: Reflections on Adivasi Silence (Orient Longman, New Delhi, 2006), evocatively narrate how violence, both epistemic and physical, has left its traces on the everyday experiences of the ones who were once deemed ‘criminal tribes’ by the British administration. This impassioned prose highlights an enduring presence of coloniality and a long history of discrimination towards the adivasis. The cultural and political expressions of various adivasi and nomadic groups have been the subject of the Chotro conferences, which were conducted between 2008 and 2016. The proceedings from these conferences were published in collected volumes edited by Ganesh Devy, Geoffrey V. Davis and K.K. Chakravarty, and they comprise a virtual gold mine for anthropological history. These are Indigeneity: Culture and Resistance (Orient Blackswan, New Delhi, 2009), Voice and Memory: Indigenous Imagination and Expression (Orient Blackswan, New Delhi, 2011), Narrating Nomadism: Tales of Recovery and Resistance (Routledge India, New Delhi, 2013) and, Performing Identities: Celebrating Indigeneity in the Arts (Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, New Delhi, 2015). Various mobilisations of adivasi and indigenous identities are further theorised in a special issue of the journal Asian Ethnology titled ‘The Bison and the Horn: Indigeneity, Performance, and the State of India’ 73(1 and 2), 2014.

Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s journal article titled ‘Women in Difference: Mahasweta Devi’s "Douloti the Bountiful"’, Cultural Critique 14, 1989, is a theoretical piece on the problems of conceiving a gendered, specifically a woman, tribal subject in modern Indian literature. Through an analysis of Mahasweta Devi’s short story by the same name, Spivak theorizes on the location of tribal women in the framework of Empire and Nation, spatial and gendered hierarchies, and imaginative possibilities of alternate futures. Daniel Rycroft’s work on Santhal Hul (1855) titled Representing Rebellion: Visual Aspects of Counter-Insurgency in Colonial India (Oxford University Press, New Delhi, 2006) employs methods from history and cultural studies to illustrate how visual narrative in various Victorian periodicals, especially in the Illustrated London News, were pressed into the service of the British Empire. By accentuating the nexus of British administrators and journalistic practices in his work, Rycroft calls for a renewed emphasis on the visual archives of colonial anthropology. This work draws attention to the processes that lead to the creation of a ‘tribal’ figure among the British publics of mid-nineteenth century. Elsewhere, in a journal article titled ‘After Images: Visual Cultures and Subaltern Pasts’, Visual Culture in Britain12, 2011, Rycroft delves into the work of memory towards sustaining various notions of coloniality.

Artistic and political articulations about and by the adivasis have been discussed in history and literary studies, while anthropologists have engaged with the nuances of everyday life to complicate the former. Christopher A. Gregory and Harihar Vaishnav edited Lachmi Jagar: Gurumai Sukdais Story of the Bastar Rice Goddess (Kaksad Publications, Kondagaon, Chhattisgarh, 2003) presents a narrative of the rice goddess, which is ritually performed by the rice cultivating women in Bastar. Further, Gregory analyses relations of rice cultivating women with their social and environmental domains of life in ‘The Oral Epics of the Women of the Dandakaranya Plateau: A Preliminary Mapping’, Journal of Social Sciences: Interdisciplinary Reflection of Contemporary Society 8, 2004. The chapter ‘Thoughts on Religious Experience and "Politics" in Adivasi India: An Anthropologist Attempts Re-reading of History’ by Amit Desai in Crispin Bates and Alpa Shah edited Savage Attack: Tribal Insurgency in India (Routledge, London and New York, 2017) is of specific importance in understanding impacts of a long history of state regulation of tribal peoples and their practices. It presents a reflection on how indigenous modes of knowledge struggle to endure through and against the constraints imposed by the state.

More broadly, David Scott’s Formations of Ritual: Colonial and Anthropological Discourses on the Sinhala Yaktovil (University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 2004) is a full-fledged anthropological history on the practice of drishti (evil eye) in Sri Lanka. By historicizing writings on religious practice of ‘evil eye’, Scott’s work highlights entanglements of anthropological discourses with those of the Christian missionaries and British administration. It hints at the ways in which the scholars of religious studies and anthropology might reproduce colonial modes of viewing, thinking and writing about the ‘tribes’.

Mayuri Patankar

Emory University, Atlanta