Danish anthropologist documenting Karam

KOLKATA: For the past 33 years, this scholar from Denmark, has been scouring the rugged and difficult landscapes of Jharkhand and Jangalmahal, in search of ancient Santhali traditions. Now when the Anthropological Survey of India has decided to document the Karam festival, one of the most primeval traditions of the Santhal tribe, they are depending heavily on Peter Anderson, one of the world’s best known scholars on tribal India, who has once again come down from Copenhagen to document the change that Karam has undergone.

Anderson has worked among the Santhals at Jharkhand around Dumka and then all over West Midnapur. There are variations in the Karam that is celebrated in the two regions, but the basic tenets and the spirit of the celebration remain the same as is evident in famous publications by Anderson like, Santhals – Glimpses of Culture and Identity and Revival from a native point of view: Proselytization in the Indian home mission and the Kherwar movement among the Santals. The Karam is a favourite subject of research among sociologists in the country not only because it showcases the tribal oral tradition so well but also because it showcases the inherent fears, beliefs and social conditions of one of the most ancient indigenous tribes of the country.

With time a large number of interpolations have worked their way into the Karam, which the Santhals still consider to be their most sacred tradition. So the Anthropological Survey of India decided to document the indigenity of the tradition both audio-visually and in the form of a book. “Karam has changed very rapidly. The world around the Santhals has been fast changing so it is natural that their lives too would get influenced by it. Right from the language of the songs, to the punctuation of the texts with modern intonations, the Karam is going through a metamorphosis. So we decided to document it with the help of Peter Anderson, the best known scholar in the field,” said Kanchan Mukhopadhyay, a senior official of the Survey.

The Karam festival centres around the Karam Tree, whose sapling is brought from the designated tree in the forest by members of the community under the guidance of the spiritual head. Karam which is akin to karma of Hindu religious belief, is a god appeasing puja that is supposed to ward off all evils. “Earlier, Santhals were extremely god-fearing and did not question rituals. They just kept handing down songs and beliefs from one generation to the next. But today they have started using logic that modern education has instilled in them and this is showing in their Karam also!” Anderson, who is now in the city said.

While Santhals have generated a lot of interest among scholars abroad, the country’s sociologists have always looked up to Anderson because he belongs to a minority that did not depend on Christian missionaries to reach the tribals. There are a large number of Danish support missions working among Santhals across the country especially in Bengal and Jharkhand, but Anderson did not deliberately take that route. “I wanted to study Santhals in their indigenous setting, unalloyed by the Christian touch because I wanted to experience their belief system in their primitive state untouched by the caste system that riddles the Hindu system,” explained Anderson.