A “living museum” which is a part of the ongoing Keraleeyam festival in Thiruvananthapuram has kicked up a row with a large section of the public pointing out the impropriety of such a depiction of tribal life.
The Keraleeyam, or the Essence of Kerala, festival being organised by the ruling Left government to commemorate the state’s formation 67 years ago on November 1, 1956, has already been mired in controversy with the Opposition boycotting the week-long programme for its “financial extravaganza”.
The controversial expo, the “Adiman” museum, featured five Adivasi communities of the state. The lifestyle and habitat of these communities was recorded at the expo. The declared aim of the exhibits, complete with descriptive boards, was “to express the unique life of tribal people”.
It is said that these tribal people were actually hired on daily wages and presented in traditional costumes of the five communities. They also performed traditional art forms in front of curious visitors.
A cash-strapped Kerala has reportedly spent over Rs 27 crore in organising the festival. Many social security schemes such as old-age and agricultural labour pension have lapsed in the past three months with the state unable to raise funds.
The main criticism of the museum set up by the Folklore Academy at Kanakakunnu was that the act of prompting members of the marginalised communities to put up a live display wearing outdated costumes and to pose before the camera was a violation of their rights and an act belittling their stature.
“In a sense they were no better than caged animals,” a critic pointed out. Supreme Court lawyer Promod Puzhankara was more outright. “This is a human zoo. Exhibiting our tribals in front of upper class lords in a communist-ruled state,” he said in a channel discussion.
The Folklore Academy said there was nothing wrong with the tribal community members wearing traditional attire to perform their traditional art. Minister for welfare of Scheduled Castes and Tribes K. Radhakrishnan said the setting up of the museum was an initiative of the culture department.
Radhakrishnan on Wednesday told reporters that Adivasis shouldn’t have been used as showpieces.
“My personal opinion is that they should never be used as showpieces. Necessary action will be taken after examining what really happened there,” he said, adding he had not seen the exhibition.
He clarified that the Kerala Folklore Academy that organised the Adivasi events as part of Keraleeyam “didn’t mean to insult or denigrate them”.
Kerala Folklore Academy chairman O.C. Unnikrishnan told a channel that an explanation would be sent to the minister, clarifying that it was only a platform for the Adivasis to present their art forms. “They had only presented their art forms. Some visitors took pictures and chatted them up during the breaks. But this has sadly been misinterpreted to create a controversy,” he said.
The silence of the intelligentsia and Left thinkers over the “living museum” has surprised many. Political observer and academic Rammohan K.T. said: “Public protest is brewing but not a single CPM intellectual has expressed a word against this human display. If this ideological bankruptcy continues, the party itself would soon be pushed into a living museum.”
According to the 2011 census, the Scheduled Tribe population in Kerala is about 4.8 lakh, roughly 1.5 per cent of the total population. Wayanad, represented by Congress leader Rahul Gandhi in the Lok Sabha, is home to the highest number of tribals in the state.
The Left government is yet to provide justice to the mother and sister of a 27-year-old tribal man in Palakkad who was lynched by a mob who took videos of the crime and aired them. Madhu was beaten to death after he was caught by a group of locals alleging theft on February 28, 2018. The case is still dragging on.
A day before the festival kicked off, the Kerala government in an affidavit filed in the high court admitted that the state was “reeling under a huge financial crisis”. The submission was made in a matter relating to repaying a depositor of the Kerala Transport Development Finance Corporation (KTDC) Ltd.
Another state undertaking, the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC), has not paid regular salaries to its employees for months. Because of this, public transport in Kerala is in disarray. At one time, CPM trade union Citu had total control over the KSRTC but now is completely silent about non-payment of salaries to its employees.
The question remains as to whether the government was right in organising such a show at such a critical time. As social critic and academic J. Devika pointed out in an article on the website Kafila: “There are many in the state for whom the show would look like a cruel charade.”
Additional reporting by K.M. Rakesh