x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

Indian campaigner trying to protect, promote tribal art

Bulu Imam has spearheaded a campaign to protect ancient tribal art traditions and bring them to the world stage.

Bulu Imam won this year's Gandhi Foundation international peace prize for his work in promoting tribal art and seeking to protect ancient rock-art sites from destructive mining.
Bulu Imam won this year's Gandhi Foundation international peace prize for his work in promoting tribal art and seeking to protect ancient rock-art sites from destructive mining.

HAZARIBAGH, JHARKHAND // Defending some of India's oldest historical heritage has taken a tribal-rights campaigner from big-game hunter to the winner of this year's Gandhi Foundation international peace prize.

Known mostly for mining, corruption and a Maoist rebellion, the state of Jharkhand is also home to some of India's oldest and richest archaeological sites.

In its Karanpura Valley are cave paintings dated between 9,000 and 5,000 BC, and hundreds of stone megaliths provide rare evidence that prehistoric inhabitants understood astronomy and mathematics.

Historians have tried for decades to gain heritage status for the sites to protect them from new mines sprouting around the valley.

Among them is one of India's great eccentrics, 70-year-old Bulu Imam. From his colonial-era bungalow in the town of Hazaribagh, he has spearheaded a campaign to protect ancient tribal art traditions and bring them to the world stage.

Mr Imam is a Muslim, but he lives with two wives, Elizabeth and Philomena, both from the Oraon tribal community, along with his seven children.

Since the late 1980s, he has helped discover and document 13 ancient rock painting sites in the region. One of the most impressive is at Isco, where a long curling overhang of rock has for centuries protected the white and ochre drawings of cattle, birds, and geometric shapes.

These traditions survive today among the Oraon tribes, who paint the outside of their houses with strikingly similar images.

Mr Imam organised a group of women painters, encouraging them to transfer these drawings to paper and canvas, and then organising exhibitions around the world.

"Tribal art is the one hope for Jharkhand - that we can bring tourists here, rather than mining, and get the protection these sites so desperately need," he said.

It is a career that would never have been predicted for Mr Imam. Descended from an illustrious family of Urdu poets and lawyers, he spent the first 40 years of his life as an avid hunter, tracking down tigers, leopards and elephants from the mountains of Assam to the jungles of Orissa.

To hear his stories is to plunge into a lost and often violent world in some of the most remote corners of the subcontinent.

He recounts the time a tiger leapt on to the head of the elephant he was riding, or the time a leopard snatched the dog that was walking inches from his heel.

"I cherish the moments I have lived - I had an extraordinary life," he said. "But those things were of their time. We were only killing proven man-eaters but, at a certain point in the 1980s, I found I could no longer enjoy killing."

He took an abrupt change towards conservation and now finds himself embroiled in the bitter debate over the future of India's tribal communities. The tribes have been historically neglected by the state and now face the threat of expanding mining operations in many of their homelands.

"Modern India has come to hate the tribal," he said. "Initially, the government promises to protect them, then they break their promises and when the tribals fight back, the government feels justified to launch a war against them and grab their land."

He is referring to the conflict with Maoist rebels, who have increasingly associated themselves with tribal communities over the past three decades, entrenching themselves in the forests of central and eastern India.

"The tribals are not Maoists. They are not asking for the property of the state as the Maoists do," said Mr Imam. "The tribal just wants to hold on to his property and be left alone.

"But of course they sympathise with anyone who fights back against the state."

Jharkhand holds close to a third of the country's coal and iron ore, among many other minerals. There are 31 open-pit coal mines planned in the Karanpura Valley alone.

Mr Imam's protests against the mines, and his attempts to preserve local culture, have earned him this year's International Peace Prize from the UK-based Gandhi Foundation, due to be presented in May.

The award is shared with Binayak Sen, a renowned paediatrician who worked with tribes in the state of Chhattisgarh.

Their recognition by the Gandhi Foundation, which said the award was for India's tribal population, has been controversial since neither recipient is tribal.

Mr Imam admits it was badly handled. "With hindsight, we should have objected early on in the process. The award should either be for the tribals or for our work - it can't be both. But we thought it was a good chance to bring attention to these issues."

He is shocked, he says, at how tribal societies have changed.

"For years, I lived and ate and hunted with these people. They were very poor, but they were happy. They lived a rarefied existence - in a world of gods and nature.

"Now when we speak of tribes, they are potbellied, worm-ridden, police-harassed. I wonder how things have gone so wrong."

foreign.desk@thenational.ae