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Indigenous groups
The Notion(s) of Masculinity among Adivasis

Männerbilder - How to tackle the topic?
Männerbilder - How to tackle the topic? | © Goethe-Institut Chennai

First of all, when looking at the notion(s) of masculinity among adivasis, the category adivasi must be disaggregated and historicized to recognize the immense diversity among groups so described and the changing nature of their societies. 

By Aditya Pratap Deo and Prachi Vaidya (Dublay)

Along withthis recognition we must also consequently acknowledge that the features of adivasi societies do not always conform to the classic, and hugely problematic, idea of a simple people in comparison to our 'modern' society. Once these caveats are in place, we need to ask if and to what extent our notions of gender, and therefore, the classic idea of masculinity, assumed often to be universal and timeless, applies to these diverse, changing and complex societies.1)

When these caveats are not applied, scholars have mostly either tended to view adivasis as completely 'liberated' from gender norms, often practising exotic gender ideas, or entirely subsumed and ‘corrupted’ within the regular ideas and practices of gender we take as given in our context. A nuanced way to proceed would be to take adivasi societies case by case, and to concentrate not so much on ascertaining the degree of conformity or escape from regular norms, but in sketching the ways in which notions of gender obtain and play out in these societies. The task, in the case of understanding the ideas and practice/performance of masculinity among adivasis then would be to explore the ways in which masculine/feminine traits get socio-culturally distributed between men and women.

So are adivasis just like all the other numerous sociologically diverse groups / communities / collectives that in any case comprise what we would consider the ‘mainstream’? Since the advasis are neither hermetically sealed off from mainstream society nor completely folded into them, how can we think of any distinction they might represent in general from non-adivasis? Here, it would be useful to remember that all societies experience tensions between tendencies that attempt to define, fix and settle norms of being and experience, and those forces that continuously resist these attempts. In the case of gender, all societies will play out some or the other degree of this tension between the rigid settling of values that could be called masculine and feminine, and that which unsettles this, to either create confusion in or overturn these values, or still better, to articulate values that go beyond these categories.

Here, in the scale of high or low solidification of norms, most but not all mainstream societies tilt towards greater conformity, and most but not all tribal societies towards greater open-ness. Such a distinction, created by a complex of factors including those that are historical, geographical, sociological, etc., and involving overall a lesser transformation of the natural environments among adivasi peoples in general in relation to the mainstream, is not absolute. And it is definitely not the function of primitiveness and simplicity but rather of an active choice to regulate not just one’s environment, but also connectedly society, less in comparison the mainstream. This distinction is, like in several non-adivasi societies, eventually due to the deep human desire to be imaginative, creative and free. In no way are adivasi societies essentially more innocent and free of shibboleths. Perhaps, we can think of adivasi societies as those communities which, in the struggle in human nature to control how we live but also resist this attempt at control, represent elements that ask for a socio-cultural landscape that is more heterogeneous, fluid and unfettered than otherwise. Between a fixing and scuttling of gender norms, and the normative idea of masculinity, here we also have inventive and contingent fashioning of values that are difficult to describe and control.

From the above exposition, it will be clear that nothing can simply and generally be said about notion(s) of gender, and masculinity, among the adivasis. Where, when, which community, how? These considerations deeply mediate any experience, any practice. Keeping this in mind, following are a few examples from a few adivasi communities, and these can only be random given the range, and can merely serve as a very inadequate and tentative introduction to worlds that are diverse and difficult to pin down.

Among the Gamit Bhils of Western India, during the Holi festival, where traditional norms of social concourse often get inverted, boisterous gangs of women abduct men they have taken a fancy to, taking on masculine behaviours of domination, control and violence.2)

In another instance, in the Bhil Mahabharata, Bharath, the exemplar of masculinity in the mainstream versions of this epic, Arjuna, is rendered helpless. The very picture of valour and virility, Arjuna gets tied up by the serpent king Vasuki and has to watch Vasuki romance his willing wife Dhopa / Draupadi.3)  

In this event, the normative figure experiences an emasculation of its essential element. In Central India, among some Gond communities, from the time of the colonial anthropologists onwards to our time, scholars have noted that the figure of Earth god, as invested with qualities of birthing and nurture which are biologically and normatively seen as female / feminine, has often been seen as male, creating an interesting displacement of the masculine into the feminine.4)  

In a love poem written by an adivasi activist in the Oran community of present day Jharkhand, the (male) lover, ‘who like a woman keeps all the love stories shared by his beloved stored in a bag, fulfils himself in the last instance by mothering her’, feminising himself.5)  These examples show interesting inversion, undermining, displacement and sublimation of the masculine aspect respectively.

What really takes us beyond normative gender values is the person of Lingo, the ‘cult hero’ considered across most of the diverse Gond adivasi communities as the font of adivasi ancestry (one among seven original Gond brothers), society and culture. In one common story that I came across during my research, Lingo helps the Gonds cross the turbulent seas to safety, helps make fire and teaches them cultivation. At the same time, he sings and dances, falls in love, is constantly playful, and artistically brings day and night into existence. In this instance, in no less than the figure of Lingo, the hugely influential epitome of manhood among advasis, the notion of masculinity loses itself in a melange of values and attributes that touch upon but go beyond the normative.6) 

These cases show us how careful we must be with these issues, how much diversity of being and experience exists out there, and how so much more needs to be explored and understood as far as notions of gender and masculinity among the adivasis are concerned. The choice is really between saying something stereotypical easily, or intimating worlds, and ways of worlding, which will always be difficult to freeze.

1) For an attempt to problematize a modular idea of gender see OyeronkeOyewumi, The Invention of Women: Making an African Sense of Western Gender Discourses (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1997).
2) Prachi Vaidya, Gamit Community Field Notes, Interview with Sumir Gamit, 2011.
3) Bharath (Vadodara: Bhasha Publication and Research Center, 2012)
4) Aditya Pratap Deo, Kings, Spirits and Memory in Central India: Enchanting the State (London: Routledge, Forthcoming, September 2021).
5) Prachi Vaidya, Interview with Jascinta Kerketta, 2021
6) Deo, Kings, Spirits and Memory.