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October 27, 2014

More Stories, Better Representation?

October 27, 2014 | By | No Comments

I decided to use the blog space this time to talk about the idea of representing people in academic or non-academic contexts. A contested term in itself, “tribal communities” are among the most under-represented and misrepresented groups of people in India. Till I was sixteen years myself, I had never heard of tribal communities in India; an American friend  who knows my work is with tribal communities reported to me how he met a person from India who argued with him about the non-existence of such communities in contemporary India; my cousin, who is fourteen, and curious about who I work with failed to really comprehend, “who are these people?” I am working with; and I failed miserably in explaining in a way that seemed fair who I work with. If underrepresentation is one matter at hand, misrepresentation is another major issue to deal with. Websites, wikipedia, museums, movies – and any form of popular media available seem to depict tribal communities in the most static, essentialized, and detached ways.

All these reasons, and more, have made me want to make more people aware of who the tribal communities are, and educate better that there is no single way of understanding this broad group of people. However, this is no easy task! The challenge stems from several factors:

Who are the tribals? Is forest-dependence the only way to understand these communities? Does dependence on forests make communities “backward?” Does not living in forests make the people not tribal? Why do tribal communities have such “weird” customs and ways of life? Why don’t tribal communities want to “develop?”

These are a few among several strands of challenging questions that would need to be examined and explained – and all at the constant risk of misrepresenting the tribal communities myself.

This brings me to the final (forseeable) challenge I see for myself: How do I, as a scholar, and as a person actively engaged and working with tribal communities make sure to not misrepresent tribal communities myself? How does one go about ensuring this? This will be the biggest challenge in the project I envision for CHI. However, while there is no simple way of going about this, my means will be through incorporating as many stories, and as many perspectives about tribal communities as possible. Tribal communities, like every other group of people can be understood in a variety of ways. Focussing on one particular aspect is not only reductionist, but will perpetuate the essentialized and static ways in which communities tend to be understood. It is therefore my goal to present as diverse, and as “real” a picture of tribal communities as I can. I intend to do this mainly through stories collected from field work, and news paper articles. As I think this through some more, I will surely find more avenues to better represent the triabl communities of India.

In the meanwhile, here is something to watch: http://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story?language=en

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