How the National Tribal Festival in Attapadi showcased Indigenous assertion and resistance

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Vedhavalli (Keerthy) and Vivekanand Sidam

Vedhavalli (Keerthy) is a social work graduate from Chennai with specialization in community development and psychology.

Vivekanand Sidam is a lawyer based in Hyderabad. He belongs to Koitur (Gond) community from Adilabad, Telangana. His areas of interests are Displacement, Adivasis and law.

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The eighth edition of the National Tribal Festival was organized by AADI—Attapadi Adivasi Development Initiative—in Attapadi, Kerala on the 25th and 26th of May 2019. Located in the northeastern district of Pallakad, which connects the districts of Coimbatore and Nilgiri of Tamil Nadu; the region houses around 192 tribal hamlets.

Bringing together aspects of tribal life, their relationship with land and the ongoing struggle for survival; the festival has been organized over the last decade as a celebration of indigenous identity and culture. The theme for this year’s event was “Tribal Land, Culture and Survival.”

Sreedhanya Suresh, Kerala’s first tribal woman to pass civil services exam, sharing her experience at the festival.

Ever since India’s independence, Attapadi has had an influx of settlers. And its tribal population has declined from 90 percent of the total population in 1951 to only 41 percent in 2011. The region was also in the news last year after the murder of Madhu, a 27-year-old Adivasi man, who was lynched by a local mob over accusations of theft.

The region has been neglected by state institutions for decades and has one of the most alarming health indicators in Kerala, including high rates of malnutrition.

Poverty is a major challenge for the people of Attapadi, brought about from the ongoing depletion of natural resources in the region. At the time of independence, the forest cover in the region was at 90 percent, in the following decade it came down to 82 percent and is now at a meager 20 percent due to increased control of forest land by settlers and the state. This deforestation has also meant that Adivasis had to give up their traditional methods of farming, which has led to major changes in their food and livelihood patterns.

The celebration of a festival affirming Adivasi identity in a region that has experienced immense structural violence from the state and outsiders for generations is an assertion of Adivasi identity, community and history. The two day festival featured seminars and panel discussions on tribal issues, cultural programmes from different parts of India and competitions in tribal languages for tribal children and youth. Various stalls at the event also showcased tribal cuisines, agricultural practices, medicines and books.

Village elder and other guests during the ancestral worship at the beginning of event.

The first day of the event began with a Gothra Pooja (ancestral worship) and prayers to seek blessings and permission from the ancestral spirits. The ritual was performed by Choriya Moopan, the village head of Vattalakki hamlet, while Nenja Moopathia state-level folklore award winner from Nakkupathi accompanied him by singing a traditional tribal song and hoisting the flag.

This followed a welcome address by the coordinator of AADI, Akhil Shaji, while the guest of honour Ratna Ramamoorthy—president of Sholaiyur Grama Panchayat and an influential leader of the region—introduced the guests to the work of AADI and tribal communities.

The main organizer AADI has been working with Adivasi communities on various issues concerning health, education, and environment. This eighth year of the festival was attended by various tribal groups from across the country. According to AADI, the main objective of the festival was to provide a platform to demystify myths about tribal identity and discuss issues regarding their survival and rights.

The inaugural address was delivered by Sreedhanya Suresh—the first tribal woman from Kerala to pass the civil services exam—who spoke about her struggles and strife growing up as an Adivasi child in the Wayanad region of Kerala. She encouraged the youth present at the festival to join the civil services and emphasized that tribal youth have great potential to change inequalities in contemporary society.

The festival also provided Adivasi scholars a space for intellectual dialogue through a seminar and paper presentations based on this year’s festival theme. Chitra, an activist from Nilambur, discussed issues regarding the division of land in Wayanad and Attapadi. Prof. Nageshwar Rao from Osmania University, presented a paper on the inaccessibility of various government policies and programs in the tribal regions of Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Similarly, other speakers like Prakash Chowdhary, Athira Narayanan and Thambu gave presentations on issues concerning tribal people in various parts of the country. The first day of the event ended with a panel discussion on the same theme, where people discussed their concerns and doubts regarding the functioning of the government in tribal regions. Delegates also discussed potential measures to empower tribal communities.

Tribal researchers and scholars during the seminar on Tribal Land, Culture and Livelihood.

The second day of the festival began early morning on 26 May, with prayers and address by Eshwari Reshan – president of the Attapadi Block Panchayat. The annual report of AADI was also presented in the event; followed by distinguished speakers from various regions, bringing together various perspectives about the inclusive development of Adivasi communities.

The festival was also a platform for presenting the traditional and cultural features of tribal groups attending the event. The cultural performance included the Dhimsa dance of Gond (Koitur) people from Adilabad, Telangana, Aliyar dance from western part of Tamilnadu, Duner dance from Guttiyar Kandi of Kerala, Nattaranju dance from Wayanad region of Kerala, Moolagangal dance from Attapadi, Olive Kala Sangam dance from Mannarkkad, Nattu Kummi dance from Sholaiyur, Attapadi, Lanchiya Soura dance from Odisha, Kummi dance from Attapadi and Darba dance from Gujarat.

One of the Adivasi cultural groups – Koitur’s (Gond) Dhimsa, Gussadi dance- from Telangana, during the festival.

The festival ended with tribal groups from various states performing these traditional dances, celebrating Adivasi identity and displaying unity and solidarity among the tribes. Hosted in a tribal region that is regarded as a deprived and backward one, the event was a joyous celebration and assertion of being indigenous, being Adivasi.


Featured image:  A dance performance by host Adivasis of Kerala at the event. 

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Vedhavalli (Keerthy) and Vivekanand Sidam

Vedhavalli (Keerthy) is a social work graduate from Chennai with specialization in community development and psychology. Vivekanand Sidam is a lawyer based in Hyderabad. He belongs to Koitur (Gond) community from Adilabad, Telangana. His areas of interests are Displacement, Adivasis and law.

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