Layers of multicoloured beads cover her taut, dark-skinned body and bald head. Her wrinkled face is locked in a half grin. She is the woman we never see around our urban islands—or in the galleries of our art districts. I am talking about an enchanting, lushly detailed, life-size replica of a Bonda woman. Her adornments are as stunning as what the kiosk next to her tells me about her: She is the wife of a man several years younger than her and she goes into the forests to find food. Bondas live in the Malkangiri district of southern Odisha, in the Konda Kamberu Hills. They live on shifting and wetland cultivations and are famous for making brooms and a mean drink from mahua flowers, I learn from the kiosk as I navigate its uncluttered interface.

This is the digitally interactive wing dedicated to the 13 particularly vulnerable tribal groups among Odisha’s 62 tribal communities at the Museum of Tribal Arts & Artefacts in the state’s capital Bhubaneswar. A leisurely tour of the museum, spread over five halls and two wings, takes around 3 hours—it reveals what’s common among its subjects: the Bondas, Saoras, Dongria Kondhs, Juangs and Kutia Kondhs, among other tribes. Legends passed on through generations, as well as nature, determine how they live and negotiate with each other. Yet, each tribe stands out.

Bonda women shave their hair, the menfolk grow their hair long. A legend long-entrenched in their community is that Sita lived for a short time in the forests of the Bonda hills. When Bonda women looked at her and mocked her physical attributes while she was bathing, Sita cursed them to stay partially nude and bald. But Bonda women are beginning to change, the helpful, articulate lady guiding visitors to this wing of the museum tells me. The occasional post-millennial Bonda girl now grows her hair, and wears kurtis and leggings.

The Tribal Museum, as it is known in Bhubaneswar, has hut replicas, textiles, rice grain sculptures, painters at work selling finished pieces, hunting and fishing implements, household objects like husking levers, musical instruments like the gagadyadengh, the two-stringed fiddle, and the changu, a single-membrane drum. With more than 5,000 objects and replicas on display, most of which are digitized, this is tribal lifestyle, history and art in a quick, air-conditioned capsule.

Bhubaneswar is not as much a city of cultural basking as it is of Shiva worship. Located just a couple of hours from the pilgrimage town of Puri, the seat of Lord Jagannath, Bhubaneswar has several medieval Shiva temples ensconced in the city’s thick greenery. It has manicured grass where the malls and IT hubs are, and botanical marvels such as root-hanging, expansive trees at the Forest Park. The Buddhist pilgrimage spot of Dhauligiri on the outskirts of the city is located right above the gorgeous Daya nadi or the “river of kindness"—emperor Ashoka saw its waters flow red after the Kalinga War and decided to embrace Buddhism. Among the cultural landmarks of Bhubaneswar, including a sand sculpture garden by artist Sudarshan Sahu, are the Odisha State Museum, the Handicrafts Museum, the Orissa Modern Art Gallery and the most efficiently managed of the four, the Tribal Arts & Artefacts.

A few days after my visit, the museum had a couple of celebrity visitors. Ratan Tata and English architect Lord Norman Foster visited on a Sunday, reportedly on the chief minister Naveen Patnaik’s insistence. Media beyond the local newspapers and TV channels reached its premises. The museum is usually not crowded even on weekends. But footfall has grown after the digitally interactive wing opened a few years ago. Until then, it got only around 1,000 visitors a year. “We are in the process of creating a 3D virtual tour of the museum on our site, and an e-museum wall as a video installation for a digitized light and sound kind of experience," says A.B. Ota, the museum director. He is the man behind the information kiosks that accompany each display at the digital wing dedicated to the vulnerable tribes, and keeps himself abreast of developments in museum technology across the world.

Although Odisha is both a Hindu and Buddhist stronghold, tribal culture spills over into its cultural identity. Jagannath, of whose divinity and debauchery there are many stories, and who Odiyas lovingly refer to as “Kaliya" or “the dark one", is the saviour and father of the state. Jagannath is the god, also, of the Saoras and some other tribes. Half-hewn wooden deities of the Adivasis bear great iconographical similarity with Jagannath, his brother Balabhadra and sister Subhadra. The state still has some of the most untouched tribal sanctuaries in the country, and because of the state government’s efforts to preserve tribal traditions under its electorally invincible chief minister, there is tribal art on street walls in downtown Bhubaneswar. Saora paintings are in great demand through local art dealers. Ekamra Haat, an open-air food plaza, crafts bazaar and amphitheatre at the geographical centre of Bhubaneswar, has signature tribal flourishes in its design as well as stalls dedicated to tribal paintings and artefacts. Slow, curated tours into tribal areas are beginning to attract international, anthropologically inclined travellers.

The Tribal Museum is a good beginning to explore tribal Odisha. Conceptually titled “museum of man", it was established in 1953 as part of the Scheduled Caste & Scheduled Tribes Research And Training Institute (SCSTRTI). The idea of a museum was conceived in 1987 but until the early 2000s, it was just a home for thousands of objects displayed haphazardly in a sprawling government structure. The new museum opened in March 2001. It also has a souvenir shop and a canteen. The canteen promises “tribal food", but don’t go expecting anything more than just an authentic and delicious Odiya thali with local vegetables and seafood.

Journey into the tribal heart

Claire Prest and Pulak Mohanty curate a tribal trail through their company Grassroutes (Grassroutes.com). Beginning in Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh and ending in Puri, it includes walks through forests of the Eastern Ghats, hilltop picnics, visits to weaving villages and tours to local markets with members of tribal communities, train journeys through forests and a chance to spot migratory birds at Chilika Lake. These journeys have attracted anthropologists and travellers interested in living with tribal communities and learning their way of life. Accommodation approximately includes eight nights of hotel stay, two nights at village retreats, one night at a community guest house and one night in a tent. The tours are seasonal—they begin from August-September through February-March. The number of people in every tour is limited.

For more information, call 9437029698/ 94370226633

The Tribal Museum is at CRPF Square, Nayapalli, Bhubaneswar. Entry is free, open from 10am-5pm (closed on Mondays)

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