January 2017 | Namrata Narasimhan

Tradition gets a timely boost

Tata Steel takes the lead in reviving the cultural customs and motifs of tribal communities in Jharkhand and Odisha

They may not show up on balance sheets but the communities living in and around Tata Steel’s manufacturing facilities and mining operations in the tribal belts of Jharkhand and Odisha in the eastern part of India are central to the company’s business philosophy. That’s how it has been for Tata Steel since inception, and the relationship has become more meaningful and nuanced with the passing of the years.

A Ho language workshop in progress

The Tata Steel spread in Jharkhand and Odisha has in its midst many tribal communities, most prominently the Ho, the Santhals, the Mundas and the Oraons. These communities and their well-being have been of concern for the Tribal Cultural Society, established by the company in 1993 to preserve and promote tribal culture. This society is an arm of Tata Steel’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) and its agenda includes the conservation of tribal cultural traditions in language, music and sport, and helping with education and skilling to enhance the employability quotient of young men and women. 

Tata Steel’s efforts to protect and preserve the identity of the indigenous populations in its operational zones have also spawned the Tribal Culture Centre, founded in Jamshedpur in 1990. The centre has a small museum that promotes tribal handicrafts and lifestyle tools, and has hosted a variety of cultural events, the largest of which is Samvaad, an annual gathering of tribal communities from across India.

The commitment Tata Steel brings to the task of backing an initiative that harnesses the age-old traditions of tribal communities and addresses their modern-day concerns is constant and enduring. This commitment is reflected in different spheres — music, language, sport, education and skilling — through comprehensive programmes that have benefitted the communities socially and culturally.

Languages for the future
“There is a lot of wisdom ingrained in every language; wisdom that tends to get lost in translation,” says Biren Bhuta, chief of CSR at Tata Steel, explaining why tribal languages need a leg up to survive. To preserve and protect for posterity — that’s the vision behind setting up of training centres by the Tribal Cultural Society. The aim is to keep tribal languages alive and in good health.

The tribal language classes attract several language enthusiasts

Ho, Santhali, Kuduk, Oroan and Mundari are the languages supported at the training centres. Modernisation has led to these languages being neglected, to put it mildly. Tata Steel’s intent has been to lend a hand in stopping the almost inevitable erosion that tribal languages are facing.

“The training centres have received an enthusiastic response,” says Urmila Ekka, who heads tribal services, the Tata Steel CSR division that runs the centres. And the proof is in the numbers: more than 50,000 students have learned of and about different tribal languages in 172 training centres in Jharkhand and Odisha. There are some 300 trainers, on average, doing the teaching every year. Age is not a barrier to join a training centre; anyone who is interested is welcome to learn. Not only people from the tribes but even language enthusiasts from within the larger region and elsewhere turn up for the course.

The Ol Chiki (Santhali) and Warang Kshiti (Ho) language scripts have received a fillip, thanks to the conservation project, particularly after Tata Steel began helping writers and poets publish. The logic is simple. “Any language in any society will be dynamic and will thrive if there is literature in that language, if people start documenting their own history, and if they start writing their own stories,” says Mr Bhuta.

The tribal services team has innovated along the way, making room for spoken Mundari within an overall structure where the ‘written script’ formula is followed. The decision makes sense given that like many tribal languages, Mundari, too, does not have a written script.

Making music
Music, song and dance are an integral part of tribal culture. It is through these that a lot of the knowledge and wisdom ingrained in tribal communities is passed on from one generation to another. Consequently, spreading the message about the musical traditions and instruments of a tribal culture is just as important as teaching a language to ensure its survival.

The banam is a string instrument, played in a manner similar to the violin

The playing of musical instruments is another component of what Tata Steel has been trying to encourage at its training centres. “Having tribal musical instruments showcased in a museum is not the method of preservation Tata Steel employs,” says Ms Ekka. “We believe in keeping musical art forms alive by keeping the interest in instruments alive.” The part that livelihood plays in enabling a musical art form to stay in the pink is critical, in the circumstances. “If an artist is dying of hunger, the art will never survive,” says Mr Bhuta.

The banam, the mandar and the tuila are the instruments that are taught at the centres. The banam is a large string instrument, held and played in a manner similar to the violin; the mandar is a big, oblong drum, hung across the neck and played with both hands; the tuila is a single-string instrument made of bamboo sticks. (The last of the proficient tuila players, Kali Shankar Mahali of Tatisilwai in Jharkhand, passed away recently, but not before passing on some of his skill to a student, who now teaches the class.)

Currently more than 500 students are undergoing training in these instruments at the Tata Steel centres. While the training classes are on, efforts have been made to organise small-scale shows to encourage musicians and dancers to come forward and show their talent. These efforts have led to many tribal musicians being invited to perform at different places across the country.

Performing outside their home has been a big boost to tribal communities, where there remains a stigma attached to travelling to outside places. Another proscription being junked is one about having only men play certain instruments.

Sporting connections
Sport comes naturally to tribal communities, and evidence of this is the success men and women from the tribal reaches have had in sports such as hockey and archery. The proficiency is more pronounced in some lesser-known tribal sports such as sekkor and kati.

Kati tournaments are organised by the Tribal Cultural Society of Tata Steel in 15 villages of Jharkhand and Odisha in India

Kati, which means ‘block’ in Santhali, has a piece of wood, shaped like an isosceles triangle, from a tamarind tree and 6ft-long bamboo sticks. Each player has a kati and a tarhi. Played between two teams comprising 10-12 members each, kati tournaments are organised by the Tribal Cultural Society in 15 villages of Jharkhand and Odisha, attracting up to 100 teams and more than 1,000 players.

The Ho tribe believes that sekkor brings rain to the region where it is played. The sport is played in summer and it involves spinning a large top and throwing it into the air. Sekkor and its tribal sporting siblings were on the verge of disappearance before the Tribal Cultural Society stepped in with its support. In the last four years, the Kolhan region of Jharkhand has witnessed an annual sekkor tourney where about 200 teams and more than 1,300 participants compete against one another over five days. “This is a form of social networking for tribal people,” explains Mr Bhuta. “We connect on Facebook, Twitter and stuff like that; they do it this way.”

The society has also been involved in promoting other traditional tribal sports, among them chhur, bahu chor and ramdel. “Our persistent efforts have brought recognition and popularity to the sports,” says Ms Ekka.

Education and skilling
The literacy rate among the tribal population of India being what it is, the need for education and training in skills has been acute. The Tribal Cultural Society has been trying to make a difference in this space.

Beginning in 2014, the Tata Steel Scholars Programme has striven to make graduate and post graduate level education a reality for meritorious students from the scheduled caste and scheduled tribe communities at premier academic institutions all over India. Till date, 231 students have been chosen for this full scholarship.

The Jyoti fellowship, another education initiative, is a partial funding programme run by the society. Students are assisted in meeting academic expenses, with the sum being determined by the class in which the student is studying. Over 3,000 students are beneficiaries of this programme every year.

The Akanksha Project is another standout initiative by the society. There are nine ‘particularly vulnerable tribal groups’ (PVTG) that are part of the 32 tribal groups in Jharkhand. These nine tribes, often living in forests, have rarely been given a shot at a decent education. Started in 2011, the project began with 10 students being sent to a residential school. These residential schools have this year provided education to 249 children, courtesy full scholarships provided by Tata Steel, through the project. From languages to sports, Tata Steel’s work with tribal communities continues to deepen.

This article was first published in the January - March 2017 issue of Tata Review. Read the ebook here