A Disappearing World: Robert Wallis' Adivasi captures changing India at the Brunei Gallery

By Nick Owen | 18 April 2011
A photograph of two Adivasis painting a Khovar mural
© Robert Wallis
Exhibition: A Disappearing World, Brunei Gallery, London, until June 25 2011

India is currently undergoing its greatest economic growth in history. As cities expand and the middle class grows, so does the country’s demand for natural resources. In the midst of this boom, an unseen battle is being waged between ancient tradition and modern expansion, with calamitous results.

A new exhibition at SOAS’s Brunei Gallery uncovers this clash, documenting the disappearance of a way of life known in India for millennia in the face of mining on an epic scale.

With photography by Robert Wallis and artwork by members of the Tribal Women's Artist Collective from Jharkhand, North India, A Disappearing World explores India’s "resource curse": how land rich in minerals is displacing and impoverishing India’s rural population.

The Adivasis (tribal groups) of Jharkhand, who claim to be the original inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent, hold no title deeds to their land. These non-Hindu tribal groups, who traditionally worshipped nature and maintained spiritual connections to ancestral territory, are now being forced to live in resettlement camps or urban slums.

Dispossessed of their heritage and surviving as scavengers on the periphery of mines where they once hunted or farmed, the plight of the Adivasis has lead to militant insurgency in the countryside, and is sparking debate within the Indian government and beyond.

The photography and artwork on display gives a glimpse of some of the Adivasi’s fast disappearing traditions. Khovar and Sohrai ritual mural paintings, pictured above, are a tradition passed from mother to daughter over generations.

As mud houses make way for brick constructions, and in turn small villages make way for mining towns, these customs are becoming increasingly rare. It is traditions such as these that the Tribal Women’s Artist Collective is striving to protect.

To devastating effect, Wallis’ photography also shows the residual impact of mining on the health of the communities. Estimated to hold 40% of India’s coal and iron ore resources, Jharkhand is also home to the country’s largest deposits of uranium. Radiation poisoning from contaminated wells and streams are causing hundreds of reported cases of birth defects each year.

The exhibition poses some probing questions. They look certain to continue to be asked of the Indian government over the coming decades.

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