Verrier Elwin Animation Workshop
Verrier Elwin as the Presenter of the Tales of the Tribes; Verrier Elwin as the Storyteller
The role of the Presenter
The five stories of the Tales of the Tribes series will presented by a Master of Ceremonies who introduces each story, contextualizes it and invites audience participation through the offer of a Trophy for the story that wins the most votes from the audience.
- A cross cultural figure like Elwin can assist the stories to translate across cultures.
- Little is known about Verrier Elwin outside Indian anthropology. By adapting Elwin as the animated presenter character for the series of films, the aim is to introduce him to young audiences.
A short documentary film about the Workshop to develop Verrier Elwin as the Presenter of the Tales of the Tribes that took place in August 2016, at Centurion University, Bhubaneshwar, Orissa.
Verrier Elwin documented many volumes of folktales. His published collections include:
- Myths of Middle India (1949)
- Tribal Myths of Orissa (1954)
- A New Book of Tribal Fiction (1970)
- Folk-tales of Mahakoshal (1980)
His collections have provided source material for the Tales of the Tribes, most notably for the story of Abotani from Arunachal Pradesh, that I first read in the Myths of the North-east Frontier of India, Volume 1 (1958).
Verrier Elwin also recounts tribal mythologies in his writing
Leaves from the Jungle (1936, p 4-5): At first all was water, and the Great God sat on a lotus leaf in the middle of the ocean. One day the Great God bathed himself, and out of the dirt from his body he made a crow, and sent him out to search for something dry. The crow searched and searched for six months, but he could find no resting place until he came upon the great tortoise, Chakramal Chhatri, who was standing with one foot on the bottom of the sea, his head reaching to the clouds…
- parable with the social function of traditional visual art practices that address aspects of collective life.
Therefore in summary: Mythologies define their identities, establish ideas of origination, and assist in defining ways to engage with the world.
What does this say about Elwin?
- That he was able to recognise the outlooks/world views of the people he worked with.
This sets him apart from most other anthropologists at the time, who studied indigenous cultures from a purely academic standpoint of distance and objectivity, ie that of the expert who drew conclusions about traditional societies from the standpoint of Western education: ie that they represent an earlier stage of development, that they were backward, remnants of the past, in need of reform, civilization, development and upliftment.
In summary: Elwin recognised how they saw the world, what was important to them, and in this way he attempted to incorporate their voices into the publications.
What was his approach?
Elwin’s method of translation was simple and that above all, he avoided either adding any new images or suppressing those of the original, and in this way he was committed to maintaining the authentic meanings of the stories as far as possible.
This approach has been carried forward into the Tales of the Tribes films:
By working in collaboration with local communities we can discuss the meanings of the stories and avoid appropriating the stories to our own ends – for example, for commercial exploitation, or to advance some agenda that is not inherent to the original purpose of the story.
Verrier Elwin’s life trajectory makes for a diverse and interesting story that shows how he was ready to participate in the lives of the people he studied. This journey has been documented by himself in the autobiography The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin, and by others, of which Savaging the Civilized by Ramachandra Guha perhaps gives the most comprehensive study of Verrier Elwin’s life.
From the start, Elwin did not readily fit any single mould, and a glimpse into his life story reveals immense variety, demonstrating that he was able to reinvent his career and how his capacity for self-reflection led him to reassess and revise his views, which has also been part of the process of developing the films.
Defining the approach of the Tales of the Tribes project:
Therefore this project is about studying the work and approach of Verrier Elwin on the one hand and on the other, engaging in the technical processes of adaptation and the animation medium. This creates a synergy between theory and practice which makes it a practice-led research project.
Elwin boldly advised that the non-tribes needed education as much as the tribals themselves. Hivale (1946, p205) further recounts Elwin’s belief that “the primitive has a real message for our sophisticated modern world which is once again threatened with disintegration as a result of its passion for possessions and its lack of love”.
The challenge for young indigenous people to represent Verrier Elwin to their peers.
The script was developed to:
- Achieve the purpose of the presenter – to introduce and clarify/contextualize the stories, introduce audience interaction through the Trophy.
- To reveal some information about Verrier Elwin.
- To know that Verrier Elwin was not a rigid, outdated character, to make him approachable, to explain some of his attitudes.
His connection to the North East is indicated through the use of the Ao shawl: he once advised Government officials to dress in local attire to be more accessible to the communities they worked with.
His connection to Gandhi is shown through his simple Indian attire, specifically the dhoti.
He explains why he is barefoot: he took the vow not to wear shoes until India gained Independence. Early on this indicates his activist approach, and also were his loyalties lay.
Who is the target audience for this work? What would be interesting for them?
The target audience is children – probably from the 8-14 year age group. People who do not have access to his scholarly writing.
Interesting anecdotes and personal, charming observations, stories of magic, spirits, ghosts etc.
From a personal perspective: One of my concluding reasons for choosing Elwin (over any other, native-born Indian ‘hero’), is that I find his sincerity appealing and appreciate how he also came from England and developed a passionate admiration for India’s great tribal cultures.