My recent research topic was the life of the British writer, poet and anthropologist Verrier Elwin. He came to India as a missionary and dedicated his life to the tribes. Gandhi and Nehru were his close friends. Elwin wanted an independant India as well as an improvement of the life conditions of the Indian tribes. His weapon was no gun: “The pen is the chief weapon with which I fight for my poor.”
Verrier Elwin wrote many many books and articles, especially about the culture of the Indian tribes. He was convinced that by making them visible, the other people would admire them as much as he did. He published books about tribal social structure, mythology, songs, poems and fairy tales. He said: “Ethnography is itself a powerful instrument for the succour of the tribesmen. The more you can make people known, the more you will make them loved. If we can inspire officals, traders, contractors with a genuine interest in the life and culture of the villagers with whom they have to deal, they will treat them far better and try to further their interests.”
Elwin also had his weaknesses but his contribution in making a hidden culture visible and better understood. He shows how powerful a pen can be. Here is one of his poems:
Adibasi (1952) by Verrier Elwin
How tired they are, and what a sombre grace
Time has drawn on the wise old faces, grey
With the death of children, and no release
From want that rules day after anxious day.
There was life there once, and joy in recreation,
Dancing and laughter, love among the trees,
But little now save sullen speculation
Of what the future has and where it leads.
Old rules are broken, boys go to the town;
Children are married in a loveless tie;
The ancient forest is no more their own;
The women lose their treasured liberty.
New customs which are little understood
Drive out the old, leave nothing in their place.
The old men suck their wooden pipes, and brood,
And tremble for the future of their race.