A fine writer, Dr Verrier Elwin's many anthropological monographs and rich collection of oral traditions of the adivasis are some of the best documentations on tribal culture. This collection of tribal stories were selected by Elwin himself from amongst the many thousands and written down almost exactly as they were told to him. Few of the tribal stories point a moral, but they have their own interest and excitement. A charm and freshness that reflects the freedom and gaiety of their life and the beauty of their environments.
Dr. Verrier Elwin (1902-1964) belonged to one of those rare breed of rebel Christian missionaries, who first came to India to work as an Anglican in the Christ Seva Sangha at Pune. The turning point in his life came when he, prompted by the call of Gandhi, settled down in a remote tribal village in central India and chose the service of tribals as his life's mission.
When the World was Young contains a wideranging selection of folktales from the tribal communities of India. The book has wonderful accounts of how the world was made, how a river finds its course, and what causes earthquakes. These stories are richly evocative, and certainly more engaging than purely scientific, dry-as-dust explanations of the same phenomena. Other tales provide explanations how humans began to talk and see, the origins of cloth and clothing, and the discovery of fire. Some stories recount human encoun- ters with animals, both intimate and hostile, and the origin of animal characteristics. We learn here why frogs have thin legs, and why elephants do not have wings.
The topical variety of these tales is matched by their geographical range, for they originate in tribes as farflung as the Baiga, who live in the forests of central India, and the Minyong, who are to be found on the banks of the Siang river in Arunachal. In both respects the stories reflect the rich and enormously varied life of their compiler. Born in 1902, Verrier Elwin was one of this century's great pioneer- ing anthropologists. Elwin first came to India in 1927, following a brilliant academic career at the University of Oxford. He soon came into contact with Mahatma Gandhi, and became a rebel against the Raj an Englishman who campaigned energetically for India's freedom from British rule.
In 1932, Elwin settled with his lifelong companion, Shamrao Hivale, in a remote Gond village in the Mandla district of Madhya Pradesh. Here the two friends set upthe G0I1d Seva MandaI, a welfare organization designed to bring modern education and modern medicine to the tribals. Their early encounters with the tribes are described in Elwin's charming memoir of life with the Gonds, Leaves from the Jungle (first published in 1936). In that book he relates how he became enchanted with the tribal culture and way of life, and began collecting and translating their stories and myths. While Shamrao Hivale supervised the schools and hospitals of tfie Gond Seva MandaI, Elwin roamed through the tribal regions of present-day Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Maharashtra and Bihar. Based on his enquiries, he wrote a series of authoritative studies of the different communities he encountered. But Elwin's interest in the tribals was by no means a narrowly scientific one. Deeply disturbed by their loss of rights in land and forests, and the erosion of their culture, he became a self-appointed yet uniquely effective spokesman for the 25 million adioasis of central India; Indeed, it was chiefly through Verrier Elwin's books, articles, lectures, films and photographs that urban Indians first became aware of the life and problems of their tribal countrymen.
After Independence came, in August 1947, Elwin became by law what he had long been in heart and mind, that is, a citizen of India. By now, he had forged an impressive network of admirers and supporters, which included Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru. On Nehru's recommendation Elwin was appointed Adviser on Tribal Affairs to the Government of the North East Frontier Agency (now known as Arunachal Pradesh). In this inacces- sible and little-known part of India, Elwin's job was to study the living conditions of the tribes and advise government on its policies towards them. Once again, he focused attention on the strengthening of tribal rights in land and forest. For his services to the adivasis, and in recognition of his contributions to Indian anthropology, he was awarded the Padma Bhushan in 1961. Verrier Elwin died in February 1964, an esteemed and greatly loved public figure in his adopted land.
Elwin's life and work are beautifully summed up in his autobiography, The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin, which was finished before he died but published posthumously. (This book, as well as Leaves from the Jungle, have recently been republished: both are highly recommended.) Elwin was by turns a propagandist, a social worker, an anthropologist, and a government official. But he was above all a writer, the author of over twenty five books, ranging from ethnogra- phies to novels and from histories of art to autobiographies. He also brought out five large volumes of folktales, from which When the World was Young is distilled. This volume, like many of the other books he wrote, affirms both Elwin's empathy with the tribes and his skills as a storyteller. First published in 1961, and reprinted in 1966; it is now being reissued for a new generation of readers.
I have been collecting stories in the hills and forests of India for just thirty years and have published a little over two thousand of them. In this small book J have gathered a few that describe the people's idea of what life was like in the days when the world was young, or at least younger than it is today. Some of them describe how the world began and what sort' of men and women lived in it at first. Others suggest how some of the essentials of human life-the use of fire, the building of houses, the weaving of cloth-were , invented. Yet others recall the exciting days when men and animals lived together and talked to one another, and the strange adventures that people had when magic was still real and strong. Death was a stranger in the old world and a few stories tell us how he first came, not to make men sad but to console them and and lift from them the burden of having to live too long.
These stories are taken from my earlier books-Folk- Tales of Mahakoshal (Oxford University Press, 1944), Myths of Middle India (O.u.P., 1949), Tribal Myths of Orissa (O.u.P., 1954), Myths of the North-East Frontier of India (North-East Frontier Agency, 1958), and The Baiga (john Murray, 1939). To the publishers of these I make my grateful acknowledgements.
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