The life, work, and legacy of Verrier Elwin (1902-1964)
Dr Tara Douglas, Secretary of the Adivasi Arts Trust, presented an introduction to the life, work and philosophy of the anthropologist, ethnologist, and tribal activist Verrier Elwin (1902-1964), together with Tales of the Tribes, a series of short animated films based on some of the many folktales from the indigenous tribes of Central and North East India that he collected and documented over the course of nearly three decades.
Elwin was was one of the most prolific anthropological writers of the mid-twentieth century, producing 26 books and numerous articles, nearly all of which recorded Indian tribal lifestyles and cultures. His writings often reflect his life and opinions: radical, unconventional, and at times controversial. Elwin came up to Merton in 1921 to read for a degree in English and a Theology doctorate before travelling to India in 1927 as a missionary. However, he was soon attracted by Gandhi, abandoning evangelism to become an active participant in the struggle for Indian independence, and later converting to Hinduism. After independence, he was appointed Tribal Affairs Advisor to the Governor of Assam, where he greatly influenced the shaping of policies to integrate indigenous communities to mainstream Indian society.
Alongside his publications, Elwin’s black and white photographs form a significant archive of knowledge about the indigenous peoples of Central and North East India. His anthologies of their folktales have now provided the source material for a collection of five animated reinterpretations of these stories entitled Tales of the Tribes, with Elwin in the role of storyteller and presenter of each of the films. Dr Douglas discussed this exceptional man and his eventful life before introducing the films themselves.
Photo: Maria Gond funerary pillar made of saga wood as a memorial after a cremation, photographed by Verrier Elwin - © Ashok Elwin