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Thursday, March 10, 2011

Tribe: The terminology

[Extracted from M.Phil. Thesis (Role of micro project in the development of Primitive Tribal Groups....) of Mr. Bibhuti Bhusan Pradhan, M.Phil in Tribal Studies, Berhampur University.]
The travel writers and missionaries were the first to use the term ‘tribe’ and ‘caste’ to describe a vast variety of ethnic and occupational groups in Indian society. Initially, these two terms were used by the western nations as synonymous, the difference only being in the social status of the group they described. In 1872, through a legal intervention, an official list of tribes was prepared. Prior to this, in 1871, a list was prepared for communities that were mistakenly thought of as ‘criminal’ and covered by the provisions of an inhuman “Criminal Tribes Act of India, 1871”. Since then ‘tribes’ are perceived as a distinct segment of the society. In 1935 the tribal communities received a special mention under Government of India Act, 1935 where a special reference was made to the ‘backward tribes’. Certain tribes were specified as backward in the then provinces as per 13th Schedule to the Government of India (Provisional Legislative Assemblies) Order, 1936. It is Dr. J.H. Hutton who made the first attempt to list these Primitive Tribes at the Census of 1931. The lists of SCs and STs notified by the President of India in 1950 were revised by the SCs and STs Order (Amendment) Act, 1956 and the SCs and STs List (Modification) Order, 1956. The Scheduled Tribes are enlisted according to the Article 342 of the Constitution of India.
The term “tribe” is derived from the word “tribus” which refers to a particular kind of social and political organization existing in traditional societies, where there is an internal relationship, real or implied, between kinship and political organizations. This relationship can be understood better if the nature of social groups is designated as clan, phratry, genos and tribes. Morgan typified tribe as a completely organized society. A tribe is an aggregate of clans. A clan is a consanguine group, real or fictive of relations and all the members believe to have descended from a common ancestor or ancestress. Each tribe is culturally homogenous and is individualized by a common appellation, by a common dialect or language, by a law-enforcing mechanism, by professing animism, and by possession of a common territory, which it claims to be its very own. In other words, a tribe may be described as system of social organization with a common territory, a tradition of common descent, common language, a common name, above all a common culture. Words like ‘tribe’ and ‘tribals’ have come to acquire extensive usage in social science and social change. They denote both an anthropological category akin to its classical form as a metaphor for the most victimized segments in our society. The expression “Tribal Identity” has sharp political resonance and is felt and read almost entirely in ethno-social terms. The discipline of Ethnology is to understand and make sense of social facts and forms of thought. Levi Strauss sensed in ethnology a belated sense of remorse. As an intellectual artifact, it is inherently ambiguous and seeks remembrance for facts and forms.
From the study of the anthropological literature, it appears that the term tribe has been used for those groups of human beings, whose place of residence is situated in remote areas like hills, forest, sea coasts and islands; and whose style of life is quite different from the present day civilized men. Local indigenous people residing in these places of the world are termed a tribe or tribal, to distinguish them from other people of the world. Anthropology and tribal study are closely related. Anthropology as a discipline of subject and research has come into existence to study the local indigenous people of Africa, Asia, Australia and New world. It is because of this fact that some scholars criticize Anthropology as ‘tribalogy’. Like other societies, tribal society is also not static, rather is quite dynamic. But the rate of change in tribal society is very slow. That is why they are called backward and poor in comparison to other people.

Saora/Saura Painting, Orissa

Saura paintings are traditionally painted on the walls of the houses to mark special events such as birth of a child, a good harvest, marriage etc. The sacred “idital” paintings (a part of Saura art) were always painted in the darkest rooms of the house, and were used by the tribal people to contact and appease the dead ancestors of the tribe.


The Saura tribes of Orissa have a glorious past. The Saura tribe i.e. Sauras or Savaras have been mentioned in Indian epics Ramayana and Mahabharata. Savari's devotion to Rama in Ramayana is part of the folk lore of India. In Mahabharata, Jara Savara pierces an arrow to Krisna and kills him.

The people of the Saura tribe traditionally drew ritualistic pictographs on the inside walls of their mud houses called 'italons'. These pictographs were made for various reasons – to avoid disease, preserve crops, honor the dead of the tribe, and promote fertility.

In recent times, the Saura artists have started using hand-made paper and cloth as the medium for their paintings.


The Saura tribe is one of the oldest known communities in India. They live mainly in the hills of Rayagada district of Orissa, and have become famous for the rich variety of paintings made on the inner walls of their houses. These tribal people depend on farming for subsistence, and are inclined towards depicting the importance of land through their paintings. The tribe is sheltered from urban culture and lifestyle since its people are surrounded by the hills and have limited public access to their settlements.

Process, Talent & Skills needed

The Sauras paint on the inside of the walls which is due to their religious belief. Natural colors are used mainly black and white (made from soot and rice respectively) and a bamboo brush is used to paint.

The artist needs excellent skills to make these paintings since the work on these paintings is fairly elaborate. Saora paintings are geometric in style, but with a fishing net-like approach within larger characters. These are different from the Warli tribe paintings where the insides of characters do not have the Saura net-like approach. The Warli figures are also more linear compared with the Saura figures.

Materials used, durability

For wall paintings, a brush is made from a bamboo split, black colour is collected from soot generated out of lamps, sun-dried rice is crushed to from white powder, and all these are mixed in water, and juice from roots and herbs to make a paste. The colour that is finally obtained is black and white.

In recent times, artists have also started painting on paper, and on 'American' card boards, and use acrylic colors to paint.


These are similar to the Warli paintings and stick figures are found in this art form as well. However, while Warli painting is fluid and primitive in style, the Saura craftspersons exert more restraint and the style is more colorful. This artform reflects everyday life of the tribal people: agrarian and hunting activities as well as depiction of music and dance during the festivals.