ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Adivasis and the Anthropological Gaze

Through the display of material culture, museums invoke not only an imagined Adivasi past, but also a fossilised vision of their cultural present. While these museums tend to fulfil a pedagogical function through the display of material cultural objects, the implicit ideology behind these exhibits has not received the attention it deserves in India. Why do ethnographic museums choose to display predominantly select groups like the tribals? Why not also display upper-caste women and men and their lifeworld? Here is where politics of representation becomes inextricably intertwined with ethnographic displays in museums. This article explores the dynamics of the anthropological gaze and how it has contributed to the construction of the Adivasis as the exotic cultural other.

An intriguing aspect of the ethnographic displays in Indian museums is the fact that in spite of the existence of immense number of ethnic groups in the country, there is an overwhelming focus on the Adivasi groups and their lifeworld in these exhibits. The roots of this anthropological gaze go back to the rise of colonial ethnography which functioned mainly within the framework of cultural evolutionism and its ideological corollary of cultural hierarchy.

Colonial ethnography which produced the image of the tribals as primitive also laid the foundations for how the Adivasis came to be represented in ethnographic museums. Through the display of material culture, museums invoke not only an imagined Adivasi past, but also a fossilised vision of their cultural present. While ethnographic museums tend to fulfil a pedagogical function through the display of material cultural objects, the implicit ideology behind these exhibits has not received the attention it deserves in India. This article explores the dynamics of the anthropological gaze and how it has contributed to the construction of the Adivasis as the exotic cultural other.

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