Bhopal’s Madhya Pradesh Tribal Museum unfurls a rich tapestry of stories. Its vast galleries are canvases for locals and artists from the Gond, Bhil, Korku, Baiga, Sahariya, Kol, and Bhariya communities, who have crafted exhibits and installations showcasing their everyday life and folklore.
The first gallery is illuminated in warm yellows and oranges, as if catching the mellow rays of the morning sun.Visitors can enter replicas of traditional mud-and-brick huts of each tribe. They are so realistic that I feel like I’ll see a matriarch bustling about in a kitchen any second. On the walls outside I spot tiny murals of impish children frolicking on farms. Things get more interesting at the Tribal Aesthetic gallery with its exhaustive exhibits related to myth, art, and marriage rituals. A part of the gallery is lush with bamboo, and wooden figurines amid this “jungle” recreate the popular Gond folk tale of the Basin Kanya. According to the story, a strange twist of fate leads to a girl being killed by her six brothers. Thereafter, she is reborn as the bamboo plant, an invaluable natural resource for the tribe.
I spot a brass model of a bangle, at least six feet in diameter, studded with figurines of cattle and pickaxe-wielding farmers. It is an enlarged version of an ornament gifted to newly-wed Bhil women and symbolizes the harvest and productivity. Nearby are numerous drums tied to a tree. Alongside, figurines of musicians depict stories of the origins of music among some local tribal communities. It helps me see how seemingly ordinary objects are potent symbols of faith and an expression of art among communities.
Stepping into the Tribal Spiritual World gallery feels like entering a magic land illuminated in deep blues and fierce reds. A sign says the lighting attempts to help visitors imagine a mystical world inhabited by spirits of ancestors. Vivid exhibits symbolize the afterlife, for instance ladders are meant to help the deceased enter heaven. Memorial pillars are carved with touching detail, depicting a grandfather chewing tobacco or a child playing with a favourite toy.
This extraordinary museum captures the unfettered imagination of the indigenous people of this area. It is a space in which life stories have been told and shared with the world in imaginative ways.
Appeared in the October 2016 issue as “Sense and Spirituality”. Updated in October 2017.
The Madhya Pradesh Tribal Museum is in north Bhopal, 15 km/30 min southeast of Bhopal airport and 8 km/20 min southwest of Bhopal railway station (mptribalmuseum.com, open Tue-Sun noon-7 p.m., entry ₹10).
Kareena Gianani is the former Commissioning Editor at National Geographic Traveller India. She loves stumbling upon hole-in-the-wall bookshops, old towns and collecting owl souvenirs in all shapes and sizes.