Monday, September 11, 2006

Creativity and Verrier Elwin

This is an assignment I did for a class and I think I will publish it.
Verrier Elwin’s Autobiography which is called “The Tribal world of Verrier Elwin- An Autobiography”.
"The Tribal World of Verrier Elwin is the story of one of the greatest scholars and champions of India's tribal peoples. The hugely controversial Elwin's moving autobiography received the Sahitya Akademi award, which noted its 'sincerity', courage and charm, revealing a mind in which Western and Indian idealism were uniquely blended”.

- from the Vedam books website review of the book

The Book and Me!
When I was living in the Himalayas without so many modern comforts that we take for granted in the modern world, a visitor to the ashram mentioned Verrier Elwin’s name and told me I was trying to be one.
What was a Verrier Elwin?
I saw a book by Ram Guha on him but somehow I never got the inclination to read it . A few days ago in one of Bangalore’s book fairs I picked up an oxford ‘three in one’ classic paper book called “Lives in the Wilderness”. Since I was doing something on nature, I thought I could make this book a part of my background reading!

Creativity and Verrier.

In science, creativity is linked to discoveries and invention which like all definitions narrows down the scope of what one can call creative. But my take on creative thinking is that one can live life as a creation. To actively take on a set of values that you have to invent and reinvent every moment in your life is living a life in creativity. Creative thinking comes from a way to transform what is given –circumstances, events or data into something beyond -a new paradigm of living itself. Verrier’s life exemplifies this transformation.
At the same time Verrier is also an acclaimed writer with many books to his credit. His Autobiography is a pleasure to read with the right mix of humour and serious thought. I can see both creative and critical thinking in his work. I enjoyed reading the book and hope that some or the other time all of you will flip through the original. There are also small poems, parts of letters translations of tribal song and pieces of prose by other writers. This is a story as interesting as the narratives of tribals themselves. The autobiography is anecdotal so you can read bits and pieces in the middle if you like.

My story of Verrier’s story that I read.

What is a Verrier?

A Trishanku who found his heaven

They talk of suspension between two worlds- a Trishanku.
A verrier who was Elwin was born in Britain,
baptised by the church,
a bishop he was
till he came
to our world, India.
Where touched by Bapu-
a vishvamitra of satyagraha,
he began his ascent into worlds
that he didn’t belong in.

Writing a summary of an autobiography is somewhat of a challenge because the moment you put your words on paper, the book is transformed from an autobiography into a biography. If you use the author’s words exactly the way he used them, the summary becomes a long quotation, with no reference to context. Instead what I choose to do in this piece of writing is to tell a story of Verrier Elwin in my words after reading from the book. And because this is a book project, I will try and mention those ideas or quotations from the book that I liked. I also will try to trace from the story the answer to the question-“what made Verrier Elwin a creative person?” -creative as I described earlier, in the meaning of causing a transformation, creating a new vision where none was before.
If there is one thing I want to take on from this book it is the performs into city offered for a book supposedly written by a famous anthropologist not once did I have to look up a word in a dictionary or ponder or the right meaning of a technical term in anthropology . I was surprised at the ease with which I could read the book. This book is not to be thread for its profound insides of analysis instead it is a voyage of discovery of a human being in search of truth, beauty and love. The best part is he had a good time during this voyage.
Some places in the book you can see the writer is old and he wanders off from the serial relating of events and then comes back to the point again and resumes his narration.
Verrier quite simply tells us the story of his life .
Verrier writes of his childhood in a Christian evangelist family. Two chapters of his autobiography cover his childhood and youth in England. He spares no time whining about hard times but easily writes of poverty, loneliness and his childhood struggles which taught him not to expect anything in life. He did have many people connected in many ways to India. Verrier was born in Dover, Kent in 1902 as the son of a bishop. The adult Elwin looks back to see the significance of this day –
“ a day which is tragically associated by the church with the beheading of John the Baptist and the birthday of King Herod,…..”.Three paragraphs into the episode of his birth, you can see how the writer will tell his story.

Of his parents, he was closer to his mother as his father was often away on tours. His mother is describes by Verrier as ‘intelligent, beautiful and imaginative but afraid of boredom’. After his father's death, Verrier’s mother turned to a livelier form of the Anglican Church revivalist evangelism. This provided his mother a chance of speaking with tongues or dancing in ecstasy near the holy table as opposed to the more staid Anglican Church Christianity. This stream of Christianity was sterner about sin and the pleasures of flesh and was almost ascetic in its practices.
Because of this religious fervor, the element children, Verrier his sister, and brother had to forgo many of the pleasures that accompany normal childhood. There was always the chance of a visitation from Jesus, what if he arrived during a play or a show?

Many interesting relations on his mother’s side gave his family shelter and took care of the needs of the mother and her children. Right here, his religious upbringing comes into conflict and causes him trouble. Would his grandmother, who was generous with pocket money, go to hell because she took swigs of brandy from a hidden bottle in her dress cupboard? Verrier mentions that many of his relations lived and worked in India.
Verrier claims that his childhood was not easy but he was happy. His adventures and learning in school were instrumental in giving him experiences that may be a different school could have done differently. All the limitations in his life actually taught him not to expect anything and so he says that later on he was able to be grateful to life when anything nice happened to him.

His love for writing and poetry had its roots in his student life when he opted to study English literature which was still a new field of study.


Verrier went to Merton College in oxford. He won many scholarships and prizes which he mentions rather casually in his autobiography. Instead, descriptions of people he met or was influenced by, books and landscapes of college life find centre stage in his prose.
The delightful story of Sir Herbert, the snobbish president of Magdelen College and Mrs Beasent must be retold. This story was making the rounds of colleges in oxford along with others about the snobbery when Verrier first heard it. Mrs Beasent came to have Krishnamurti admitted in the college. Seeing that Sir Herbert was reluctant, she remarked that her ward was special.” But my ward is a special person ”.she is said to have said ,”But he does happen to be the Son of God”. Sir Herbert is said to have replied to this “Madam we have the sons of many distinguished people in this college.”
Verrier however limited by the demands of his faith had few indulgences but poetry. After some unsuccessful attempts at boxing and soccer, Verrier took up religion as a pastime. “In place of bridge or racing” he writes.
He also recounts taking Dr Radhakrishnan out punting and asking him if he knew anything about comparative religions.

Following what could be termed as an ideal career path, he was offered a job as the vice principal of Wyncliff Hall and was made a chaplain too. But his dabbling in all kinds of literature meant his discussions were tending towards Catholicism and mysticism and soon he lost his job. His plans to take up work among the poor of London also fell through. We find an Elwin, poor without a job, unsure of the practice of his faith and unable to even follow the yearnings of his heart to serve the poor as a spiritual leader. In course of this time he was also fortunate to meet a Ceylon missionary called Bernard Aluvihare. Bernard not only introduced him to the real Asia but also kindled his interest in the Indian nationalist movement and philosophy. Verrier claims that Bernard was an antidote to his notions of Asian who he believed were “Wogs and Natives” As if all circumstances coming together, at this time that he heard of a movement called Christa Seva Sangh being run by a Father Winslow.
This was looking at reorienting Christianity in such a way to reconnect to the poor and also the cause of Indian nationalism and culture. Verrier was inspired by the thought of this novel experiment in living a different life and he along with others decided to join this order and move to India.

India of Gandhi

After a visit to Ceylon, Verrier landed in beautiful Malabar and was stuck by the beauty of the landscape. He arrived in Pune in 1927 and joined the Christha Seva Sangh. For Verrier,by the standards of 1927, the life at CCS was odd for an Englishman. They had Indian Food served to them in brass plates and katories.
They had to eat from them sitting crossed legged on the floor every meal. The dress was a Kadhi Habit.and the inmates had to learn Marathi.

An important event in the year 1928 for Verrier was his first visit to Sabarmati ashram and close contact with Gandhiji. He went there to attend an interreligious conference organised by B.P Wadia. In Verrier’s own words-
“From The moment of my arrival there I was doomed” he writes, “for long I was a sympathetic fellow traveler , now I became an ardent disciple”
It was during that visit that something transformed in the British born priest. Verrier the Indian was born. Very often in his autobiography, he keeps recollecting the various experiences he had during this time, and of Gandhiji influence on his life.

Unfortunately Verrier fell sick the same year with acute dysentery, and had to go back to England for convalescence. During this time Verrier produced small books on his faith and mysticism. But as soon as he was well enough he came back to India with a stopover at Palestine.

A few months after Verrier’s arrival, Father Winslow, left him in charge of the Ashram with slightly unpleasant consequences. Verrier’s association with the Indian National Movement and other Gandhians, and their stay at the C.S.S. led him into confrontations with the Clergy and the British government. He was reprimanded by his superiors in the church and he began to dissociate form the CSS from 1928-32, while remaining in close touch with Gandhi.
Verrier narrates for us the events of our own history. Strangely I did not find the narrative British. What is also refreshing in this account of this time is that there is frank respect and adoration of Gandhiji without it becoming a sheepy- dog- eyed worship. Elwin doesnot agree to Gandhiji’s views on puritan life. During this time Gandhiji asked him to go and work among the poor and the villages. When he was ready to do so and discussing various possibilities, Sardar Patel laid the first stepping stone of his life’s purpose by advising him to leave villages alone and instead to work with the tribals. His friend Shamrao, another priest from England joined him in Poona and the two embarked on a tour of tribal India. The individual history of Verrier gets enmeshed with the histories of the independence struggle around this time. It was during one such period that J. Bajaj asked Elwin to take a turn as President when it was the turn of an Englishman to occupy it.

This spurred Elwin into his own “true path” and he turned to his plan to work in the Gond area. There on the mud floor of small hut with a thatch roof, he fell again for the call of the primitive world. “In that little good shed I realized I would be able to escape the call of the (modern) primitive world.

Tribal India

Verrier’s autobiography moves into a realm where I cannot tell the story any better except in his own words.
He consequently broke away from the church when they refused to support the cause of a free India preferring instead to remain loyal to the colonisers. It was very painful time during Verrier’s life as he struggled to find a place for his faith without being disloyal to his religion. It was harder as the church preferred to be loyal to the colonizers rather than the people it served and for Elwin this was against the very spirit of Christianity. Verrier also began his crusade against Puritanism in any form as it seems to make the tribals in to wrongdoers just because of their freer ways of living. His differences with Gandhiji’s views on this too become evident.
Verrier spent his time moving from tribal village to tribal village, living with the tribals and serving them. Taking on a self imposed vow of poverty and service, he and his friend biut themselves a camp home in sachrwanchapar. Verrier began to document the tribal life in its entirety while still engaging in serving them. He calls this Philanthropology. What is Verrier’s autobiography is also the biography of the tribes he studied. There are stories of the people he met ,the land and forests he lived in as well as his own life. Every detail is alive and brought to the reader ,whether it is a Ghotul ( Community house) of the tribals or the leper’s ashram set up by him for the tribes.
Fact is woven into poetical fact and his passion and love for the people that he worked with shows itself through every time, whether it the boy who liked to kiss the radio set or the poor tribal Gonds in the jail, their ‘eyes like frightened deer’. The chapters that follow on Elwin’s life cannot be easily paraphrased without losing their charm and poetry. He traveled the central Indian regions with the Gonds, Santhaals and the Marias. He also spent time in the North east visiting many tribes.Many times he was sick and unwell yet he never let go of an opportunity to visit any last inhabited tribal settlement. The ministry of home affairs gave him a consultant position on tribal issues. During the course of his life he wrote many books documenting the life of tribals and translating their songs and myths .This autobiography was published three months after he passed away.
I will be reading bits of this part of his story for my presentation hence I choose not to write it all down here.

Journey’s end
Verrier’s eternal quest he says was love truth and beauty. He claims in his book that he found them in the simpler joys of life- his family, the tribal way of life and his friends. To him, love illuminates knowledge .His last chapters are philosophical in the sense that he seeks to define the meaning of his life and wishes the reader to take away one central message from his life. This is the message of compassionate love. Not an abstract love but love in action.

I conclude this story with his message-

“Love and the duties it imposes is the real lesson of the forest”.

I plan to next read Guha's book on Verrier elwin.

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