The Kurukh Adivasi family of Argora

My aunt, Kamalawati Tigga, standing left with her siblings, nieces, and neighbours. Argora Village (now in Ranchi, Jharkhand), Formerly in Bihar State. Circa 1965 

Image and Narrative points contributed by Nidhi Kacchap, Jharkhand

IMP Research Intern : Vaskar Mech, Tezpur, Assam

This incredible photograph of my aunt, my ‘Badi-mumma’, Kamalawati Tigga, standing left most, was taken around 1965, with her siblings, nieces, and a neighbour whose name no one can remember. Badi-mumma is my paternal uncle’s wife. This picture was photographed by hersister’s husband Naru Toppo who was a local photographer.

Born in 1950, in Argora village to an Adivasi family (indigenous tribe) in Ranchi district of Bihar (now of Jharkhand) my aunt’s father, Bagal Tigga was a Jamidaar (junior officer/squire in local dialect) at the local police station and she enjoyed a relatively comfortable life growing up compared to other Adivasi families around at the time, perhaps also because she had fewer siblings to look after.

Here my aunt stands straight and bold, with her hands crossed, next to her elder sister (standing middle), Ramkrishna, whom she lovingly called Chamguru, as it was the name of the village she was married into. In the middle, seated is her eldest sister Seeban with her two daughters, Peetal and Dol. The little boy is their youngest brother Vimal. The awkward gentleman standing right most was their next door neighbour. Badi-mumma cannot recollect his name but says that Vimal had invited him to be photographed and he acceded. The photograph was taken outside their home by their bhatu (brother-in-law) Naru Toppo, Seeban’s husband. Naru was a local  professional photographer and a studio-master. His studio was located in one of the sectors set up by an Industrial corporation, HECL (Heavy Engineering Corporation Limited) not far from their home in Argora

Naru, my aunt’s brother-in-law, was from Kesari village situated in the outskirts of Ranchi and his photo studio was frequented by clients who were mostly HECL factory workers and he would even photograph their community events. After marrying my aunt’s sister Seeban, they began living next door as the industrial area and the developing city had begun providing better opportunities and educational institutions for their children. Naru also built a makeshift darkroom at home to develop photographs, and my aunt recalls that ‘red light’ which she found amusing, and how the processing of photographs would leave a black stain on his thumb. While many of their family photographs were taken in their home whenever Naru had his camera; to go all the way to a studio was rare and the only time she went to Naru’s photo studio was for a passport size photograph she needed for an application form.

My aunt completed her schooling at the local Protestant missionary school, Bethesda Girls High School in 1968. While she cannot remember the year this photograph was taken, she recalls it must have been some years before her matriculation, because here she is wearing a frock, and after completing her education she only wore sarees. Pointing to her gold bangle, she said that they weren’t allowed to wear any jewellery to school so she would sneakily put them on before getting photographed. She seems extremely amused that she was the tallest (and most studious) of all her siblings. In 1968, she joined a residential teacher’s training centre in Ratu, Ranchi and post her training in 1972, she married Sukra Oraon of village Harser, my father’s elder brother, my uncle, whom I call Baba. Baba had a diploma from ITI (Industrial Training Institute) in Hehal, Ranchi and had just joined the HECL’s Heavy Machine Tools production unit. Both were born in 1950, began their work life together after marriage, and even retired together in the year 2010. The couple went on to have three children and five grandchildren.

Things changed with time as they always do, and when Naru Bhatu’s photo studio closed down, a branch of Canara Bank sprouted up at the same space. By then Kamala badi-mumma had witnessed both the worthy, and the awful consequences of industrialisation and its townships.

HECL was set up in 1958 as one of the largest Integrated Engineering Complexes when India had great bilateral relations with the Soviet Union (USSR) (now Post Soviet states). USSR used to be the leading supplier of capital equipment in India for Steel, Mining, Railways, Defence and Space research and Nuclear sectors. My uncle, Baba, says that there were many residential quarters for Russian engineers and their families who were sent to India to train the factory staff. Sprawling over thousands of acres, the industrial region was well planned with offices, factories, markets, schools, clinics and complexes. They also maintained beautiful gardens with Roses, and seasonal trees that had flowers blooming on either side of the roads. The Shalimar haat which is still a part of the central market in the area would emerge every Tuesdays and Fridays. Buzzing with activity, the market facilitated a lot of interaction between the villagers, factory employees, and the Russians. From local produce to meats, the Haat (scheduled markets) continues to be the heart of the HECL area. 

But on the other hand industrialisation has always had its foundation based on encroachment of land and forced migration. My uncle, Baba says that around 36 revenue villages were displaced when HECL was set up. And even more when they built the residential quarters and a dam nearby to supply water. The encroachment forcibly displaced ancient tribes like Kurukh and Munda from their centuries old owned land and as compensation people were offered a job in the factory and some money. My dadu (paternal grandfather) was a skilled carpenter and also owned land where we grew paddy. He too gave up his land for a factory worker job and our land became a submerged part of the dam after the HECL plant was set up. Thousands of Adivasis chose instead to migrate to more distant villages to their relatives, and to states like Assam and West Bengal to find work in tea gardens and other places. Some villagers moved to the interiors of Hazaribagh, and other districts which are today identified as the Maoist Red Corridor. The divide, and the pain that industrialisation brought into India could not be disregarded. While HECL was a state owned enterprise, it seems to have had no room for its own people – the adivasis, non tribal locals, and people from scheduled castes who did not fit into “a modern India” mould.

Badi-mumma’s first posting was at a new government primary school Harser Primary School, in a revenue village that was a kilometre away from the resident quarters and factory plant. She recalls how disheartening it was to see children from poverty laden families and that most of them didn’t return for secondary schooling. During paddy season especially, students would skip most days, working in agriculture fields, masonry, and other work for daily wages. In 1997, she was transferred to Balalong Higher Secondary School, where she taught until her retirement in 2010. The School was located on the other side of the dam and had more students, but the situation remained grim with early dropouts and low attendance. However, to those who knew her, and were taught by her – they remember my aunt fondly. Known as ‘Kamala Madam’ among her students, she is still always greeted at the haat as ‘Johar Madam!’(Hello Madam) and even offered discounts on all fresh produce. 

My Badi-mumma is now a retired government primary school teacher and doesn’t seem as interested in getting photographed these days, but she fondly cherishes the memories of her siblings and younger days through her albums of a few collected photos. She giggles that this might be her only photograph where she is wearing a frock. Two of her siblings in this photograph passed away, but she is very close to her nieces.

While on a lighter note we all laugh at the unnamed awkward neighbour who joined in for this photograph, it has helped me to trace not just her journey and experiences of her life, but serve as a wonderful reminder of the changing times for our family. 

The addition of this Photo-Narrative to the archive has been made possible due to the generous consideration towards Research Internships by Nazar Foundation, New Delhi.

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