God of Tribesmen
Christoph von Furer Haimendorf, Austria-born social anthropologist, captured the hearts of the Gond tribesmen of Adilabad district, who readily added...
Christoph von Furer Haimendorf, Austria-born social anthropologist, captured the hearts of the Gond tribesmen of Adilabad district, who readily added him to the pantheon of their gods The people of Andhra Pradesh are eternally grateful to three great men, all Europeans, for their unmatchable contribution to their economic welfare and cultural development. Charles Philip Brown introduced to the world the melody and richness of Telugu language. The people of Godavari delta worship Arthur Cotton for transforming the once arid areas of the Godavari districts into the 'rice bowl of the south.' A modern Bhagiratha. The less known of the three, Christoph von Furer Haimendorf, Austria-born social anthropologist, captured the hearts of the Gond tribesmen of Adilabad district, who readily added him to the pantheon of their gods. Haimendorf, born in Vienna on June 22, 1909, arrived in India in the thirties for research and fieldwork in the tribal areas of the northeast. He chose India for his studies, because of his passion for Rabindranath Tagore's works. When the Second World War broke out, the British rulers suspected him of Nazi sympathies and confined him to the princely state of Hyderabad. That turned out to be a blessing for him and the tribesmen. Along with Elizabeth Bernardo 'Betty', wife and fellow-researcher, he took up study of the Raj Gonds and other tribes of Adilabad district. They lived with the Gonds, learnt their language, customs and culture and became a part of the tribal world. At the end of the war, Haimendorf was appointed adviser to the Nizam's Government to examine the problems of the tribesmen following the 1940 Babhijhari revolt led by the legendary Gond chieftain Komaram Bheem. They lived in a hut built by local chief Lachu Patel in Marlawai. Thanks to Haimendorf's initiative, the Gonds, who benefitted from his land distribution scheme and a compact network of schools, demonstrated their gratitude time and again over the next four decades. Constraints of space do not permit elaboration of Haimendorf's research effort relating to the Chenchus, Kondareddis etc. in Andhra Pradesh and other tribal groups in the North-East India and Nepal. The Haimendorfs had made Marlawai their home until the early 50s after which they would regularly visit the areas until the late 80s. Haimendorf, scion of an aristocratic family, had little difficulty in striking lasting rapport with the Raj Gonds, intensely proud of their royal lineage. Thodasam Chandu, a researcher, cites instances to prove that the Gonds treated Haimendorfs as one of their own. They offered the couple accommodation (the hut at Marlawai), exchanged tobacco and snuff and levied fine on Betty for violating a tribal custom. They cannot do this to an outsider. VNVK Sastry, former director of tribal cultural research and training institute (TCRTI) of AP Government and a close associate of Haimendorf, says, "their (the Gonds) affection for Haimand Rao, as they called him, even decades after his first visit must be seen to be believed. During many of his visits to Marlawai, his second home, the Gonds would come in hordes every morning to say 'Ram, Ram' (Gond way of greeting). He would talk to each of them and note their problems. They would take their problems to Haimendorf even after he had insisted he was no longer part of the Government. Such was their faith in his ability to solve their problems. After the Gonds had left, he would turn to me and say with the exception of S.R. Sankaran, none of the present-day bureaucrats would even read the representations, let alone act on them." Sastry, who invariably accompanied Haimendorf on his trips to Adilabad, had told him in the late 70s that discontent was again brewing among the Gonds and that an uprising was imminent. He shared Sastry's concern and was deeply disturbed when it did happen at Indravelli in April 1981. Understandably so, considering he had restored normalcy in the area and ensured justice to the Gonds and other tribesmen by launching several welfare programmes in the forties. Fellow-journalist Pasham Yadagiri and I, who unfailingly covered post-Indravelly developments in the district, distinctly remember our first interaction with 'the Gonds own God' at Hotel Rock Castle in Banjara Hills on a wintry morning of 1987. Haimendorf was devastated by the death of his wife Betty during their stay in Bella Vista, Hyderabad, in early 1987. She was not just his co-researcher but the driving force behind his monumental research � 4,000 pages of published ethnography, unpublished notes and diaries, photographs and films. I was present at the solemn ceremony when her ashes were brought to Marlawai and interred in accordance with the Gond rites in the presence of thousands of tear-filled tribesmen, bureaucrats and admirers. His son Nicholas, a Londoner, carried the urn in wet clothes and performed the ritual as his bereaved father watched with moist eyes. The Gonds, grief-stricken, would call at his place every day to offer condolences. He compared their humble gesture with the dismissive English manner of saying 'sorry to hear that', generally over the phone. Haimendorf died in London on June 11, 1995, bereaving the world of anthropology, particularly the Indian and Deccan streams. He joined his wife, in a manner of speaking, when his ashes too were brought to Marlwai in February 2012 and buried. A translation of the song "Happy We Are" written by Gond villagers about the return of the Haimendorfs, was rendered at the condolence gathering in London. (The writer is former Chief of Bureau, The Hindu, Hyderabad) Email: [email protected], [email protected]