A Baiga can’t resist the beats of the mandal- the drum. He wants to get drunk on Mahua and dance. So what if it’s a funeral. He exudes a crude honesty, a shyness that will slowly disappear as his forests are taken away and he is pushed to join the mainstream. He won’t resist.

How long does it take for the spirit to die? For a boy to run away with a nubile girl and return to the village as man and wife? When exactly does a Baiga man fall on your feet and beg for 5 rupees to get drunk on mahua?

You realize they have been ripped of their dignity. The forests no longer belong to them and they are starving. They want to forget everything and get drunk. A tribe which never took to farming, with a belief that scratching the breast of mother earth is beyond them, now works on daily wages for the forest department.

These photographs were shot in Mandla, Balaghat and Dindori districts of Madhya Pradesh in 2010. The Baigas are a central Indian tribe, classified ‘primitive’, who for generations lived like semi nomads depending on the forests for subsistence.

They still believe if you photograph them, you’ll take away a part of their lives.

From insides of a Baiga home. Dindori, Madhya Pradesh.

A group of Baiga and Gondh men and women dance the ‘karma’ to celebrate the victory of a candidate from their ranks in the local body elections. The village Bhanpur Khera was relocated from inside the Kanha National Park (a critical tiger habitat) way back in 1968.

Dancing at a funeral. Dindori, Madhya Pradesh.

Women take shots of mahua at a funeral. Dindori, Madhya Pradesh.

Between thrashing kodon, a minor millet. Dindori, Madhya Pradesh.

A group of men from the Baiga tribe, high on mahua one evening in Mandla, Madhya Pradesh. Mahua is a local brew made from fermenting the flowers of the mahua tree.

The group forms a part of 28 villages displaced 40 years ago from the Kanha tiger reserve. The land is barren and jobs are hard to come by. Getting drunk on mahua has become an escape for them. In these displaced villages men beg pitifully for a few rupees that will buy them a shot or two. The government meanwhile keeps showcasing the tribe as cultural specimens.

Sundari Bai with her severely malnourished nine month old son weighing 4.25 kilos below normal. Inside Baiga chowk, Dindori, Madhya Pradesh.

A Baiga woman works as adaily wager for the forest department in Balaghat district of Madhya Pradesh.

Entry of Bollywood. Dindori, Madhya Pradesh

Inside the core zone of 940 sq kilometer Kanha National Park, a critical tiger habitat, evening looms over Jami. It is the last of the villages that would be displaced to give the tigers more room. The Baigas, like elsewhere, have accepted the change silently.


Sayantan Bera is a correspondent and photographer working with Down To Earth magazine.


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