When the Sacred is for Sale

Curator's Note

“One of India’s most remote tribes, a mountain they revere as a god and a multinational mining company with its sight set on the mountain’s sacred stone. The stage is set for a vicious battle against the backdrop of eastern India’s dramatic landscapes. As the bulldozers draw closer, what will one tribe do to save their forest, their mountain and their god?” So begins Mine, a documentary detailing the struggle of the Kondh tribe against bauxite mining in the Niyamgiri Hills. Villagers rejected mining unanimously in an environmental referendum, but the Odisha state government persists in its attempts to acquire the “sacred stone” – bauxite ore – below Niyamgiri’s dense forests. In a renewed commitment to fostering development in the neglected region, novel measures are in the pipeline. A state agency has applied for a GI [geographical indication] tag for the Kapdaganda shawl hand-embroidered by Kondh women. GI tags are used by TRIPS signatory countries to certify products as possessing specific qualities or made using traditional methods in a particular place. For example, Darjeeling tea was the first Indian commodity to receive a GI tag. GI tags can check machine-made copies and administrators hope to re-launch the shawl as a unique handloom product nationwide by tying it to local employment programs. During dissertation research in Niyamgiri [2013-15], young women poring over a shawl for a friend, father or husband in the evenings was a common sight. The cloth and threads are bought at weekly markets in the plains. The Kapdaganda shawl is coarse off-white cotton with embroidery in red, yellow and green at both ends representing aspects of Kondh cosmology. Triangles and straight lines recur as symbols of mountains, axes and leaves. One Kapdaganda shawl can take up to three months of daily work, and I never encountered one for sale. Women began working on a piece with a recipient in mind. Now they are available on artisanal apparel websites with dollar price tags for a cosmopolitan global elite. Unmarked by ongoing histories of conflict, these are simply objects for sale. Commercialization of tribal culture alongside the dispossession of tribal populations in a rush for mineral resources is not unique. The Kondh anti-mining movement refuses to commodify their mountain into bauxite but its symbol, the sacred triangle has begun to move outward from the community into the profane world of mouse pads and mobile phone covers.

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