McDaniel professor back from Fulbright adventure in India

June 30, 2009

Standing along the innermost ring at a fire pit in a small town in western India, Professor Greg Alles found himself enveloped by a throng of people gathered in three concentric circles.

In the outermost circle, large crowds milled about – coming and going, talking and watching. In the next circle inward, musicians played as dancers swayed in a counterclockwise direction, while others walked under white cloths held aloft amid still others, clad in white, whose faces were smeared with yellow turmeric.

Dancing at 1:00 a.m. (Cisariya)

And in the innermost circle, Alles stood among those who ringed the fire pit, captivated by the ritualistic proceedings of the natives of Chhota Udepur, which is in the easternmost part of Gujarat.

“At the pit itself, men – some smeared with turmeric, some carrying children – walked across the fire, then cooled their feet in cow dung on the other side. My eyes were fixated on these men,” Alles recalled. “I had come to know many people in town … and I found life in the area to be quite comfortable. It was, for the time being, the center of my world.”

Fresh from a four-month journey to India to delve deeper into the adivasi culture and religion, Alles is full of ideas for sharing his newly developed knowledge with his students in the fall.

Painting a Pithoro (Sursi)

“Very few people in America even know that adivasis exist,” said Alles, who teaches about Indian religions, Hindu and Buddhist dharma. “I had come to India in order to be able to return to America and teach my students not only that adivasis exist but how important their cultures and religions are.”

On a Fulbright scholarship, Alles spent the spring semester – from January to May. While there, he was affiliated with the Adivasi Academy in the village of Tejgadh.

Presenting offerings at a tree (Sursi)

The Fulbright program is the U.S. flagship initiative for international academic exchange with more than 140 nations. It offers a variety of awards for long- and short-term exchanges from senior scholars to students and for research and teaching.

McDaniel students this fall will get a taste of Alles’ Fulbright experience as he plans to immediately infuse it into such classes as “Stories from India,” which is taught as a First Year Seminar. He also hopes to take of advantage of webcam technology to connect his students with people he met in India for real-time exchanges.

How to drink mahua (Sursi)

Alles, who has taught at McDaniel since 1987, said he had three goals when he set out for his Fulbright experience in India.

“I wanted to learn the local languages, I wanted to record adivasi stories, and I wanted to determine how adivasis conceptualized the social-cultural world, especially those aspects that in English we usually call religion,” he said. “I returned home having done much more than that – and much less.”

Alles said he picked up quite a bit of Gujarati, the local language, which consumed more time than he had imagined, but he didn’t come home with the plethora of stories he had hoped to gather.

“As it turned out, I came home with very few stories,” he said. “I needed to spend a lot of time working on Gujarati and never really got much of the instruction I had hoped for in adivasi languages. Why should people tell stories to someone who does not understand them? Perhaps, too, I needed to allow more time to develop contacts, because by the time I was beginning to identify people whom I might record, it was time to leave.”

Bringing out posts for the jatare (Gungaliya)

While he left feeling that he had not satisfied his search for individual stories, he did return to McDaniel with a bonus experience.

“I had not intended to spend much time studying rituals.  I knew that they existed, and I knew that I ought to know something about them,” he said. “I had no idea how rich they were or how striking, indeed, how beautiful, I would find them. I spent a lot of time at celebrations with my eyes open, to say nothing of my mouth and stomach.

Alles, who has traveled to India several times before, had an additional motivation during his trip – to capture the essence of life for the adivasi.

Making dhebra (Gabadiya)

“Like photographers, scholars make representations of what they observe,” he said. “Like a photographer seeking candid shots, scholars generally need to observe unrehearsed, unscripted events.”

“In retrospect, I am amazed at the patience of the people among whom I ‘worked.’  I wonder how much interest or tolerance I myself would have for someone from overseas who came to my home town, took a lot of photos and videos, including photos and videos of me on personally meaningful occasions, and asked a lot of basic questions,” he said. “Fortunately for me, many people were extremely gracious and tolerant.”

Applying cow dung plaster to the ritual area (Sursi)

A jatar at night (Cisariya)

A badvi (woman "shaman") (Gungaliya)

Carrying topli (baskets) (Manka)

Applying tilaks (Manka)