What can we learn from Tribalism Today? The Samvaad 2019 experience.

Mid way through my lunch at Samvaad 2109 

I must confess that I am a big city person. The closest that I have been to rural India was when I went to oversee the implementation of market research questionnaires among tractor owners in UP and Bengal. My rural experience previous to that was when I had gone to to conduct focus groups for an international radio broadcasting company in the early 2000s in Bangladesh. Those would be day trips from a nodal town to which one would come back at night. These were all work trips.

I have had even lesser interactions with tribal communities I am afraid. My awareness of them was limited to what I had seen in movies (which is rather kitsch and as representative of reality as 'reality TV' is) and to what I had studied in sociology in college about tribal social dynamics (which I do not remember much about after 25 years). Not an ideal state of affairs I know, but with the increasing urbanisation of India, this is the reality for many of us in India today.

Things changed a bit last year when I was invited to the Manas Spring Festival at the outskirts of Guwahati. I got to experience how the local tribal women, ably captained by Guwahati based culinary instructor, Mitali G Dutta, presented food from their homes to visitors to the festival. Interestingly, these ladies were wives of former poachers who had surrendered and then became forest guards under the rhino rehabilitation initiative from the WWF led by Deba Dutta. An amazing example of the principle of 'turning poison into medicine.' The tribals here belonged to the Bodo community.

Behind the scenes in the Aatithiya kitchen at Samvaad 2019

I got another opportunity to learn about the tribal life recently when I was invited to attend the Samvaad tribal conclave which was held at Jamshedpur last week. I wanted to make the most of the trip and increase my awareness and understanding of tribal communities, their lives and their wisdom.

Jamshedpur is anything but a forest of course, unlike Manas which I had visited earlier. It is a planned township which had been founded by Tata Steel in 1919 (!) and has emerged as one of India's cleanest and well planned cities (from the parts I saw) and most cosmopolitan ones too (from the variety of food that I experienced there). Jamshedpur is located in the fairly new tribal state of Jharkhand and was earlier a part of Bihar. The Samvaad festival was inaugurated on the 15th of November, the birth anniversary of Jharkhand's most famous historical figure, Birsa Munda. Birsa Munda had led a tribal movement against the British rulers of India in the late 19th century.

This is the 6th year of the Samvaad, a CSR (corporate social responsibility) activity from  Tata Steel. The scale is pretty massive and there were members from 130 tribes across 22 states of India and 13 countries overall that took part in it and from what I gather from the organisers, there were close to 1900 participants this year though they had expected 1300 at the start. Sourav Roy, who is the Tata Steel CSR chief, said the team was overwhelmed by the response and were touched by the extent to which tribal communities had come forward to share from their lives in the conclave.

Spice mixes were documented. At times ingredients were carried from across the country

The theme at Samvaad this year was 'tribalism today' and this was built on the learnings from the previous years. Samvaad means dialogue and the focus of the festival was on facilitating conversations between the tribal and urban communities and documenting their knowledge and cultures. Topics included the sciences of tribal healing and tribal astronomy, arts and culture...music, dancing, handloom, art and (but of course) food. That is what I had gone for I must admit. Food.

IHCL (India Hotels Company Limited which is the holding company of Taj Hotels from the Tata group) had started an initiative called Aatithya since last year at Samvaad. In this programme, IHCL chefs work with tribal home cooks from across the country to document recipes and jointly present a sample of tribal food to the visitors at Samvaad.

Ashwini Anand from Taj Vivanta Guwahati & Sourav
Roy, Tata Steel CSR

The IHCL chefs working on this are recent pass outs from hospitality management schools who have joined IHCL and have gone through the standard corporate training before taking on this assignment. These young and very driven chefs travelled across the country, identified home cooks for the programme after visiting their homes and then convinced them to be a part of the conclave. They worked with tribal home cooks to standardise the recipes and to prepare the cooks for this large scale cooking experience. The focus was to maintain a balance between the integrity of the tribal food and yet deliver consistency and bulk, neither of which the tribal home cooks were used to doing at home. Not that any home cook would be. There was also the question of familiarisation with cooking vessels, cooking fuels etc which the tribal cooks were not entirely familiar with. At times produce too.

Last minute group meeting before service

The tribal home cooks and the 'urban' IHCL chefs took up the  challenge together and creditably landed rather elegant sit down meals for corporate guests in the tent. They ran a meal counter too, where food was sold to visitors to the Gopal Maidan at Jamshedpur, where the conclave was being held. From what I saw, the visitors to the conclave could not get enough of the food. Food which was different from the food they were used to and yet which they accepted with an open mind and heart. 

Urban meets tribal at the Aatithiya counter at Samvvad 2019

I had the privilege of being invited to a curated meal at the Aatithya stall hosted by Mrs Ruchi Narendran, wife of the MD of Tata Steel,  TV Narendran, who himself was present at the conclave to support it. The menu featured meals from the Warli tribes of Maharashtra, Khasis and Rabhas from Meghalaya, Melavattuas from Kerala, Nocte from Nagaland and tribes from Tripura and Tamil Nadu. There was also food from the Bodh tribe of Himachal Pradesh and Lodha and Santhal tribes from eastern India. The table arrangement was laid by the IHCL team, led by the GM of Taj Vivanta Ashwini Anand, in a manner suited to the senior corporate guests present and represented both fine dining sophistication and Indian values.

Mrs Surendran briefs the guests on what's in store.
That's Mr Surendran in the red kurta

I could go into details of what we ate at the lunch...about how soothing the Warli atola (freshly harvested rice cooked in buttermilk) was or how much of a flavour bomb their black sesame chutney was. How complex the spicing of the banana flowers cooked on hot stones of the Noctes was. How glorious the Khasi bamboo shoot pork belly (cooked with freshly procured local Jharkhand pork) was. How symphonic the greens cooked with finely chopped pork in bamboo stems from Tripura was. How hearty the ragi millets roti from Karnataka was. How electrifying in the mouth the red ant chutney from Kerala was. Or how stratospheric the umami levels of the freshly fried silk worms from Meghalaya was (my third silk worm eating experience and the best so far). Or how somnolent an end the sevia payasam from Kerala offered and the steamed tapioca before that...but I want to talk to you about something else instead.

Banana leaf bhaaji

Atola & black sesame chutney

Pork belly with bamboo shoots

Ragi roti

Chicken with alkaline

Fried silkworms

Steamed tapioca


Greens and pork cooked in bamboo shoot and greens and salted fish (smaller bowl)

I want to talk to you instead about what I learnt during my conversations with the young Samvaad and Aatithya team members about their experience of working with their tribal partners and from what I saw myself behind the scenes in the kitchen.

Of what I learnt about the focus on simplicity that the tribals put. "Doing even the most simple of things very well," as Sahil from IHCL said.

Of the respect that the tribals gave to nature and the sense of gratitude with which they regarded their resources.  Of how they tried to make the best of the resources around them and believed in zero waste. "Nothing is wasted," said Kritika from IHCL as shared various examples of 'nose to tail' and 'root to stem' eating that was followed in the tribal kitchens. Sustainability is a way of living here and not just a catchphrase. 

Sreya and Kabir from the Samvaad team spoke of how infectious the enthusiasm with which the tribals approached the conclave was. Oh how the tribals were driven by values of generosity and magnanimity. Sharing from the lives and their hearts without holding anything back. 

‘Life changing,’ is how they all summed up their experience of being at Samvaad and I could not agree more.

It was evident that it was this shared sense of community, compassion and mutual respect that fuelled that Aatithya kitchen. That the tribal home cooks and urban chefs were truly working as if they were 'many in body but one in mind,' and this showed wonderfully in the dishes that came out.

I had gone to Samvaad 2019 with the aim to learn about tribal values which one could adopt back home in ones day to day life. It was a trip well made one could say. Now to put this into practise!

At the end of the lovely lunch at the Atithya hall at Samvaad 2019

I am leaving you with a video that captures some of what I had experienced at Aatitheya and I do hope you enjoy it and subscribe to my youtube channel, Finely Chopped TV by Kalyan Karmakar.

I was at Samvaad 2019 as a guest of Tata Steel CSR.


My post on the Manas Spring Festival: