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Traversing New Terrains, Unveiling Tradition

Archana Prasad

By Archana Mishra
Roli Books, Delhi, 2014, pp. xii 204, Rs. 350.00


Tribal studies in India have been dominated by the romanticization of tradition visualizing the egalitarian community institutions as a pivot that propelled grassroot democracy and regulated the relationship of the tribals with their environment. Anthropologists like Haimendorf and Verrier Elwin have also suggested that the women in these societies enjoyed true freedom and equal status in tribal societies as compared with non-tribal caste societies. Archana Mishra effectively counters this myth in her book Casting the Evil Eye: Witch Trials in Tribal India. Her travels as a journalist and participant observer in the land of witches in East and West Singbhum, Jharkhand, provide insights into rural societies. It also provides ammunition for doing an effective critique of tribal traditions – traditions that have always been seen as morally superior to the values supported by modern society. In this sense Mishra’s work is an important contribution to the historiography of tribal societies.      The book is elegantly produced and written in an appealing style and contains the life histories of about two hundred women termed as witches. These stories, bravely recorded by Mishra reveal how superstition guides witch trials and how the branding and hunting of witches is in fact guided by power politics within the community and tribal society itself.  The book consists of seven chapters the first part of which explores the role of the Ojha and Manjhi (or male doctors and magic men) in the Munda society and show how peoples superstitions are used by them to exploit the villagers. In a telling account of a Sokha or Ojha in East Singbhum she shows the links between small village businesses like the shop and tea stall and the Ojhas.       So while the Ojhas use their image as people who cure illness, witches were seen as people who were the cause of disease. Untimely deaths are a sure sign that a witch is at work. The people then go to the Ojhas for treatment and very often witch hunting is a result of the identification of the witch as the only cause for illness. The witches are then punished for their bad influence over ill people by being banished from their village or by having to pay a hefty price by hosting a banquet for the Ojhas. The chapter on the perceptions of witches reveals this fact and lays down the foundation for her discussion on the life of women branded ...

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