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  • Writer's pictureRidhima Agarwal

Chinhari: Listening to the Rhythm of the Feminine Earth

Parindey: Swarnima Kriti

Alivelihood: Social research & Community work

Region: Dhamtari, Chhattisgarh

Swarnima Kriti (Photo: Ridhima Agarwal)

“One cannot practice any social change without a strong philosophical basis, one cannot form any philosophy which is devoid of practice. In this view, the question is not whether we need development, but why and what kind of development we need.“

- Swarnima

Artwork depicting Chinhari by Swarnima (Photo: Ridhima Agarwal)

A thinker, researcher, and community worker, Swarnima Kriti is dedicating her life to understanding and working with the Gond Adivasi community of the Northern Chhattisgarh belt, in the clutches of villages and forests surrounding them. Gonds follow the process of community involvement where rights and justice are thought of in close association with the welfare of the whole community. Based on the interdependence of all elements, their daily outlook and activities are linked to their own socio-political-cultural modes, natural habitat, and non-capitalist modes of production and consumption. In recent years, imposing a homogenised linear model of development enforces the image of the underdeveloped or ‘negative’ experience of living which needs to be fixed by external action. It has resulted in a loss of livelihood, ecology, and identity in these areas based on material coercion, cultural stagnation, and environmental degradation. At this crucial intersection of gender, ecology and adivasiyat, Swarnima Kriti, going through a self-transformative journey herself, asks a very pertinent question: “how do we look at things?”

A morning in Gond village, Mardapoti, Chattisgarh (Photo: Ridhima Agarwal)

Hailing from Bihar, her interest in social and inner psyche began at a young age. After graduating from Indraprastha College for Women in 2013, she became a researcher with the Centre of Development Practice at Ambedkar University, Delhi. She was introduced to the philosophy of praxis, i.e. theory with action. Destined to come to the village of Mardapoti, Chhattisgarh, on 3rd January 2016 for a 10-month field immersion with absolutely no road map and a pure will to understand the community, it has now been six years for her working with the Adivasi villages of Dokal, Mardapoti, Raipara, Bagroomnala, etc. In Mardapoti, she started engaging the community on water issues and slowly realised that it is not the problem of water scarcity but the problem of 'who' brings water. Usually, women do a larger share of household work, compromising their health, education, and self-growth. From here, she conceived an interest in the intersection of gender and ecology. Through her involvement with the villagers, she started acquiring the Gonds' language and rituals and their modes of governance. She asked herself, "Is it possible to create a space where we can think about development for ourselves and create our expressions of living and well-being?" Devising a method for feminine logic of action and bringing forth the feminine qualities of kindness, stability, and hard work she identified the young Adivasi women as fertile ground. They are still in the curious stage of constant re-shifting, negotiating with the world, and absorbing new learnings about themselves, their community, and the outside world. A group of young women, mainly between 9 and 28, was formed in 2016 - 2017 and was later named ‘Chinhari’ in 2018, which means ‘leaving a mark’ in the local language because they think their being would leave a mark behind. Chinhari is a collective that is non-definable as it is constantly evolving and developing a methodology for its own growth. They do not disassociate themselves from their surroundings; instead, they use kindness and critical thinking to challenge the present notion of gender.

A village meeting of women with Swarnima at night (Photo: Ridhima Agarwal)

On noticing an increased hybrid farming culture in villages that harmed their soil, traditional cultivation patterns, and health, they initiated vegetable gardening in the plot allotted to them by the villagers behind the school. It was also a metaphor for their seeding as a group of action, woman’s assertion, hope and growth. Later, they prepared a play for the village council in which they discussed the need for the men of the village to share their workload. These activities strengthened their bonds and slowly made them self-aware of their physical and mental tendencies.

Chinhari collective in action (Photo: Ridhima Agarwal)

Now, organic farming is one major work of Chinhari. When the lockdown began, Swarnima began painting to let her emotions out and express herself. She shared it with the girls, and they began to find their creative freedom in the colours and brush strokes, which became their collective exercise for strengthening their relationship with themselves and representing their world on paper. Besides, Chinhari meets regularly to share their worldviews and discuss each other's problems. They learn about new things, educate themselves on their body and health, stitch, study, play games, and think about their community and family issues. It is thinking about our relationship with each other and the rest of nature. They also work in a community library where they learn about their own Gond culture, history, and mythology to uphold the dignity and wisdom of their village through such practices. Swarnima presses the importance of traditional knowledge of the Gond community and tries to make these women upholders of their rural Adivasi identity rather than becoming passive agents of modernity. They work on reclaiming their language, knowledge, experience and ethos through critical, emotive and intellectual means.

Chinhari also helped in contributing to the research and cultivation of lac insects in Adivasi forests. Earlier the insect used to be cultivated using pesticides, but Chinhari collectively figured out a way through group experimentation to cultivate lac organically, which has far more ecological-economic advantages. Thus, Chinhari is becoming a part of defining the development discourse of their villages. In this view, their action is twofold. One is to form and acknowledge their relationship with the village life, slowly identify issues to work on, and second, in the process, to gain their own identity and expression. Chinhari also started issues of a quarterly newsletter named ‘Abhivyakti’ in 2019, a community-based paper written by the girls to connect with the larger world and find a platform to discuss their efforts and worldviews. It builds solidarity, promotes Adivasi women's lived experiences, and gives them recognition for their work.

Evaluating the progress of Lac preservation in Adivasi forests (Photo: Ridhima Agarwal)

Rethinking, redefining, reflecting: development for Chinhari (Photo: Ridhima Agarwal)

Chinhari, in its nature, is a dynamic and diverse force which makes it a bit unstable at times due to early marriages or dropouts of women due to family pressure. Also, not fitting into the traditional NGO format, people sometimes fail to see the depth and methodology of their work, making them face a shortage of support and funds. Being an Adivasi area, the isolated perceptions with a rapidly increasing influence of modernity in these villages also make it challenging to work around and is a slow and time-consuming process. Swarnima reflects how ithas taken years for her to form that trust, and that it happens with dedication and patience. She has established herself as a trustworthy part of their group, having been invited to weddings, rituals, and gatherings. Now, Chinhari is also invited to participate in important village decision-making. She says they do not follow a road map of empowerment but think about their progress for themselves.

Chinhari participating in a village meeting (Photo: Ridhima Agarwal)

Swarnima, Lalitha and the village sarpanch reading a newsletter (Photo: Ridhima Agarwal)

Swarnima finds her inspiration from the constant source of love, hope, and learning of the girls of Chinhari. Through working on the interconnection between Adivasi, feminine and ecology, her vision is to create a philosophical Chinhari, a seed which carries its own blooming. She says that her quest is to make critical individuals as it is the only thing she could pass on to others to bring up themselves and their communities. She hopes that wherever these girls go, they can form their own Chinhari. She dreams of it as a way of seeing the world in every village through democratic inclusion, relationship nurturing and keeping alive the Adivasi wisdom. In a conversation with Lalitha, a Chinhari member, Swarnima says, "Instead of focusing on male dominance, we should focus on our interpersonal relationships." Thus, Chinhari becomes a truly educative and philosophical movement, creating its discourse of self-realisation. While entering into the Adivasi celebration of life and spirit at Raja Rao Pathar Mela, Swarnima's efforts were evident in the lovely smiles of the girls, with Chinhari echoing far behind like the beats of the drum on which Adivasis celebrate their land, nature, and adivasiyat.

Swarnima taking a session on Gond mythology on a sunny day with girls (Photo: Ridhima Agarwal)

A stall in Raja Rao Pathar mela, reversing the structure of clocks (Photo: Ridhima Agarwal)

Swarnima Kriti can be reached at:

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