Story-telling for a better world

DR FELIX PADEL is a London-born anthropologist-activist recently returned to the UK after 30 years of living in India, where he taught anthropology and was an activist for tribal and village community rights.

A great-great grandson of Charles Darwin, his passion for nature and justice runs in the blood. It seemed our paths were fated to cross when Felix took the role of shaman in our forum theatre workshop “The Garden’s Secrets” at Oxford University’s Department of International Development.

In a series of three short blogs,  Voices for Nature and Dr Padel explore common values and interests which brought us together.

Story-telling for a better world

Voices for Nature asks– You were yourself instrumental in the victory of the tribes of Odisha against Vedanta Resources who wanted to mine their sacred mountain in the Niyamgiri hills of Orissa, India. This campaign became seen as a real world replay of James Cameron’s blockbuster movie ‘Avatar’. Do you think fiction and story-telling can inspire and bring people together to build a better world?

Dr Felix Padel replies– Certainly I believe fiction can inspire us to be better and think better. For indigenous peoples like the Dongria, maybe our distinction between ‘fiction’ and ‘non-fiction’ isn’t so sweeping though. The myths and stories told around a fire are both ‘real and ‘not real’. What is real is the storyteller’s art, and his impact on the minds of children and adult listeners too. I say this as someone who tries to record all the facts around the Niyamgiri and similar cases. But as some of the Dongria leaders and priests said – hearing how Vedanta was offering to build a marble temple for Niyam Raja, their mountain-summit-dwelling deity – ‘Your gods dwell in these marble palaces, ours are not constrained by any walls’. Lado Sikoka, one of the main Dongria leaders, is recorded on youtube saying at a meeting ‘They say so many millions are lying on top of Niyamgiri [in the form of un-mined bauxite]. It’s not money up there, it’s our Maa-Baap (parent), and we’ll fight to defend her! It seems like the demons of the ancient myths have come back in the form of these companies like Vedanta.’ Or as a Dongria woman says, recorded in another bit of footage, ‘We need the mountain and the mountain needs us’.

I find hearing these pithy comments from indigenous people so inspiring – in a few words they often capture a whole situation, with such wit. Another example is just four words I heard from a Kond tribal elder outside India’s Supreme Court, where I’d just witnessed a judge effectively selling off the mountain to the company – it was complicated what I witnessed in there! His words were ‘Taro Karma, Amoro Dharma’ – Odia for ‘his karma (action/sin), our dharma (duty/religion)’ – capturing both the corruption and manipulation that often takes place through the courts, and the essence of Hindu philosophy.

So how one uses words – in writing as in speaking – can indeed have a huge impact in inspiring people and bringing them together to build the better world we know is possible! Yet at the other extreme, one mustn’t underestimate the enormity of what we’re up against. Some of the world’s biggest boarding schools are herding thousands of indigenous children into a regimented life in India right now, effectively brainwashing them, like the Kalinga Institute of Social Science in Odisha, that’s become the world’s biggest boarding school, with over 25,000 tribal kids.

More on Dr Felix Padel:

Felix Padel is a research fellow at Oxford University Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology. He is the author of three books on tribal and environmental issues in India: ‘Sacrificing People: Invasions of a Tribal Landscape’ (1995/2010), ‘Out of This Earth: East India Adivasis and the Aluminium Cartel’ (with Samarendra Das, 2010), and ‘Ecology, Economy: Quest for a Socially Informed Connection’ (with Ajay Dandekar and Jeemol Unni, 2013). He read classics at Exeter college, Oxford, and after doing a diploma in social anthropogy, did an M.Phil in sociology at the Delhi School of Economics.

Felix will play the part of the Wise One in Voices for Nature’s forum theatre workshop ’The Last Snowflake’  – creative learning for families about climate change and the polar regions,  at Oxford University’s Natural History Museum on 31st May, 2018.

Felix – On ancient wisdom and new learning



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