Accepted Paper:

"Facing" the deities: the birth of divine depiction in tribal Arunachal Pradesh  


Claire Scheid (University College Cork)

Paper short abstract:

This paper explores the recent introduction of pictorial iconographies in the Donyi-Polo and Rangfraa movements (two “institutionalized” indigenous religions of Arunachal Pradesh) and investigates their connections to more dominant Indian religions in conception, aesthetic, and production.

Paper long abstract:

Donyi-Polo and Rangfraa, two "institutionalized" indigenous religious movements in Arunachal Pradesh, both came to prominence in the late 20th century. Among the various processes of "formalization" that have added structure to these traditions (e.g., the documentation of a formal theology, the construction of prayer halls, the designation of official holidays, and the unionization of shamans) is the creation of visual depictions of gods and goddesses, previously never represented graphically. In the Donyi-Polo community, the move has been criticized by some who believe that this decision has contributed to Donyi-Polo merely succeeding by means of "copying the popular religion". This paper will explore why Talom Rukbo, the Adi activist who piloted the reformation, made the choice to invent and include these visual images of deities. It will also address the Rangfraa movement's decision to create a representation of "the Almighty Rangfraa", discussing the public artist competition held in search of such an image and the ultimate commission and production of a Rangfraa statue to be imported from Jodhpur, Rajasthan. This analysis of the new aesthetic of religious depiction within these indigenous revivals seeks to draw attention to the circulation of artistic philosophies and practicalities between certain tribal peoples of Arunachal Pradesh and the greater Indian subcontinent. In doing so, it hopes to elucidate how the "re-appropriation" of Hindu, Christian, and Buddhist iconographic traditions by the Donyi-Polo and Rangfraa reformations, while sometimes internally controversial, has helped the movements gain a sense of "legitimacy" outside of Arunachal Pradesh.

Panel P14
Circulation of cultural tropes in indigenous Adivasi India