religious matters

The many versions of Shabari: From Nandalal Bose’s paintings to Hindutva propaganda

Shabari’s legend has been appropriated across caste, class, and religious lines.

If you have some knowledge of Indian mythology, chances are that you have heard of Shabari. While welcoming the Hindu god Ram, Shabari, an elderly tribal woman who is devoted to him, bites into all the berries she is about to offer him as refreshment, so that he only tastes the sweetest ones. Brahmanical Hinduism, which lays emphasis on caste purity, would not sanction Shabari’s actions – but Ram does, because he sees her offering of half-eaten fruit as a sign of her pure love and devotion. It’s a poignant story, but minor in the greater scope of the Hindu epic Ramayana.

Shabari’s image has appeared in several places in the past century, especially in artistic and political spheres. She features in famous paintings, poetry, prose, and in the newly constructed temples in Gujarat and Sikkim, and even at a temple maintained by the Indian Army in Sikkim. Her popularity spans the ages – the Vijayanagara kings claimed her as a resident of Hampi, their political and economic capital. Even today, it is possible to cross the Tungabhadra River and visit the dwelling from where she allegedly served her guru every day. (It is obvious why the Vijayanagara kings chose to make this connection – if Ram had indeed visited their capital, it would create political legitimacy for their divinely sanctioned empire). Despite, or perhaps because of, the lack of historical evidence, the Ramayana lends itself to geographical reinterpretation. It can be located in several parts of India, which is a lucky break for emperors and artists alike. Shabari’s story, a part of each of these re-tellings, is as timeless as the epics.

Shifting forms

In a 1941 series on Shabari, pioneering artist Nandalal Bose portrays her as a Santhal woman in three stages of life: as a young girl, a middle aged woman and then an elderly woman. Bose’s interest in Shabari was part of a larger attempt to relocate ancient myths in his own surroundings, and in doing so he created a static yet enduring image of Shabari: no matter the century or the phase of her life, she is seen collecting berries.

Bose’s work returned to artistic consciousness in 2006 when Atul Dodiya debuted a series titled, The Wet Sleeves of My Paper Robe (Sabari in Her Youth: After Nandalal Bose). Furthering Bose’s imagination of a youthful Shabari, Dodiya exclusively depicts her as a young woman, sans the berries she is always shown with. In Dodiya’s reimagining, she is secular, a migrant labourer or perhaps a homeless woman in the big city – instead of climbing trees, she climbs Mondrian-like scaffoldings.

Sabari with Her Birds, a lithograph by Atul Dodiya @philamuseum

A post shared by Sonia Petruse (@sonia.petruse) on

Bose and Dodiya’s Shabaris are important but recognisable only to a particular echelon of society. Madhubani painters such as Ganga Devi have also portrayed Shabari, and rather than interpreting her story for aesthetic or mythological purposes, Ganga Devi uses the iconography to reflect on her own life: after she was cast out of her husband’s home for being infertile, Ganga Devi was taken in by a poor lower caste family. Like Shabari, the family owns very little, but they gladly offer her all they have.

Hira Bansode, a Marathi Dalit poet, gestures at the politics of Shabari’s life. In her poem To Shabri, Bansode writes:

“Instead of berries
Why didn’t you ask of omniscient Ram…
About the heart-rending sacrifice of Eklavya’s thumb?
About blameless Sita’s exile
If you had revealed the curse of your caste
I would have found fulfilment..”

Bansode uses Shabari’s story to frame her call to protest. As a Dalit woman, Bansode is privy to the disenfranchisements faced by her peers: patriarchy, caste hierarchy and poverty. Using the personal to harness the political in a succinct but powerful way, she accuses Shabari of not doing more for society.

Bansode’s political interpretation speaks to the larger phenomenon of looking at the Ramayana as a contemporary text. In the past few decades, there has been a revival of interest in Ram Rajya, the mythic era of good governance. Ram, the ideal king and martial warrior, has become the face of Hindutva nationalism. Along with him, all the characters of the Ramayana – Sita, Hanuman, even Shabari – have found themselves in the spotlight once again.

Icon of ghar wapasi

This spotlight on Shabari probably shines the brightest in the Dang region of Gujarat, where according to local legend, the tribals of Dang are the descendants of Shabari. Several Christian missionaries work in the Adivasi-majority district, and in order to combat the effects of Christian evangelism, Hindutva activists from the Vishwa Hindu Parishad have deployed Shabari’s image – in 2006, they declared that tribals should not forsake Shabari by converting to other religions, but should return to Hinduism.

That same year, a ritual gathering called Shabari Kumbh was celebrated in Dang. Thousands of Adivasis were trucked into the region to undergo ritual purification and re-converted into the Hindu fold. Thus, Shabari’s image becomes tainted with an aggressive missionary agenda.

A temple site called Shabari Dham was also constructed in the place where Shabari supposedly met Ram and his brother Lakshman. The main deity at the temple is Ram, but Shabari is included in the shrine in a subservient position, seated below Ram and Lakshman and facing the brothers, rather than the devotees.

As her story has developed over time, Shabari has transformed from a fictional persona to a historical figure. As she becomes more real, her function too has evolved: from a complacent character who accepts her fate and spends her time praying to Ram, she is seen as someone who should demand justice (in Bansode’s poem) and later, a figure that demands religious reconversion.

In one version of the Ramayana, when Sita is asked to take the purity test after her stay in Lanka, it is not Sita but Shabari who enters the fire. This version of the Ramayana is the most telling in how Indian Adivasis view their relationship to caste-society: Shabari has been appropriated across caste, class, and religious lines but what does she mean to her own people? More importantly, how will Adivasi artists and poets reclaim her from this heavily politicised reimagining?

We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

Putting the patient first - insights for hospitals to meet customer service expectations

These emerging solutions are a fine balance between technology and the human touch.

As customers become more vocal and assertive of their needs, their expectations are changing across industries. Consequently, customer service has gone from being a hygiene factor to actively influencing the customer’s choice of product or service. This trend is also being seen in the healthcare segment. Today good healthcare service is no longer defined by just qualified doctors and the quality of medical treatment offered. The overall ambience, convenience, hospitality and the warmth and friendliness of staff is becoming a crucial way for hospitals to differentiate themselves.

A study by the Deloitte Centre for Health Solutions in fact indicates that good patient experience is also excellent from a profitability point of view. The study, conducted in the US, analyzed the impact of hospital ratings by patients on overall margins and return on assets. It revealed that hospitals with high patient-reported experience scores have higher profitability. For instance, hospitals with ‘excellent’ consumer assessment scores between 2008 and 2014 had a net margin of 4.7 percent, on average, as compared to just 1.8 percent for hospitals with ‘low’ scores.

This clearly indicates that good customer service in hospitals boosts loyalty and goodwill as well as financial performance. Many healthcare service providers are thus putting their efforts behind: understanding constantly evolving customer expectations, solving long-standing problems in hospital management (such as long check-out times) and proactively offering a better experience by leveraging technology and human interface.

The evolving patient

Healthcare service customers, who comprise both the patient and his or her family and friends, are more exposed today to high standards of service across industries. As a result, hospitals are putting patient care right on top of their priorities. An example of this in action can be seen in the Sir Ganga Ram Hospital. In July 2015, the hospital launched a ‘Smart OPD’ system — an integrated mobile health system under which the entire medical ecosystem of the hospital was brought together on a digital app. Patients could use the app to book/reschedule doctor’s appointments and doctors could use it to access a patient’s medical history, write prescriptions and schedule appointments. To further aid the process, IT assistants were provided to help those uncomfortable with technology.

The need for such initiatives and the evolving nature of patient care were among the central themes of the recently concluded Abbott Hospital Leadership Summit. The speakers included pundits from marketing and customer relations along with leaders in the healthcare space.

Among them was the illustrious speaker Larry Hochman, a globally recognised name in customer service. According to Mr. Hochman, who has worked with British Airways and Air Miles, patients are rapidly evolving from passive recipients of treatment to active consumers who are evaluating their overall experience with a hospital on social media and creating a ‘word-of-mouth’ economy. He talks about this in the video below.


As the video says, with social media and other public platforms being available today to share experiences, hospitals need to ensure that every customer walks away with a good experience.

The promise gap

In his address, Mr. Hochman also spoke at length about the ‘promise gap’ — the difference between what a company promises to deliver and what it actually delivers. In the video given below, he explains the concept in detail. As the gap grows wider, the potential for customer dissatisfaction increases.


So how do hospitals differentiate themselves with this evolved set of customers? How do they ensure that the promise gap remains small? “You can create a unique value only through relationships, because that is something that is not manufactured. It is about people, it’s a human thing,” says Mr. Hochman in the video below.


As Mr. Hochman and others in the discussion panel point out, the key to delivering a good customer experience is to instil a culture of empathy and hospitality across the organisation. Whether it is small things like smiling at patients, educating them at every step about their illness or listening to them to understand their fears, every action needs to be geared towards making the customer feel that they made the correct decision by getting treated at that hospital. This is also why, Dr. Nandkumar Jairam, Chairman and Group Medical Director, Columbia Asia, talked about the need for hospitals to train and hire people with soft skills and qualities such as empathy and the ability to listen.

Striking the balance

Bridging the promise gap also involves a balance between technology and the human touch. Dr. Robert Pearl, Executive Director and CEO of The Permanente Medical Group, who also spoke at the event, wrote about the example of Dr. Devi Shetty’s Narayana Health Hospitals. He writes that their team of surgeons typically performs about 900 procedures a month which is equivalent to what most U.S. university hospitals do in a year. The hospitals employ cutting edge technology and other simple innovations to improve efficiency and patient care.

The insights gained from Narayana’s model show that while technology increases efficiency of processes, what really makes a difference to customers are the human touch-points. As Mr. Hochman says, “Human touch points matter more because there are less and less of them today and are therefore crucial to the whole customer experience.”


By putting customers at the core of their thinking, many hospitals have been able to apply innovative solutions to solve age old problems. For example, Max Healthcare, introduced paramedics on motorcycles to circumvent heavy traffic and respond faster to critical emergencies. While ambulances reach 30 minutes after a call, the motorcycles reach in just 17 minutes. In the first three months, two lives were saved because of this customer-centric innovation.

Hospitals are also looking at data and consumer research to identify consumer pain points. Rajit Mehta, the MD and CEO of Max Healthcare Institute, who was a panelist at the summit, spoke of the importance of data to understand patient needs. His organisation used consumer research to identify three critical areas that needed work - discharge and admission processes for IPD patients and wait-time for OPD patients. To improve wait-time, they incentivised people to book appointments online. They also installed digital kiosks where customers could punch in their details to get an appointment quickly.

These were just some of the insights on healthcare management gleaned from the Hospital Leadership Summit hosted by Abbott. In over 150 countries, Abbott is working with hospitals and healthcare professionals to improve the quality of health services.

To read more content on best practices for hospital leaders, visit Abbott’s Bringing Health to Life portal here.

This article was produced on behalf of Abbott by the marketing team and not by the editorial staff.