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

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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?