During the Warlis’ life-cycle rituals such as joli-lagin-dis (birth-wedding-death), everything is anointed with mohua daru.  Mohua daru is also part of the homecoming ritual of their kuldevas (household deities), as seen here. Warli men from Nashik district, whose gods are believed to share kindred relations with those of Palghar district, carry Hirva Dev, wrapped in a red cloth, and the other kuldevas in a karandi (basket). (Courtesy: Namrata Toraskar)

In Conversation with Shiraz Bulsara Prabhu: Politics of Mahua and Warlis' Search for a New Source of Livelihood

in Interview
Published on: 20 February 2020

Namrata Toraskar

Namrata Toraskar is an architect and independent researcher currently based in Mumbai. She recently completed her Masters in Interior Architecture & Design with a specialisation in Crafts and Technology from CEPT University, Ahmedabad. Through an interdisciplinary use of photography, illustrations and writing, she strives to evolve creative approaches to intervene in the built environment of the rural communities and the position of their empirically evolved livelihood practices in the society. Her articles, illustrations and research papers have been published in national magazines and international journals.

Shiraz Bulsara Prabhu is the co-author of the book Wisdom from the Wilderness. She is also the leader of Kashtakari Sanghatana, a left-democratic, non-party NGO founded by her husband Pradip Prabhu in 1978.

She has worked relentlessly among the Adivasis in the tribal belt of Thane and Palghar districts of Maharashtra in the process of their articulation, assertion and autonomy. 

Following is an edited transcript of the interview conducted with Shiraz Prabhu at her residence and Dahanu beach, on January 16, 2019. 


Namrata Toraskar (NT): Could we begin with a folklore that throws light on the mythological and communal context that liquor is set in amongst the Warli tribes?

Shiraz Bulsara Prabhu (SBP): Yes! There is a story about liquor: 

Once upon a time, there was a young girl whose affluent Brahmin parents weren’t willing to give her away in a marriage. Once the girl reached marriageable age, somebody suggested to the parents, ‘There is a very nice young boy. He is an Adivasi and the son of a widow. He will marry your daughter and become a ghar jawaai(house husband) because the family is very poor. Here is a chance for him to improve his life.’ 

Once the proposal was offered to the boy, he was worried for his widowed mother and asked her, ‘But, who will look after you?’ 

His mother replied, ‘You go. They are willing to give you land. You make your future. I’m in a community, I will manage here.’ 

Soon after marriage, the father-in-law and the mother-in-law called the boy aside and asked him about his wellbeing before adding, ‘We want you to promise that you will never leave this house.’ The boy agreed. Though he wasn’t happy with that promise and felt helpless as ghar jawaai. The day after the marriage he was cloistered in the house. There was nothing for him to do and that made him extremely unhappy, but he accepted his fate. However, his wife was very happy having him around all the time. 

After a while though, the girl’s parents became increasingly annoyed seeing their son-in-law at home all the time. They called their daughter and asked, ‘Why don’t you talk to your husband? He is doing not a shred of work. We are getting old. How long are we going to be able to support you?’ 

The daughter agreed to talk to her husband. She asked him, ‘Why are you sitting alone and idle in the house? My parents are complaining that you don’t work at all.’ 

The husband replied, ‘But your parents asked me to promise to stick around in the house. I don’t like it myself. I would love to work. I am a man of the forest and I can work in the forest. I am a very good carpenter. So, tell your father to get me all the implements for a carpenter and see what I can do.’

The girl communicated that to her father, who realised that there had been a misunderstanding. The next day the father brought his son-in-law all the carpentry tools and implements. The boy happily set out to the forest to work. He spent the day in the forest and returned home happy. A few days later, he brought home an exquisite cupboard, beautifully carved from the wood that he had cut from the forest. His in-laws and wife were very happy to see the cupboard. This encouraged him to continue his carpentry work and he made another cupboard with the forest wood. 

The scene of the lore then shifts to heaven. The gods and Jama (the colloquial Warli name for Yama), the god of death, said, ‘Let’s call my messengers, Kaal and Ved.’ 

Jama then told Kaal and Ved, ‘The Brahmin’s [father-in-law’s] time has come. It is time to take his spirit.’ 

So, the messengers set out for earth and searched for the Brahmin. They came upon the son-in-law and they casually enquired about the Brahmin. 

The son-in-law recognised Kaal and Ved and, aware of their intention, plotted to save his father-in-law’s life. He took the messengers inside his house, and they happened to see the cupboard whose beautiful craftsmanship they were impressed by. 

The son-in-law told them, ‘This is nothing. There is an even more beautiful cupboard in the forest. My father-in-law is hiding in that cupboard, knowing full well that you two are coming for him. So, if you really must see my father-in-law, you will have to come to the forest.’

Believing the son-in-law, Kaal and Ved accompanied him to the forest where the other cupboard was being made. In the forest, the son-in-law opened the cupboard, and the messengers were struck by its intricate design. 

‘Oh! It is even more beautiful from the inside,’ tempted the son-in law. The messengers stepped into the cupboard to look and the son-in-law locked and sealed it with holy spirits.

In the meantime, Jama, because of the disappearance of Kaal and Ved, became restless. ‘Where are my messengers? It’s been so long since they left. They should have returned with the Brahmin’s spirit. I better go to Earth and find out what is going on,’ he said.

Taking on the avatar of a Parsi, Jama set up a daru [liquor] shop in the village and announced a peeni [a social event practised in Palghar and Jawhar tribal regions during which daru is offered to all the participants], where one peg was on the house. The idea behind the peeni was that once people began craving for the daru they wouldn’t be able to stop! 

People from far and wide, hearing about the Parsi’s peeni, came to drink. After the peeni, they naturally began to drink in excess. Because Jama wanted to get their secrets out, he offered more than one drink on the house and people considered him generous. 

One day, the father-in-law and son-in-law also came to drink. The Parsi was snooping in on everyone’s conversation, trying to find whether anybody knew anything about Kaal and Ved and the Brahmin. 

When the Brahmin and the son-in-law went to drink, they had a little too much and each started boasting. The father-in-law told the son-in-law, ‘Hey! You are here because of me. I am the one who changed your life, so you must believe in me.’ 

The son-in-law said, ‘You are alive because of me!’ 

The moment the Parsi heard this, he joined the duo. 

The father-in-law said, ‘I don’t believe you.’ 

The Parsi kept giving the two more and more drinks. 

To prove himself, the son-in-law said, ‘If you don’t believe me, come, I’ll show you.’ 

The Parsi and the father-in-law accompanied the son-in-law to the forest. 

In the forest, the son-in-law unlocked the cupboard, and the moment he did so, Kaal and Ved came out. They saw their master, who told them to take the spirit of the son-in-law.

And that is how the Parsi brought death to the Adivasis. This is the story. 

So, you must understand the whole context of liquor and how from being something that marked the community’s wellbeing it became the bane of the community; that when there is commercialisation or an intention to create a livelihood out of liquor, it pushes the village first into a debt trap and then into a death-trap.

NT: So, the Parsis have a mention in this mythological account of the Warlis! Can you elaborate on the historical timeline during which the tradition of alcohol brewing was altered by the colonial rule and the role of Parsis in it?

SBP:  In 1818, when British took over Thane district; the Portuguese hardly interfered in the life of the tribes. Historically, the tribal people had a rich liquor-making tradition. In those days, liquor was made from mahua flowers. Of course, there was toddy, which was highly fermented. The Warlis are disposed to drinking. Accordingly, the community also had its own way of regulating liquor. At first, there was no commercial manufacturing of liquor; families brewed liquor and they used liquor after it fermented. Basically, the chosen liquor was mahua. I have no idea whether liquor was made from other sources, but they could have been making liquor from other sweet fruits. What I know of is the liquor from mahua flowers which the Warlis drink together and only stop when everything is over. So, there was no limit to drinking, and the Warlis used to eat and drink merrily. But come cultivation season, there was a custom that you take a bath and pledge not to drink; they call it varasne [a Warli custom which deters the men from drinking alcohol during the cultivation season] during which you  eat or drink certain things and couldn’t shave. This practice was to basically stop people from drinking and have them concentrate on agriculture. After the harvest and the naivedya [a religious offering of the freshly harvested produce and freshly brewed liquor] was offered to the gods; the Warlis had the freedom to drink, and right through Diwali, Holi and weddings they made merry. And then once again when the cultivation season started, varasne happened and the annual cycle went on. 

Today, this practice has become symbolic. In each family, you will see one male with a long beard during the cultivation season, he observes varasne while everybody else is drinking to glory! 

When the British came, they realised that liquor could be a source of major revenue. They passed the law called the Abkari Act and the brewing of liquor was made illegal. In every village they instituted padas [a parcel of land], called khumaar pada [khumaar means drunkenness]. The liquor shops were auctioned. Many Parsis bought the liquor shops. The villagers sold liquor to the Parsis, who had the sole right to sell further because they paid taxes. The Parsis ensured that nobody else sold the liquor because that would threaten their monopoly. What was earlier a free community-based practice was made illegal by the British. 

Liquor also became available in unlimited quantities through the year and as the Warlis were prone to overdrinking, they were pushed into severe alcoholism. So, what was earlier something related to celebration became the bane of the community.  And since then, you have stories of people drinking away their lands, their cattle, their wives. Everything! So, this is the result of the Abkari act and during that time… [Pradeep Prabhu joins in the conversation] Pradeep, was khandagoad [black jaggery] introduced during that time? When did they cut the mahua trees? 

Pradeep Prabu (PP): Khandagoad came much later, after Independence.

SBP: So, when the mahua trees were cut, how was the liquor made? 

PP: The Warlis, the Kokhnas and the Katkaris are the three major tribes in this region. When the British took over Thane district in 1818, they didn’t know what to do in the non-monetary societies of these tribes. That’s when the Marwadis came in and started controlling the land revenue by transferring the lands to their names. The second intervention of the British was in timber felling that required the Kokhna Musalmans to come into this tribal area. After the forest felling was done by the British, the Musalmans took coal making contracts and in the process exploited the Katkaris to make coal.

NT: Was it selective felling of trees or were trees felled indiscriminately?

PP: The British Forest Department’s plan was supposed to develop a scientific forest...

SBP: 40 acres of forest.

PP: After the tree felling, neither the Warlis nor the Kokhnas were willing to stay in the forests. Only the Katkaris were left to take off the tree roots and they just had to uproot the whole forest so that the British could promote the monoculture of teak. As a result, the Katkaris would dig out the roots, collect them and make charcoal. They were still hunter-gatherers and largely practised slash and burn as they had to clear forest areas and plant teak in the place of native trees. The Kokhnas were already into settled agriculture and the Warlis practised a mix of slash and burn and settled agriculture.

You need to understand these linkages to see how each of these conditions creates a foundation for the next level. After the Katkaris cleared the forests, the British realised that they could get an income from the production, sale and consumption of liquor and other intoxicants from whatever mahua was available. They passed the Abkari Act in 1878. The Marwadis were not into drinking and neither were the Musalmans. So, the only ones who could take these kinds of pattas [patches of mahua trees on leases] were Parsis because they were accustomed to drinking and they had already built their houses in the villages. 

SBP: There are lots of Parsis in south Gujarat. Right from south Gujarat to Palghar, Boisar and Tarapur, we had these huge communities. There are many places in even Jawhar and Mokhada where you will hear stories of the Parsis. So, there was always a khumaar in these villages. 

PP: The Parsis had set up the distilleries in these villages. 

NT: Basically, I just wanted to know when the mahua trees were cut; so, they were cut in the 1940s?

PP: No! Mahua trees were cut after Independence.

NT: Why?

PP: Because of the Gujarati minister Morarji Desai.

SPB: OK! So, the British passed the Abkari Act and now alcohol was available 365 days of the year. With the Adivasis’ propensity to drink, they drank away everything. Liquor was a very important and integral part of Warli life—when you are born you have liquor, when you marry there is liquor, when you die there is liquor. Every festival, everything you celebrate with liquor. So, liquor, which was such a positive thing in the tribe, suddenly became a source of the death.

NT: Shiraz, can you elaborate a bit more about reasons that led to the felling of mahua trees post-Independence and its consequences on the tradition of liquor brewing?

SPB: The Warli uprising took place in the 1940s and 1950s and went on till the 1960s. By the late 1950s, this region became one of the strongholds of the CPM [Communist Party of India (Marxist)]. Post-Independence, the situation for tribals closer to the city was extremely bad. There was bonded labour, and all kinds of horrible practices have been recorded in documents like the Semington Report and others. So, there was a time when there was the whole idea that the Adivasis’ propensity to drink was the source of their backwardness and that it was essential that they stop drinking. Accordingly, one fine day the mahua trees were cut and most of the mahua trees vanished. The source from which you could make your liquor vanished, the khumaars also vanished. Due to this, brewing liquor and drinking liquor remained a criminalised activity even in post-Independence India. 

However, you should also know that there was always a side-lobby, a lobby that pushed for the cutting of the mahua trees and for which they gave a very biased reason. By then, the sugar lobby was growing, and they wanted a market for their molasses. They learnt that molasses are a very good source of brewing liquor. So khandagoad which is made from sugar molasses was pushed into this region. That was how khandagoad came to this tribal belt. And it was a very big business, very, very big business.

NT: So, the introduction of khandagoad was a government propaganda?

SPB: Entirely. This was more like a petty early capitalism. I mean nothing of the scale of today. That is how it looks. Everything here that is happening is happening in the name of the Adivasis, for the so-called benefit of the Adivasis. But after a few years you realise how it was one more blow to the Adivasis. So, khandagoad, which was unhealthy and unhygienic, was pushed into the area. It was in the 1980s when I realised what a curse that khandagoad was. It was a source of extreme domestic violence, usually committed in drunken state. It was illegal, so the police would come, and they would bribe; there were rapes and all kinds of antisocial things happening. 

And then of course there were the women’s movements: how they said we will break all the matkas [the earthen vessels used for brewing the liquor], we will get rid of liquor.  So, when you talk about liquor as a source of livelihood, it is important to understand the context of this region. It is still illegal to brew alcohol. The government might allow storing around five litres for personal consumption. But when the tribals brew it, they don’t just brew for five litres, they brew to sell too. 

The tribals later started brewing with white jaggery; khandagoad was made illegal and all sorts of things happened. To economise on that they started adulterating toddy, they started putting batteries [battery acid] to get the kick. I remember in the 1980s and 1990s in Jawhar they were using something called gashti. Gashti was basically French polish, which was bought from Nashik. It was horrible. 

NT: In villages like Dapti, there is ban on the sale of liquor, but they use it for bhang-utara [bhang meaning tiredness, utara means subsiding the day’s tiredness]. They offer it at the end of the day to the labour that they hire for agricultural activities. So, they must brew it on a regular basis.

SBP: For people who habitually drink, you don’t have excuses, no?  Otherwise they don’t get labour to work for them. Somebody gives birth, you must drink. Somebody dies, you must drink, bhandan modaychay [bhandan means fight, modaychay means resolving], you must drink and so on. I still remember, I used to find this bhandan moda [resolving fights] and drinking very interesting. People fight, then the whole village sits down, and they say, now we will do judgement and on the judgement day both the accused parties who have fought have to bring daru and then everybody would sit with their little patris [folded leaf, used as a cup] and the Patil [village headman] will pour into everybody’s patri. Then each one will pour a little in the other one’s cup. So, everybody has a drop of everybody else’s patri and then you drink it with the belief that we are a part of the same, we are all part of one. Let’s drink and make merry! I myself have sat in many of these village meets earlier, maybe in early 1980s and 1990s.

NT: This is a good example of local governance regulating the varied aspects of the village in earlier times. How prevalent is it today?

SPB:  Many of these things kind of disappeared. And now, from what I have observed, from the kind of alcoholism that was prevalent there, I see much less of it.

NT: With respect to the alcohol consumption prevalent in the region, I have observed many hushed talks about liquor. Owing to my association with Vayam [an NGO founded by Deepali Gogate and Milind Thatte that mobilises the forest-dwelling communities in Palghar towards their lawful rights], there were at least a few village folks who were willing to have a conversation. But ironically, my observations within houses told a different story with respect to alcoholism. Can you share some thoughts on this?

SBP: The people who might have spoken to you through Vayam must have been the very people who must have done the daru bandi [alcohol ban]. I also know a lot of people who still brew and drink. It is natural for them to be not very open about it. 

NT: Was PESA used as the leverage to impose the ban on alcohol?

SBPNo. PESA Act stands for ‘Provisions of the Panchayats (Extension to the Scheduled Areas) Act. It was passed in 1996. Through this act the Panchayati Raj was been extended to the Scheduled Areas. Pradeep and I have been involved in the formulation of PESA Act 1996. The Forest Rights Act and PESA have basically been our contribution to the country. And Pradip has been involved in drafting both the laws. But before drafting the laws we had a huge struggle. PESA does not look into allowing or not allowing liquor. Under PESA, you have the right to regulate alcohol in your village. You also have the right to adjudicate justice in your village. So, PESA would not prevent anything, it would not promote anything; PESA just empowers the village to decide, hopefully wisely, for itself. 

The whole movement against alcoholism started pre-PESA. It continued through PESA. You had the Gram Sabha tharav [decision] banning the brewing of liquor in the village. But it had its own impact and single women became targets of some not very happy things.

NT: Talking about alcohol and the tribal women, domestic violence as a result of alcoholism cannot be denied. In such a context, and with the so-called ban on alcohol, what would be your views on generating a livelihood out of alcohol in this tribal belt?

SPB: I would be very sceptical of trying to bring in liquor through the backdoor. Firstly, you should understand the consequences of daru bandi and how it affected livelihoods across certain groups of the society. The most affected were single women—widows and young widows who can’t migrate to work and build a life of their own. They need some source of livelihood which they get by brewing liquor even today. And when people had this daru bandi, the widows who were brewing for sale were the biggest opponents. They said, ‘Aamhala tumhi posa. Aamhi kaay khau? [You should feed us. What shall we eat?] There were men who wanted to bring second wives and that kind of thing. They [the women] were also those who were vulnerable and always at the forefront of different types of violence. 

So, you see, the repercussions of daru bandi were manifold. There was a time when we used to be always in court dealing with cases of poor women selling liquor. At that time, the Forest Rights Act didn’t even exist. These women used to be brought to court and they seemed so lost. They would be made to pay fines for selling liquor and so whatever those poor things earned would go in the fine. And in between, the police would also take bribes from them. As you see, this whole web of alcohol in this tribal region is a very confounded problem, not very straightforward. I don’t know what position to take on it either. Because I know that the Adivasis still don’t know limits. Nobody knows limits when it comes to alcohol. 

NT: When you narrated the story of alcohol, you spoke about the ways the community regulated its consumption. Today, what is the state of such management in ensuring limited liquor consumption while generating forest-based economy from liquor?

SBP: The community-induced regulations are not going to be there anymore. All that is a thing of the past. And we can’t keep on harping on it. What connection does the modern generation have with the traditions, customs, tribal identities? If they have an Adivasi collector, they will send him. That is how I have seen it happen. So, there is no question of going back. 

I feel that if daru comes back into the villages, it will come back in a very ugly form. It will come back as alcoholism. So, I would certainly not promote it. I would certainly play this livelihood-generation card very, very safe. Because a certain consciousness has been created about the evils and the ills of alcohol. 

The only thing I agree with is keeping people away from alcohol. And I am making this statement very responsibly as a social scientist. My reasons and the empirical evidence that I have gathered over the years tells me that trying to reintroduce alcohol would be a bane despite all sorts of pious notions about creation of livelihood. The government might be happy but what has alcohol ever brought? Why would you want to bring alcohol back into the villages? It is almost like swagatam [welcome] of something that we have with great difficulty created a consciousness about, branded it as something that is wrong, negative and should not be consumed.

I think the saddest part is the loss of mahua trees in this area. Mahua liquor is nutritious. But recent versions of it are poison; mahua no more is a heritage liquor.

NT: Finally, today, if not through liquor, what is the scope for developing a forest-based sustainable growth model that can benefit these tribal areas and cater to their needs? 

SBP: If you are really looking at a source of livelihood that is dependent on the forests, aim to address malnutrition among children in this area. Target the khau [junk food] economy and reintroduce traditionally nutritional food like bhakhri [a round flat unleavened bread made from the flour of rice, ragi, jowar, etc., often used in the cuisine of Maharashtra] and ambil [a porridge made with curd and ragi] in the eating habits of the children. Let the village SHGs [self-help groups] make these food items for them and have it distributed across the schools of this region. I have always felt that if you are looking at alternate livelihoods, this could be a good option that caters to the needs of the tribal villages in Paghar without any adverse complicated repercussions as alcohol would have.