"Nachi se banchi!" was Ram Dayal Munda's personal slogan: "Dance to survive!" The most distinguished and erudite Indian Adivasi, or aboriginal inhabitant, of modern times, a proud son of the indigenous Munda tribe that for centuries dominated large tracts of central India and put up fierce resistance to British rule, Ram Dayal Munda never forgot where he came from: tribal dance and music remained his first love, and no one who saw the way he and his tribal dance troupe took over Mumbai's World Social Forum in 2004 with their flutes and drums is likely to forget it.
Born in 1939 in the village of Diuri near Ranchi – today the capital of the state of Jharkhand in east central India which he did much to bring into existence – as a child Munda saw British troops marching to Burma. "I became a scholar and academic by default," he said last year. "What I wanted to become was a soldier. I loved military uniform, boots and the training." But he failed his physical examination, and when he joined the Cadet Corps of his school in the town of Khunti, becoming the outstanding cadet, his father was unimpressed. "He used to say that my mind would become dull from all the square-bashing," he recalled.
He also had to fight paternal resistance to his other passion, tribal dance and music, especially playing the flute, but in this he had a key ally in his grandfather. "He used to carry me on his shoulder to a nearby forest where he taught me music and dance," he said. Eventually their secret training camp was exposed, but by then his skills had advanced to the point that his father was won over. "When one day I played the flute for him he was very impressed and blessed me," he said.
Happily, the square-bashing left his brains intact. The Khunti area, heartland of the Mundas and their resistance to the Raj, attracted foreign anthropologists; Munda and his friends guided them around, and a budding ambition to be a scholar was thus nurtured. After gaining his Master's in Anthropology at Ranchi University, he moved to Chicago University, where he was awarded his PhD. He subsequently joined the staff of the university's Department of South Asian Studies and pioneered the teaching of tribal and regional Languages. He also taught South-East Asian languages at Minnesota University.
It was in the US that he came into contact with native-American activists and his commitment to the political emancipation of India's 100m indigenous people – much the largest indigenous population in the world – began to grow. Jharkhand, a high forested plateau the size of Wales overwhelmingly occupied by Adivasis, was at the time part of Bihar state. With others in the Adivasi diaspora he formed the All-Jharkhand Students' Union, providing the intellectual leaven for the campaign to break away.
He returned to India in 1985 to become Vice-Chancellor of Ranchi University and his political influence began to grow. Eventually, in 2000, the dream of a separate Jharkhand state came to pass, but for Munda and many of his Adivasi colleagues, it was deeply flawed. The reason statehood was granted was "greed," he said in 2005, "just a political calculation by the BJP," the Hindu Nationalist party in power. "Jharkhand is the paradox of present-day India. I see it as the dividing line between west and east India. From Punjab to Kerala, western India is well-fed, the India that has already been westernised. East India has the forest corridor running from Nepal to Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. It is the big question mark of central India, with the autonomy and tribal issues left undone when independence was declared."
Regarding the new, fast-growth India from the Adivasi perspective, he was deeply sceptical. "All this hype, what does it represent for our country? – just a tiny minority is touched by all that, nothing in comparison with the millions and millions of jobless. There is no comparison with what we are losing, without compensation. In the mean time, millions of people will simply have to disappear. One-fifth of our tribal population is already on the street, nearly 20 million people lost, uprooted, displaced, wandering around..."
Adivasi resistance to the take-over of their ancestral lands for mines and industry has become increasingly militant, dominated by Maoist guerrillas, and Munda was gloomy about the outlook. "There will be blood," he said, "the people will rebel and there will be more violence and bloodshed."
After retiring from teaching in 1999, he focused on international efforts to improve the status and prospects of indigenous people. He took part in the UN Working Group on Indigenous Peoples in Geneva and other forums. He was showered with honours, becoming Jharkhand's only Padma Shri (the state's fourth-highest award for civilians) in 2010 and nominated to the Raj Sabha, the Indian parliament's upper house, the same year. But the culture of his tribe remained his greatest love: his last performance on stage was from a wheelchair, weeks before his death.
"I saw him last on March 30," Smita Gupta wrote in The Hindu after he died. Towards the end of a three-day Adivasi conclave, Gupta wrote, "Adivasis sang and danced together, unmindful of the varied regions they came from, their brilliant costumes blending with each other. Dr Munda – who had not yet been diagnosed with cancer – leapt off the stage and joined fellow Adivasis, singing, playing the nagara [drum] and dancing with abandon, his long hair flying."
Daniela Bezzi and Peter Popham
Dr Ram Dayal Munda, musician, scholar and indigenous activist: born Diuri, Bihar (now Jharkhand), India 23 August 1939; married Anita (one son); died Ranchi, Jharkhand 30 September 2011.