Extraordinary Lila Elwin

EXCLUSIVE

Lila Elwin, wife of Dr Verrier Elwin was almost a repository of her husband’s gigantic heritage, his collection of rare artefacts, books and documents at their two-storeyed wooden bungalow in Shillong, the capital of Meghalaya. Daughter of a Pradhan Gond tribal chieftain from a remote village Patangarh in Mandla district of Madhya Pradesh, Lila met her Englishman husband in 1949-50 and they were formally married in 1953. She managed her household and three young sons with finesse after her husband died in 1964. Lila Elwin passed away in Mumbai on July 14 this year.

 

When and where did you meet Lila Elwin for the first time?

 

I actually met her twice, in 1997 and 2001. First time was to do my research on Dr Verrier Elwin. And the second time when I had gone to Shillong to deliver the Elwin Memorial Lecture in 2001. I had also gone to her native village, Patangarh in Mandla district of Madhya Pradesh. There I had met some of her relatives and maybe her brother. When I met her, she was polite and courteous but we did not speak much. I was more engaged with her son Ashok, who I feel is the intellectual heir of Dr Verrier Elwin. She did show me some letters from Pandit Nehru. She also showed me a painting of Jamini Roy which was hung in her living room.

322ELWIN
Lila Elwin at own Shillong residence

 

What do you think was her role in Dr Verrier Elwin’s life?

 

Essentially, after his first marriage with a tribal lady called Kosi broke up, Dr Elwin was going through an emotional trauma. He blamed himself and was broken and disconsolate. Kosi had helped him extensively in his research. Lila did not contribute to his research much, but she rehabilitated him as a person. She came from a remote village in Madhya Pradesh and came to Shillong to be a homemaker. She had a great strength of character and dignity.

 

In his latter years, Dr Verrier Elwin embraced Buddhism and was cremated according to Buddhist rituals. His family followed suit. Why do you think he did that?

 

Dr Elwin came from a deeply spiritual background. His father was a bishop and his mother was a devout evangelical Christian. When he was living in Maharashtra, he was influenced by the entire medieval Saint tradition of the state. Then he went to work among the Gonds. It would be incorrect to call him a Missionary as he was in fact, thrown out of the church in 1936. His faith is very interesting and he enjoyed the Hindu mysticism. He came to Northeast India and visited Arunachal Pradesh and the Monpa areas. Buddhism was deeply philosophical and reconciled to his spiritual belief and his abhorrence to conversion. As a very spiritual person, he was not satisfied by an atheistic or a dogmatic way of life. In fact, his sister did not like it that he was cremated after he died. But this was something which gave him emotional satisfaction. Dr Elwin was clear that he would be cremated and that his ashes would be immersed in the Siang river in Arunachal Pradesh.

 

On a critical note, do you think Dr Verrier Elwin marrying a tribal woman was some kind of an experiment with his life?

 

Dr Elwin was living with them and writing about them. He was not a normal anthropologist who came, did research and left. He went to Mandla district in Madhya Pradesh in January 1932 and left in January 1954 to come to Shillong, Meghalaya. He lived with them for 22 years and it was completely logical that he married one of them.

 

What kind of a relationship did they both share?

 

He knew some Chattisgarhi and both of them could communicate. In fact, she had adjusted very well in his household. She was a very self-possessed, confident and an elegant lady.

Ramachandra Guha

Ramachandra Guha

Noted historian Ramachandra Guha came to Shillong to research on his book Savaging the Civilized; Verrier Elwin, His Tribals, and India (1999) on Dr Elwin. He recalls meeting Lila Elwin at her Shillong residence twice, once in 1997 and once in 2001. He stayed a couple of days in Shillong and meticulously went through Dr Elwin’s diary. On her demise, RAMACHANDRA GUHA talks about this extraordinary lady and her role in illustrious anthropologist’s life in this exclusive interview to TERESA REHMAN