Inside Bhopal’s Tribal Museum: Exploring the Stories of Tribal Art and Culture

Bhopal, located at the heart of India in Madhya Pradesh, is a harmonious blend of contrasting cityscapes. Divided by the Upper and Lower lakes, the modernity of the City of Lakes resides in the south. The walled city of Old Bhopal rests in the north whispering tales hidden within the octagonal minarets of Taj-ul-Masajid, the multicultural grandeur of Shaukat Mahal, the open court of Nawabs in Iqbal Maidan, and the bygone life of the havelis near the Chowk Bazaar. Amidst this captivating backdrop, the Tribal Museum of Bhopal, located just eight kilometres from Bhopal Junction Railway Station, adds to the alluring charm of this city’s vibrant tapestry.

Spanning seven acres, the museum is an ode to the lives, art, aesthetics, and philosophies of adivasis, who constitute 30% of Madya Pradesh's population. The Tribal Museum was established in 2013. Designed by Revati Kamath, the pioneer of 'mud architecture' in India, the museum celebrates the beliefs, folklores, art, and, mythological and spiritual narratives of the Bhils, Gonds, Bharias, Sahariya, Baiga, Kol and Korku tribes. 



Unlike traditional museums that procure, conserve, and curate artworks and artefacts, this museum transcends the museum space to give life to the relationships between humans, nature and myths. The Tribal Museum explores the interiority of adivasi communities— their mythical and ecological consciousness and aesthetics— through interactive scenographic models and life-sized dioramas that tell stories of their dwellings and everyday life. The museum uses leaves, mud, clay, bamboo, wood, iron, and dry twigs throughout the galleries. The lighting is designed to showcase different hours of the day and lifestyle of the adivasi communities. Through the fusion of materials, lighting, imagery, mythography, and traditional modernism, Tribal Museum at Bhopal reimagines the spatiality of museums.



As visitors explore the multi-levelled verandahs, they encounter the first gallery, Sanskritik Vaividhya or Cultural Diversity. This gallery opens the door to the cultural cartography of Madhya Pradesh's geographical contours — hills, lakes, forests, plateaus, and meandering course of Narmada river, which are home to various adivasi communities. Amidst the map lies the Banyan tree, the emblem of Madhya Pradesh whose cultural branches reach the gallery ceilings while the roots sprawl across the gallery's floor. Embracing tribal cultures, the branches depict the interconnectedness of tribal philosophies and cultures, transcending geographical boundaries as different tribal communities influence one another across Indian states. Visitors can climb the staircase conjoining the Banyan tree for a panoramic view of the geographical representation of various tribes in the ancient continent of Gondwana (Asia, Africa, Australia, and Europe). They are displayed as flags and scrolls on the tree branches.



As visitors move towards the warm glow of the rising sun inside the Jeevan Shailli or the Tribal Lifestyle Gallery, they find themselves walking across the mud-floored Baiga homes. The mud and brick homes of the Gonds, Bhils, Baiga, Korku, and Sahariya tribes surround the open courtyard of the second gallery. The exterior murals, painted using natural colors, showcase the intricate ties between tribal communities and their natural environment. Inside the life-sized Baiga homes, the interiors are curated with agricultural tools, earthenware, cooking utensils, and preserved food grains. This symbolizes the deep connection that tribal communities have with nature, which is their source of livelihood and also upholds the collective consciousness of their community. 

As the visitors enter through the Baiga homes, travel the remnants of Gond fortresses, and exit through the Bhil houses, they witness how these tribes utilize every natural resource, respecting their land and its produce. Upon closer observation, it becomes evident that despite modern societies imposing contemporary meanings on the adivasis, their deep-rooted connection with nature remains integral to their identity. Their personal experiences of maintaining an equitable relationship with their forests shape their collective consciousness. 



An example of this can be seen in the Baiga dwellings, which have evolved from grass to mud on bamboo grills, to mud walls, and finally to bricks. However, the community still holds immense respect for natural resources and strives to strike a balance, avoiding their depletion. The museum, through its spatial design of tribal dwellings, effectively recreates the principles of tribal lifestyles. Interestingly, these principles align with what we now term as 'sustainable' in the modern world, and much credit goes to the actual tribal communities who actively contributed to shaping these galleries.

The following gallery of Kalabodh or Tribal Aesthetics is a testimony to the arts and culture of the adivasi communities. It celebrates the cultural beliefs of birth, marriage, and death embedded in the arts, crafts, rituals, and myths of the adivasi communities through dioramas built at real life-scales. 



Wedding Canopy, Tribal Museum Bhopal (


Designed in an octagonal form, the wedding canopy nestled under the shades of four awe-inspiring trees exhibits marriage's symbolic, spiritual, and mythical foundations. The Origin of Life tree represents the eternal life cycle of birth and death. The Origin of Bamboo tree signifies the meaning-making of seemingly ordinary objects has philosophical and mythical connotations. The 'soopa' (winnowing basket), a common household item made of bamboo, narrates the folklore of Basin Kanya (bamboo). A tribal folklore of Gonds where the killing of a sister by her six brothers and her reincarnation as bamboo highlights the interweaving of human and nature in their philosophy of life. As a result, in the Gond communities, bamboo is not only an essential source of livelihood but also a symbol of life embodying nature because, during the birth of a baby, the child is laid in the soopa of paddy husks first rather than the mother's lap. 


Ceremonial brass bangles, a symbol of fertility in Bhil communities, hanging from the third tree, contextualize the traditional offering of these bangles (engraved with symbols of wells, ploughs, and farmers) to newly wedded Bhil brides. There are also terracotta artefacts on the ground that celebrate death as the spiritual Bhil belief of marriage between humans and Earth. The earthen lamps placed nearby symbolise the Bhil ancestors who invite the recently departed into the faraway land beyond Earth through the language of the dead, Muruwa. 




The last tree of musical instruments, adorned with figurines of musicians, sings tales about the origin of music in these communities. By uncovering the cultural objects of the adivasi communities, the museum's scenography brings to life the captivating blend of myth and ecology, paying homage to the cherished customs and spiritual ceremonies of tribal communities.


In the moonlight softened by blues and reds, the Devlok or the Spiritual World gallery is a visual treat to tribal mythography and spirituality. The tactility of tribal aesthetics lies in the art of invisibility. The museum expresses the inner lives of adivasi, who do not differentiate between inert and animate elements, abstract or concrete. The uneven topography, thick foliage scenography, and jungle sounds represent the hills, rivulets, sculptures, and folklores of wandering spirits, protector Gods bring lost cattle home. The folklores and festivals, Meghnad Khamb of the Korku tribe, Sarag Naseni of Gonds, Gal Bapsi, and Maharani Khamb of Baiga, evoke a divine consciousness through the myths and aesthetics of this gallery. 



On touring the museum, the modern urban human, a believer of science, finds that the mutual correlations between energy and matter, space and time, are not different from the vocabulary of folklore and myths of tribal communities. The mystic atmosphere also shares the tribal consciousness of Chhattisgarh tribes like Murias, Madias, Bhataras, Panikas, Dhruvas, and Halbas because the tribal beliefs in the sanctity of nature transcend modern geographical barriers. 

That's why the next gallery, Chattisgarh Dirgah, recreates the Dussehra chariot and the deity presiding in Bastar, Chattisgarh.



 Lastly, the Rakku gallery is a repository of stories about sports and games amongst the adivasi communities. Like Gendi, balls tied to the bamboo rod, which along with building skills for fishing and hunting, also educates children about the role of nature in their lives. In this gallery, other games like Rakku, Gippa, Chaupar, and Atkan-Matkan take three-dimensional forms. 

Through the serpentine curves of the museum corridors, visitors end their trip in the central amphitheatre. The amphitheatre serves as a performance space for tribal music, dance, and drama performed by various adivasi communities of Madhya Pradesh and India every Friday and Sunday evening. 

Additionally, the lower level of the museum also houses a retail outlet called Chinhari, an abode for tribal handicrafts and traditional art. They also distribute copies of their in-house magazine, Choumsa, that educates the readers about the tribal lifestyle and narratives of Central Indian tribes. 



The Tribal Museum of Bhopal presents a fascinating paradox, showcasing tribal life within a modern structure. This raises questions about whether the scenographic installations truly capture the essence of tribal ideals or reinforce stereotypes about marginalised adivasi communities. Acknowledging this concern, the museum website candidly states that:

“Methods adopted in the galleries for capturing essence of tribal inner vision and aesthetics, may seem to be artificial due to their being innovative, but in fact they are born out of the anxiety of getting rid of artificiality.” 

This recognition of the representation question, coupled with the museum's inclusive approach involving tribal artists in its creation to foster dialogues between tribal and urban philosophies, further complicates this representation dilemma. 

But all in all, Bhopal’s Tribal Museum is an ongoing effort of traditional modernism that bridges the culture of science and social science to redefine museums of the 21st century through creative expressions and innovative museology. Undoubtedly, this museum is a must-visit, with an entry fee Rs. 20 for Indian visitors (above 10 years) and Rs. 400 for foreign visitors. 



Kalita, Nandita. “Contesting Marginalization: Diorama and Tribal Museum” Taylor and Francis Online, 2 September 2022. 



Leave a comment