The amazing story of Basanti Mazi : like her own stories

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Source: Seva-English      Date: 22 Apr 2014 18:36:28
22 April 2014:

Her stories are set in a backdrop which is strange. So is her life. The language ‘kui’, although spoken by quarter of a million tribal people in Odisha, is also strange to rest of India. Her stories narrate tales about the thrilling world of magical birds, stunning flowers and terrible demons.The jungle whispers spark her imagination. One can find out a little girl coming out from a bundle of beans and doing the household chores. All her creativity springs from a social reality that is isolated from the world and has grown in the innocence of the place she lives in. Drought, hunger and human sacrifices narrate their gory details in her stories.To top it all she is barely educated.

Basanti Mazi 

Meet Basanti Mazi, a woman from Kutiya tribe of Jharipani village of Kandhamaldistrictin Odisha. Her life has not been easy. As a child she used to accompany her parents and three siblings to work in the local paddy fields from dawn till dusk. Bone tired as they made their way back home in the dark, the women would start thinking about how they are to put together the evening meal. They did not have a moment's rest. "That was our way of life. It began and ended with backbreaking hard work. But, at the same time, every day after we retired to sleep, my grandmother would tell us stories. It was the best time for me," recalls Majhi, whose grandfather had three wives. It was her second grandmother who had an endless supply of fun tales - where a bird could marry a beautiful girl or a creeper could bear a child!

Today, Majhi has followed in her grandmother's footsteps, the only difference being that she uses the metaphorical style to reveal some of the harsh realities faced by the tribal community. In fact, issues such as drought, hunger, poverty, and child marriage have been presented in all their stark detail.

Married at 18, her husband passed away after an unidentified illness by the time she turned 20. She has been alone ever since. The few days of her romantic rendezvous are still vivid in her mind, "I had never thought of marriage as a regular affair. I imagined my bridegroom to be a character from one of my grandmother's stories. He could be a fruit, a flower, even a python! Of course, nothing like that happened. I met my husband at a community gathering arranged by Seva Bharati. From the time he first saw me, he wanted to take me for his bride but I did not consent to it. After two years of hide and seek, he succeeded in expressing his love to me and I gave in to his wishes. But, I guess, Mother Earth had something else in mind. She wished to take him back."

Basanti joins Sewa Bharati

After he was gone, she joined Seva Bharti's office at Mundigarh village to work as a housekeeper. To overcome her grief she took to writing with a vengeance. Throughout the day, she diligently went about her chores, washing utensils or drawing water from the well, yet her mind would always be busy weaving stories. Come evening and she would start putting down her ideas on paper in her native language. Whatever she wrote she put away in an old tin box.

Majhi's life took a sudden turn when eminent folklorist and historian, Raghunath Rath, came to Seva Bharati to interact with local volunteers. Raghunath Rath of Baliguda is a researcher of tribal culture and language of Kandhamal. In September 2010 he reached the office of ‘Seva Bharati' at Mundigarh to collect tribal folk tales as part of a project undertaken by him.

As he was speaking to them he saw the young woman furiously writing away in one corner. He had earlier seen her quietly go about her work and largely keep to herself. It intrigued him. So, he inquired about her from Pramod Patnaik of Sewa Bharati. Patnaik smiled and told him about Majhi's passion for penning stories.

Birth ofKutia Kondh Lok Kahani'

Raghunath Rath organised a workshop for the tribal volunteers attached with ‘Seva Bharati' to teach them how to collect their age-old folk tales. Basanti also got interested in the process and that shaped her writing. After a month, Pramod Patnaik found that Basanti had written 32 stories. “When I came to know about it I felt Basanti should get the credit for these stories compiled and written by her. So, I did not want these stories to be compiled in my collection and persuaded ‘Seva Bharati' to publish the stories written by Basanti in book form,” says Mr. Rath.

a typical Kondha village


Her book ‘Kutia Kondh Lok Kahani', which has been published by Sewa Bharati is said to be a major documentation of tribal folk tales of Kutia Kondh tribals living in Kandhamal district. The book contains 39 unknown folk tales of Kutia Kondh tribals. The stories in this book have been presented in both Odia and tribal Kui language, which is spoken by Kutia Kondh tribals. As Kui language does not have a script, the Kui versions of stories are also in Odia script. It is felt this book would play a catalytic role in creating interest towards education among tribal people. The book is being translated in English and has been approved as a National Document by National Book Trust of India and Raja Ram Mohan Roy Library Foundation. Inspired by the success of her first book, Basanti is compiling another one based on her experiences.

'Kutia Kondh Lok Kahani' has indeed made history - it is for the first time that a Kondh has provided a glimpse into the mind of a tribal girl, her lifestyle, her aspirations and imagination. At the same time, it was also a completely unexplored genre in Oriya literature. The light house Odisha has covered her in a documentary ‘AME APARAJITA’

Basanti as a social worker

Basanti Mazi in traditional tribal attire

Basanti transformed herself into an effective grassroots leader. She has mobilised her community to claim their rights to land, water and forests, to fundamental freedoms and to constitutional guarantees. As a woman denied access to parental and marital property, Basanti understands the importance of women's ownership of resources and now works withTribal women to assert their rights.

Basanti has had a leading role in several campaigns, including:

  • Campaigning to stop a plantation that was destroying land and reducing food security.
  • Opposin gmulti-national companies who have displaced thousands of Tribal/Adivasi people in many villages.
  • Negotiating the return of young workers who had become bonded labourers in Surat's cotton mills.
  • Facilitating land rights for her community under the Forest Rights Act (FRA).
  • Supporting her community to gain access to State welfare and services such as pensions, seed banks, disability support, health and sanitation services.

Basanti also initiated a savings group in Desughati village and was instrumental in setting up a rural bank that has protected many villagers from starvation and bonded debt by providing small loans. 

On international forum

In 2010 ‘skillshare’, an NGO which partners with Sewa bharati supported Basanti to attend and speak at the 2010 Asia Regional Expert Committee Meeting on Gender and Land Rights organised by the United Nations Development Fund for Women (UNIFEM) in New Delhi. For Basanti, who has never before travelled beyond her home State of Orissa, this was a great opportunity to speak to academic specialists from other parts of the world. She spoke with conviction, sharing her experiences and asserting that women must have equality in land rights. She created a lasting impression on those she met.

Basanti was thrilled when she, along with other speakers, received a fee from UNIFEM for her 15-minute speech. The fee was more than a month’s wages, yet Basanti donated half of it to Seva Bharati to support their work with the tribal communities.