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A YouTube star’s attempts to revive Santali culture

Murmu is as remarkable behind the camera as he is in front of it. He is deliberate with each frame, shot, subject and character in his videos, and how he wants to present the whole to his audience.
30 April, 2022

“I use music as my weapon to give voice to the Adivasi community,” Tom Murmu, a 25-year-old artist from the Santal community, told me as we sat together at the Artist Block, a Ranchi cafe built to resemble a traditional Adivasi house. “Though people don’t understand Santali, through my songs they recognise my community,” he said.

An artist and YouTube star, Murmu has become an icon as a representative of Santal and Adivasi youngsters. In his performances and music videos, Murmu wears a panchi—the traditional garment worn by Santal men—and a t-shirt. His attire, like his music, is a blend of traditional and modern.

Murmu—whose given name is Anuranjan Murmu, though he has become famous by his chosen artistic name—has over two hundred thousand subscribers on YouTube. He hails from Dumka, a small city in Jharkhand that is the headquarters of the Santal Pargana. He grew up attending and listening to local performances by Santal artists. “I performed in school-level competitions but only decided to pursue music as a career in 2015,” he told me. “Music, cinema and art influence and impact people’s lives, directly and indirectly. Music has the power to change your mood, motivate you, encourage you and influence you.”

Santali is an Austro-Asiatic language spoken by 7.6 million people, mainly in Jharkhand, West Bengal and Odisha. In the 1920s, the renowned Santali poet and writer Raghunath Murmu began the struggle to have it designated as an official language. He brought about a cultural revolution by establishing the Sarna Dharma Semlet—Sarna Grove Religious Organisation—which encouraged the Santal community to return to its cultural and linguistic roots. He also designed the Santali script, Ol-Chiki. After decades of struggle, on 22 December 2003, Santali was added to the Eighth Schedule of the Indian Constitution.

Nandini Tank is a PhD scholar at the National Institute of Technology, Rourkela. Her research area includes Adivasi studies, oral and visual culture, media studies, and intersectionality.