This is the true but untold story of Verrier Elwin, an English priest who travels to India to ‘convert’ the native population but, instead, becomes Mahatma Gandhi’s closest friend, fights the British Empire, falls in love with an Indian ‘tribal woman’ and ultimately becomes independent India’s (post 1947) first honorary citizen.
Verrier Elwin (1902-1964) was unquestionably the most colourful and influential non-official Englishman to live and work in twentieth-century India. A prolific writer, Elwin’s ethnographic studies and popular works on India’s tribal customs, art, myth and folklore continue to generate controversy.
Described by his contemporaries as a cross between Albert Schweitzer and Paul Gauguin, Elwin was a man of contradictions, at times taking on the role of evangelist, social worker, political activist, poet, government worker, and more. He rubbed elbows with the elite of both Britain and India, yet found himself equally at home among the impoverished and destitute. Intensely political, the Oxford-trained scholar tirelessly defended the rights of the indigenous and, despite the deep religious influences of St. Francis and Mahatma Gandhi on his early career, staunchly opposed puritans in the debate over the future of India’s tribals. Although he was ordained as an Anglican priest, Elwin was married twice to tribal women. Later, as prime minister Nehru’s friend and advisor in independent India, his compelling defence of tribal people made him at once hugely influential, extremely controversial, and the polemical focal point of heated discussions on tribal policy and economic development. – Ramachandra Guhu on Verrier