Saving tribes of northeast with art

New Delhi: The rich heritage of the primitive tribes of Nagaland, Arunachal Pradesh and Tibet, many of which are waging a war to survive the march of time, has found a place in the capital`s cultural and artistic mainstream with a unique documentation project titled `Soul Survivors`, an exposition of photographs, installations, video films and ethnic merchandise.The project explores the lifestyles of the Apa Tani tribals of Arunachal Pradesh, the head-hunting Konyak tribe of Nagaland and the nomads of Tibet.

The showcase was inaugurated here Saturday by Arunachal Pradesh Governor JJ Singh, the former chief of army staff, his wife Anupama and union Minister Salman Khurshid.

Part of a serial documentary "Tribal Wisdom" by acclaimed documentary filmmaker Anu Malhotra, the project tries to make their cultural heritage sustainable with an array of tribal merchandise for sale.

The money raised will be given to Donyi Polo Mission in the Papum Pare district of Arunachal Pradesh, a non-profit organisation which works for the physically-challenged.

The merchandise include mugs with ethnic motifs, post-cards, hand-woven shawls, scarves, cushion, shirts, T-shirts, saris and printed fabrics with indigenous prints.

"I have documented seven tribes from north-eastern India as part of my documentary series for the Discovery channel. The visuals - the still photographs and video footages shot since 2002 - have been sourced from my documentaries `The Konyak of Nagaland` and `The Apatani of Arunachal Pradesh`. I collected the artefacts in course of my visits to the northeast and a three-week journey through Tibet," Malhotra told IANS.

The idea behind the merchandise was to "promote the arts and crafts of the northeast in the urban market," she said.

"I plan to get the products made in Arunchal Pradesh and Nagaland by people who belong to the traditions, if they find a market in the metros," Malhotra said.

The photographs - both coloured and in black-and-white - are striking in their details.

Mostly portraits and community compositions with multiple figures, they capture the beauty of the Apa Tani women, supposed to be the prettiest among the northeastern tribes, their rituals, daily chores, community events and cottage economies like processing meat.

The video footages of Apa Tani and Naga festivals are clips from her documentaries.

Tibet comes across as a series of visuals of the remote valleys dotting its physical border with China, the nomads inhabiting the remote stretches, Buddhist prayer memorobilia and shots of an icy Mount Kailash.

"The Apa Tani women were so beautiful that large nose plugs, called yappin-hoollo, were implanted on the bridge of their noses to disfigure their faces so that they did not fall prey to men from other tribes," she said.

The tribal councils, however, banned the practice in 1970s.

Malhotra captures the last generation of women with `yappin hoollos` in her photographs.

A large section of installations like masks, wooden artefacts, footages and photographs was devoted to the head-hunting mores of the Konyak tribals of Nagaland, who still less than a century ago culled human heads "as a mark of prestige, valour and good omen."

According to anthropolohist J.H. Hutton`s explanatory notes used by Malhotra to explain the significance of head-hunting, "the real basis of head-hunting among the Naga groups is the belief that the head is the seat par excellence - the essence of which forms human beings. The life essence is brought to the villages in hunted heads."

Community kinship and networking is documented by the concept of `buning`.

Ekha, a tribal boy says in Malhotra`s video: "Buning is a network of friends spread across villages. I have eight bunings who live in different villages." The buning of groups help each other in times of need.

Governor J.J. Singh and his wife, who were dressed in the traditional hand-woven attire of Arunachal Pradesh, said: "One of the reasons why we make it a point to wear the traditional costume of the state is to let people know about it."

"We feel proud about their culture. We want them to stay connected to their cultural roots, faith and indigenous life. We don`t want to make them 21st century people overnight. We want to modernise them at a pace where they can gradually absorb," Singh told reporters.

The exhibition, now at the Stainless Gallery in Okhla, will move to the National Museum May 7.