I had been actively associated with Bastar for over 30 years (1980- 2013), but I began taking photographs much after I began staying there. An important reason for not photographing earlier was the wish to not intervene in that remaining natural and cultural pristineness. As against power and economy, Adivasis operate on trust – it takes long for an outsider to gain that trust. They are a usually shy and reserved people, but over the years, as one lives among them – sleeping, eating and drinking like them and learning their dialect – mutual trust, affection and friendships appear on their own.
Bastar, bigger than Belgium and Kerala, is a vast region of varying cultural mores, but with an underlying similarity of rhythms and flows of everyday living. People feared their spirit could be seized for eternity in a single, frozen frame. They had similar fears about their voices being captured on a cassette recorder, or a foreign object like a syringe entering the body – but there was no fear of thorns for tattooing, or a red hot iron spike piercing the skin for treatment of an ailment (‘they are of our own’).
Many aspects of everyday living surprised me about the region. As an example, in eastern Bastar, till I first saw it, I had never known that chickens, instead of a designated place, could lay eggs almost anywhere convenient. Frequently, the eggs were laid in the hollows of crude and thick wooden stumps that fenced a hut. They were not harmed by other birds, owing to the thick foliage that hung over the stumps. Soon enough, someone from the family would bring them inside. Bamboo baskets suspended from the ceiling for household purposes (like storing leftovers) were also used by the chickens. They could share with the family natural or human artefacts.
That people could still be wearing wooden sandals came as a surprise, too – being a deeply forested region, wood was aplenty. In other parts, though, people practically all went barefoot, but in the eastern one (bordering Orissa) sandals had some prevalence. People made the sandals themselves. Rather elementary in design and finish, they had an appropriateness and aesthetic in the landscape that influenced design, appearance and ways of life. Things had their own sense of proportion and appearance, and were rarely interfered with by humans. I still remember how they guffawed in surprise when I photographed ‘a pair of sandals, of all things.’
In the deeper forest villages around Narayanpur, Gadhbengal, Benjli and others in west Bastar, it was sometimes difficult to photograph elderly women. They would giggle and hide their faces behind their palms, or a large nearby leaf – like shy adolescent girls elsewhere. It took much cajoling and persuasion; mostly, the shot had to be ‘stolen’ off them. Some would run inside a small hut and then had to be persuaded to come out. All this was in the spirit of play, a significant aspect of Adivasi life. Some would hesitate to allow even their rings to be photographed, because they ‘lived on and touched the skin.’
If anyone showed a reasonable inclination to be photographed, it was the elder whom I fondly called ‘Madia Baba.’ He was a healer through incantations and rice grains. A Gond Adivasi, he claimed to be 160 years old. This, however, was according to his own calendar, which none seemed to understand. Nevertheless, I and the others believed him (it didn’t cost anything). Whenever I visited his faraway village somewhere off the mud track (that leads to Gadhchirauli) in west Bastar, Madia Baba would show the family ‘heirloom’ of arrows and spears from an ancient wooden container. And then, twirling his moustache, ready himself for the camera. He was probably the only one in Bastar with a rather big moustache.
Sometime in 2004, I had gone visiting a friend, Butlu, in his village of Tondamarka. After a long and steep climb through some of the thickest vegetation, slippery trails and the sharpest of turns, when I arrived, Butlu was not there. The village of 6-7 huts was empty. Thinking they all must have gone for some congregation somewhere, I lay down. Soon, I noticed an irregular window, through which light came into the dark hut. Outside, the irregular ‘square’ was the forest – green, yellow, smiling and inviting. That became the cover of my book, Bastar Dispatches.
With the economic liberalisation of the early 1990s came the profit-oriented outsider. Though Bastar has a long history of outsiders coming and settling down, it was the first time that someone who had profit and greed as motives had arrived. The Adivasi could not have remained immune for long. Amongst others, large fairs and festivals began turning more commercial than cultural. People began asking for money in lieu of being photographed; it was accompanied by a certain underlying aggressiveness. Shyness and resistance broke down in the face of a learnt profit and greed. Were one to shoot even a hut along a road, people began asking for money. Boys and girls that danced with abandon in the villages each evening began forming cultural troupes. They dressed and performed for shots and money, instead of for their ancestors and Lingo, the god of song, dance and 44 musical instruments. All that was left to photograph without hindrance were the ancient hills, rivers, trees, spaces and skies.