The word Adivasi comes from the Hindi words ādi, which means ‘beginning’ or ‘origin’ and vāsin, which means ‘dweller’. Hence, Adivasis are considered the original inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent. According to the 2011 census, the tribal people of India (collectively known as the Adivasis) made up around 8.6 per cent of the Indian population. The Last Avatar Project by photographer Aman Chotani aims to catalogue the culture and traditions of these people “before they vanish and are forgotten”.
This is, of course, an extremely ambitious project considering that there are over 700 tribal communities residing across the nation. For the initial phase of their photo project, Chotani and his team have shortlisted 20 tribal communities, out of which they have already covered 10 communities, which include the Ahirs of Gujarat, the Apatani tribe of Arunachal Pradesh, the Brokpa tribe of Ladakh and the Konyak of Nagaland. Along with that, they are also tapping into ethnic communities like the Aghoris and the Nihangs.
It goes without saying that there are multiple obstacles when it comes to photographing these tribals. Most tribes live in distant areas with very few methods of travel and communication. They speak a different language and can be suspicious of strangers.
“Each community reacts in a different way to being photographed; it mainly depends on how extensively they have been exposed to the world of photography. We have come across instances where they were very shy or rigid and, in such cases, persuasion never works. It is more to do with the kind of rapport you build with them,” Chotani says when asked about the obstacles faced in photographing these tribes.
Chotani doesn’t appear to spend a lot of time with the tribal people he photographs but he does have fond memories associated with them. Chotani has some interesting future plans for the project, which include regular photo tours and an aim to “facilitate a fair and open trade between the customer and these tribes, completely eliminating the existence of middlemen and hence, saving up the extra percentage of funds that will directly go to the artist”
We spoke to the photographer about his project and asked him to recount one memory from seven of the tribal communities that he has photographed so far.
“What I took back from this experience is that we conducted workshops in schools with these people and they consider me like family”
“What I remember distinctly about the Garasia is that they wear beautiful clothes (black saree with a red blouse and a large petticoat for women, jhulkis, polaku and white or red turbans for men) and everyone wears clothes of the exact same colour.”
“I had the most beautiful time with the Apatani people. They invited me for a housewarming and offered me rice beer. Most importantly, they invited me to their temple and blessed me with their prayers.”
“The thing I remember is the long journey we took to meet the Ahir people. We drove all the way from Delhi to Jodhpur and then to Kutch by car to shoot them. They were very welcoming and lovely.”
“One of the most striking features of this community is the tradition of tattooing — on arms laden with white and silver bangles, the skin of the Banjara women is covered with several tattoos. These tattoos go into scripts, graphics and are traditionally inscribed onto them because the women of the community like it.”
“We had to take permission from the Sarpanch of the village to stay there overnight and what I remember is the morning tea I had with the Raikas. It was the best time.”
“These people are the head-hunters. The King himself gave me a beautiful stone and said that it’ll save me from bad vibes.”