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Khushboo Sharma

IWB Blogger

Anu Malhotra On Archiving ‘Tribal Wisdom’ Of Indian Indigenous Communities In Her Docu-Series

  • IWB Post
  •  June 15, 2019

“I have always sought to capture India’s rich cultural heritage and vibrant living traditions through my films. However, relentless urbanization is wiping out indigenous cultures. Today, when wise living traditions are dying and stressful urban lifestyle is leading us into disease and discontent, we need a reminder of the value, and wisdom of our time-tested ways of life that are wholesome and fulfilling,” says Anu Malhotra, a woman you’d find rather baffling to put in a box.

Be it photography, documentaries, travel programmes, writing, or creating art, Anu does it all and with utmost finesse. However, there is one thing that Anu never misses out on in any of her creative ventures, i.e. powerful storytelling.

Watching one of Anu Malhotra’s documentaries is like listening to a profound story, a part of which is sure to stick to your soul for years to come and teach you an important life lesson or two. In a recent conversation that I had with Anu, she told me how traveling, documentation, and non-fiction caught her fancy and how all of this started.

Here are excerpts from the conversation:

Coming from an air force background and having been through several cities and schools, Anu had already seen a considerable part of the country by the time she finished school. Thus, love for traveling came but naturally to her.

It was in 1994 that she founded her own television company, AIM Television, and made her foray into non-fiction television programming, a rather unexplored territory till then. In almost no time, she became a pioneer of the travel show genre on Indian television and made India’s first ever travel show “Namaste India.”

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She shares, “That was a time when it was really difficult because there were no mobiles, we had no computers, and all we had were fax machines. So access was a big problem at that time. There were, no travel magazines, there were no travel guides, there was nothing. We had just come out of the era of Doordarshan. Most Indians hadn’t even seen India, so it was really challenging.”

She adds, “I really wanted to do this travel show. My dad was in the air force and I had been all over India. I thought it was really required and at the same time, I also found it to be really challenging. Once Namaste India was out, it became kind of a classic, it was viewed all over. The entire Indian diaspora watched it. It was the first time Indians were seeing India. Also, very few people were doing it, and thus it was actually more challenging than fiction. There was nobody who was doing quality non-fiction. Thus, there was a huge gap and I wanted to fill it.”

Since she was directing on the field, Anu’s travel show took her to every corner of India. It was after traveling for four-five years, Anu noticed that a lot was changing in India and there was no documentation of anything that was being lost in the process.

She says, “Since I had personally experienced all the diverse cultures and the ways of life which were different from a cosmopolitan life, I was aghast that they were not being documented and they were changing without a record. So that’s when I decided to step in and archive it all through my documentaries.”

Thus, Tribal Wisdom was born, a documentary series that documented seven different indigenous tribes. “We were losing our heritage very very fast and we needed to document it, preserve it, and learn from it. For instance, out of the seven tribes that we documented, one was Nicobari and after the Tsunami they were wiped out entirely, their culture was wiped out. Now, you can see it literally only in my documentary,” Anu says.

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She adds, “All the Tribal Wisdom films that we did, they have all become archival because the ways of life have changed completely.” Recently, in October Anu released a coffee table book titled ‘Soul Survivors’. The book is a compilation of photographs showcasing the indigenous communities busy living their grounded lives.

Speaking of the purpose of all this documentation, Anu shares, “I was very passionate about documenting India’s living heritage that we were losing rapidly to make people aware because unless you are aware you don’t have an understanding and unless we don’t have an understanding then we won’t value all those life lessons that they have to teach us.”

During her work on the communities, Anu witnessed people literally living in a way that can be best described as the pre-industrial age. “It was actually very humbling to know that way of life and see how we came from that and what we have lost in that process, what are the ways of life that still make sense but we have lost hold of,” she says.

During the course of documentation, Anu experienced so many things that made complete sense and also made her rethink the modern ways of living.

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She shares, “Everybody there is physically active, they are working in the fields, they are out in the sun, they have fresh air, fresh water, they eat minimalistically, and I saw that they are healthier. There were people who are in their nineties and they are still agile, they are productive. There is no cancer, no diabetes, no lifestyle diseases.”

However, it was their emotional constitution and the regard for nature that inspired Anu the most. Like she says, “I was moved by their regard for nature. For instance, every time they cut a tree they plant four more. The Apatanis follow a sacred place where they are bound to do so. They also have a completely self sustaining system of agriculture where they don’t use any pesticides or fertilizers.”

To add to it, Anu noticed that the labour was not divided among men and women like we generally see and the women folk work much harder than the men do. They also follow a cooperative technique where they go to one person’s field and work on it, then they go to the next and so on.

Anu says, “Their life practices are very wise. They have immense regard for their elders because they respect wisdom and experience. Children in those villages have nothing like the modern day toys and they play with stick and stones. At ages as early as three many of them are required to take care of their infant siblings. They are brought up to be very responsible and very independent.”

“The spirit of community is very strong and even when a woman and children who are left alone, they are sheltered and protected and taken care of by the whole village. They are there for each other in the times of need.”

Anu saw a very moving instance of communal harmony among the Konyaks while she was filming in Nagaland in a village called Wnching. One day they were busy shooting when they heard an uproar and found out that the adjacent village was on fire. “We said we want to go and help but we were told that we can’t enter another village unless we had the permission of its king,” Anu shares.

It was a wild fire and gobbled around some 30-40 huts along with everything that they had inside. Three days later when Anu and her team received the permission to enter the village and went there along with some relief ration they were surprised to see that the relief material was already there and was also sufficiently stocked. Anu turned to the King and said, “Wow I am really surprised with the promptness that the government has worked with in this case.”

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The instant she said it, the king caught hold of her arm and dragged her to side, said “look,” and pointed in a direction. Anu was flabbergasted to see around 200 men working at the whole hill side. They were busy rebuilding the huts.

That is when Anu learned that every time there is a fire in any of the Apatani villages, all the able bodied men from the nearby villages drop everything that they are doing and rush to the burning village along with whatever provisions they have, camp there, and rebuild the houses. And they do all of this, without asking. “I was so astounded. I didn’t even know my neighbours,” Anu says.

It was right after this incidence that Anu was talking to her interpreter who told her something that has stayed with her since then. She shares, “He said, ‘For us, the priority is our community unlike the urban culture where everyone is busy focusing on their individual happiness. It was a huge lesson and it always stayed with me and that’s why I named this series “Tribal Wisdom.'”

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