Dulusu and Lisangi, with Their Youngest Son, Stop to Rest in the Middle of Their Journey Through the Forest ; © Sharbendu De
Photographer and academic Sharbendu De’s upbringing was far away from the hustle and bustle of city life. Growing up in the idyllic Andaman and Nicobar Islands, his after school activities included climbing hills in the backyard and exploring Japanese bunkers. He lived a frugal life as a young islander. His college days on the other hand were spent in the culturally rich Kolkata, selling mobile phones, cups, plates, trouser pieces and toys amongst other things. What followed were a few aimless years in college and a postgraduate degree in Journalism from the Indian Institute of Mass Communication. He freelanced for dailies, travelled to the mountains, photographed and wrote travel features to pay the bills. Then, the Asian Tsunami in 2004, that wrecked the Islands and steered his five-year-long stint with NGOs, shaped his working ethos with the subaltern communities.
The camera had always been a part of his life. A bequest from Sharbendu’s father, he received his Zenith SLR along with his love for weaving narratives and folktales. He also went on to pursue a degree in Photojournalism from London and continued to photograph national disasters, including the Uttarakhand flash floods, Jammu and Kashmir floods and the Nepal earthquake amongst other conservation projects, alongside his decade-long academic role. The beginning wasn’t easy, assignments were far and few but he persevered through the struggle.
In conversation with the photographer about his seven-year-long ongoing series about the Lisu community, Imagined Homeland.
How hard was it for you to access the Lisu community?
Let us familiarise ourselves with the context first. The indigenous Lisu tribe (known as Yobin in India) used to live inside the dense jungles of Namdapha, on the Indo-Myanmar border of eastern Arunachal Pradesh. In 1983, the Government of India, without consulting them, notified 1985 sq. km. of their native land into Namdapha National Park and Tiger Reserve (NNP) and eventually declared the Lisus' as ‘poachers and encroachers’. The problems began then. The national park was created in the middle of the terrain by cutting off the bordering villages on the park’s eastern periphery from the rest of the country — these villages got land locked with the park on the western side and the international border to the east. Since national park rules do not permit permanent constructions within the park zone, the 157km MV Road meant to connect these villages to the nearest town Miao, never got built beyond an endless mud trail. In the absence of this arterial road, the Lisus' trek for two to six days to Miao to buy essential groceries, visit the hospital or attend to occasional administrative needs, and return with at least 25-40kg head load. A spiralling effect of this means other constitutional entitlements like education, healthcare, electricity, police protection, telecommunications and every day essentials necessary for their survival and development do not reach their villages. Commodity costs are exorbitant as the cost of every commodity amplifies three-five fold in this terrain. Yet, no governments have fallen nor has the media screamed murder.
My first trip happened in 2013, oblivious to the beginning of a long association. It was brief and surface level. David Yobin, my first guide and translator on this trip became my window into the hidden world of the Lisus'. Almost every house had a tale of extreme hardship and death to narrate; they were also kind and compassionate. I could not comprehend — how can someone have so much peace and calm in the face of adversity? Something kept pulling me back. Thus followed multiple trips starting with a month long stay in 2015-16, graduating to two months in 2018 and four months in 2019.
Topographical challenges: In 2015 and 2018, I trekked all the way to Vijoynagar (the last Indian village on the India-Myanmar border) and returned on foot, trekking about 240-odd km back and forth. With the help of a Lisu guide and two Chakma porters, I carried my equipment and other essentials, lugging about 90-100 kg. We walked for days at a stretch, wading through knee-deep sticky mud, yet we could not slow down; we crossed the freezing winter river at multiple places, crawled uphill on on all fours and descended through the slippery mountain terrain or skipped and hopped over lichen-filled boulders. One wrong step could have been fatally unforgiving. Cell Phones do not work here and there was no rescue or evacuation on site. Leeches suck your blood and insects bite like clockwork. After trekking from dawn to dusk with 15-20 kg load covering 25-28km, the entire body hurts. We halted in the middle of nowhere, created makeshift camps for the night, warmed up at the fireplace and helped ourselves to whatever food was available. Nights were cold and spent moaning from pain. Next morning, we would wake up before dawn and set out again until we reached a village.
During these months, I was completely cut-off from my family and friends, with no news of their well being. Pining to hear their voices but unable to, I met them in my dreams. The terrain tests every grain of your worth. It was excruciatingly painful. This was physically and financially an unviable story. There was no money in sight and this project was resource and time consuming. Besides, the media was not interested. Every now and then I thought of giving up, but I survived and persisted because of the community’s support and providence. Some mystical energy watches over and protects me while I am inside the jungle. Thankfully, 2017 ended, I received an art research grant from the India Foundation for the Arts and a Lucie Foundation grant next year which allowed me to continue the work.
I carried copies of the stories I had done on them and shared with the tribal leaders and the community. That worked as a verifiable proof of my intent. I printed and gave postcard size photos to the people I had priorly photographed. In the evenings, I joined others around the fire place mostly listening to their stories over endless cups of lacha kha (Lisu tea). I attended their weddings, church sessions, as well as funerals. When news of my work started spreading through word of mouth, trust levels improved — I was no longer an outsider. There is always an acute shortage of medicines in the villages. I felt responsible and wanted to help within my modest means, so I always carried medicine kits for the village and handed them to David, or shared them with the ailing ones I met in-transit during the treks. When villagers heard I have medicines, they came asking for tablets and sent eggs or fruits as a gesture of their friendship. The bond between us has grown thicker over the years and several of them are family now.
Children on a Journey with Their Duck; © Sharbendu De
What did a regular day at shoot look like?
It usually starts with extensive desk research, but in this instance there was no scholarly literature available, and so, I had to start from a scratch. Initially, I gathered information in the field, folklore, conducted interviews not just about their life but also the dreams they saw in their subconscious state, collected official documents, government records, NNP’s wildlife reports and family photos, which are reference materials now. We could plan to our heart’s fill but once we were inside the jungle, nature had the final say. When it rained, it went on for days. When heavily armed insurgents visited the villages, we would be hiding in lockdown for days. On multiple occasions, I was stopped and interrogated by them. It was scary.
I always struggled with a two-three member local team, until last year, to my great relief, I had a five-member team with Michael Yobin as the Lisu focal person. David always dropped by to help after he was done teaching at the school. Sometimes, it took days or weeks to find a location and recreate it to our needs. The production time for an image varied between two-four hours and another one-three hours for the shoot. If we were lucky, we made about three-four images weekly. The pre-production time was longer, varying from several days to weeks for the more complicated images.
Once I had fully brewed an idea, I would sketch the scenes with detailed notes, chart out a list of people and props required, discuss it with my team and delegate responsibilities. We usually location-scouted around streamlets and rivers, as water is a significant element in dream symbolism, also as a time-code. However, the images never got made before time. If an idea hadn’t matured, I found myself incapacitated to make that image; it just won’t come. So, while I waited, I ended up frustrating the team with my whims. Once, I wanted an LED light strip and horns fitted on a horse. I was dead serious, and the team utterly baffled. On another occasion, I wanted a cockerel as a model in one of the shoots, so Michael borrowed one from a neighbour, but the light-footed one freed itself and sprinted into the dense. Dropping everything aside, we ran helter-skelter through the bushes and thorns with the cockerel always a step ahead. On another occasion, we needed rags to create fire and smoke for a shoot in the river. Finding nothing else, Michael sneaked into a pig sty in the dead of the night and jostled with the grunting and snorting bunch for their bedding. Looking back, I can only laugh at our collective madness.
Most of my images are shot at twilight. I needed little pockets of the blue sky in the background as metaphorical escapes as well as for aesthetic and tonal consistency. That gave us a 20-30 minutes window in winter months. When we failed to make the image, another attempt was made the next day. It is frustrating as hell. A significant part of images from Imagined Homeland is a result of facts and anecdotal accounts coupled with folklore, but also the dreams I had while I lived inside the jungle. It was in these dreams that many specific scenes were revealed to me. The jungles here are truly alive with the presence of mystical forces.
Ngwalidew’s Journey; © Sharbendu De
In Ngwalidew’s Journey, 2018, a young man enters a tunnel with his dau and dog. Ngwalidew and I became close friends during my month-long stay in Gandhigram village (2018). Then, a local school teacher shared his dream to get out of here, accomplish more in his life and help his community. He was searching for a way out but was trapped in reality. This emotive ingredient gave me necessary fodder for the making of this image where we see him entering an illuminated tunnel searching for that elusive light. But I didn’t know how to create that tunnel. We walked around for days trying to find an ideal location in vain. Once I explained the concept to Anil (from the Chakma tribe) and Dulusu Yobin, they eventually created the tunnel. Free thinkers, the Lisus’ have great ingenuity. We made that image over two days, preceded by a fortnight’s preparation. On both the days, we encountered a heavy storm and had to suspend midway. Drenched, we hastily took refuge in an empty hut in the middle of a desolate field. From here, we witnessed another hut swept away by the storm.
Recharging the fleet of batteries was another mammoth task, always at the mercy of the villagers who depended on solar power and that further depended on the sun. Sometimes, we used a villager’s or the Church’s generator who charged my batteries for free, but we had to give fuel for running the machine. After the shoot, personal chores took over. Some of us went to the river for a bath or to fetch water in jerrycans, someone else went looking for wild leaves or cane in the jungle to cook for the night, while someone collected firewood and lit fire. Most audiences will never get to see this behind the scenes struggle, nor will these anecdotes become part of the photographic oeuvre, but this is what it takes to work in a place like this.
Untitled ; © Sharbendu De
What was the intent behind undertaking this series?
Colonialism is more than race — it is a mindset reflecting one’s sense of superiority, a paternalistic approach adopted by one towards the ‘other’. This has filtered through our photographic practice as well — a photographer slinging his or her camera (a tool of power) parachuting into a community, snapping images without their consent, involvement or a deeper understanding of the story. Sadly, many photographers continue this approach. Prolonged overexposure to images of violence, gore, suffering and poverty has deadened our senses. Initially, I followed this problematic tradition for documenting the Lisus’ and reducing them to an uncharacteristic bunch. I was wrong. So, I started looking elsewhere for alternatives.
Their life is rife with mystical tales and surprising coincidences beyond the realm of logic. As Christians, they do not practice animism anymore, and yet, they believe in dreams, nature and its forces, including spirits. Utilising magic realism, I have tried to find a grammar in my visual language which represents and resonates with the Lisu folklores and their archetypal imprints— crisis, loneliness, endless wait and the human quest for togetherness. I composed people, props and animals at par with one another to reflect equality and codependency. Thus, no one looms large in the frames. I summarily rejected representational cliches and instead repeated symbolic elements like the duck (swan family) — the only species that walks, swims and flies— and thus believed to bear mythical qualities that connect heaven and earth. I have attempted to portray the community in a dignified and humanistic manner, to communicate feelings over facts. In the process, I hope it counters the ‘other-isation’ of indigenous communities and pushes the limits of visual storytelling.
The Last Call ; © Sharbendu De
When it comes to representation do you think it's vital for one to belong to a community to represent them?
If only natives are to tell their stories, we risk becoming insular. The stories might suffer from extreme subjectivity and biases blurring the lines between fact and propaganda. Photographers representing other communities, on the other hand, must question their pedagogy and practice. We need thinking photographers.
If we drink from the same pool that everyone dips into, we will also yield the same results. For that matter, and as a point of personal interest, my references are mostly non-photographic. I believe, for us to get deeper into photography, we must get further away from it. The North Eastern part of India despite its magnanimous beauty, environmental and cultural heritage, has always been ignored. I sincerely hope my efforts contribute to a discourse leading to a shift in this bias.
You've been undertaking this project since the past seven years. How do you think the Lisu's relation to modernity has evolved?
Usage of the word ‘modernity’ in reference to ‘our’ life implies that we think we are better than ‘others’. This flawed illusion of superiority has resulted in the demise of diversity and multi pluralism. If we are modern, then how did we make such a terrible mess of our life — from climate catastrophes to Delhi riots and now COVID-19? One virus has locked down the entire world and sent the economy crashing. Perhaps we should recalibrate our perceptions and accept our so-called modern world as the ‘primitive world’.
The egalitarian Lisus are reasonably exposed to this hyper-capitalistic primitive world, but their role in governance and economic pursuits is minimal in the absence of opportunities. Absurdly, they walk for days to their polling stations to vote for a pseudo-democracy that never cared for them. Without quality education and access to other constitutional rights, their prospects remain stillborn. This government till date has not built the MV Road citing national park rules, whereas a four-lane highway cuts through Kaziranga National Park in Assam.
Man With no Road ; © Sharbendu De
Has the institutional gaze on this community evolved too?
Not much. The State has mostly ignored the Lisus’ barring reinstating their ST status (which they always had vide a Presidential Order promulgated in 1956), after a contested battle led by Avia Ngwazah of Yobin Tribal Rights Fundamental Forum and Lisu leaders from Yobin Tribal Welfare Society. The government schools in Gandhigram, Hazolo and Vijoynagar are barely functional. Teachers transferred from outside mostly decline their postings while the government officials posted in Vijoynagar Sub-division operate from Miao, relinquishing their constitutional responsibilities. The small hospital in Vijoynagar has neither doctors nor medicines.
27 years ago, in 1993, Asim Maitra wrote the first and only anthropological account of Lisus’ in his book Profile of a Little Known Tribe (Mittal Publications, 1993). Thereafter, scholars, anthropologists and linguists alike have abdicated their moral responsibility to pursue further research on them. Media still continues to ignore their plight. The negligence of these institutions is perhaps the reason that for decades the State has managed to turn a blind eye to the Lisus’ with impunity. I draw some solace in knowing that through the many exhibitions and artist talks I have participated in nationally as well as internationally, Imagined Homeland has somewhere served as a bridge connecting the two distant worlds. Now, many people at least know about the Lisus. Your magazine interviewing me for that matter is a marker of us acknowledging the existence of the wonderful Lisus’. I hope we turn a blind eye no more.
How have things been for you during the lockdown and what’s coming up next?
As an independent artist and academic, I suddenly found myself without work — assignments and the scheduled lectures were cancelled, including two exhibitions that were lined up and there has been no cash flow for months now. Artists in our parts of the world are one of the most overlooked ones. Once the chores are attended to, I spend time reading books which has been helpful but I’ve been lately trying to minimise my time before a digital screen. I have also consciously abstained from binging on social media or drowning in webinars.
Since April end, I have been delivering a two-month online lecture series on conceptual photography where I deal with theory, specific art movements, the photographic discourse and our ideas in context of our biases and prejudices etc, to help young practitioners find their unique voice in storytelling. These bi-weekly engagements with my students also helps me emotionally, as it hopefully comforts some of them undergoing anxiety. Besides, I have been researching for my next projects and I hope I can start photographing later this year provided I find a patron, but also complete my ongoing conceptual series An Elegy for Ecology, which is an imaginative response to climate crisis with regard to how we humans might be living in the future when oxygen becomes a scarcity. At some point, I have to turn Imagined Homeland into a book. That requires a lot of time, help and funding, so let’s see how soon I can start the process.
Notes: Imagined Homeland was made possible due to an Art Research Grant from the India Foundation for the Arts and a conceptual photography grant from Lucie Foundation. No animals were hurt during the making of IH. All images were made on location and not in post-production.
All images are a copyright of the artist and cannot be reproduced without his prior permission.
Sharbendu De photographed by Imran Bashir Kokiloo
Text Unnati Saini