Nestled in the Himalayan foothills in the extreme north-east of India is Arunachal Pradesh, an isolated remote and sparsely populated state that is home to an astonishing diversity of ethnic societies. Few regions of the world can match the wide range of languages and religions, diet and dress enclosed within the state’s 83,700 square kilometres. A million inhabitants are divided into 26 major tribal communities, each with its own distinctive dialect, lifestyle, faith, traditional practices and social mores, living side by side with about 30 smaller communities. In the far west live the Sherdukpen and Monpa tribes, practitioners of the ritualistic Tibetan form of Buddhism, adept at mask-making and pantomime dances. The Adi and Nyishi people live in the state’s heartland and worship their gods at elaborate altars crafted out of bamboo and cane. In the extreme south-east of the state, the Wanchos are known for the quality of wood carvings they create. In the east of the region, the Idus are expert textile-weavers and their costumes are a rich tapestry of hues and designs, while the Apatani are famous for their basket-weaving, their strong village institutions and social networks. The Simong, who inhabit the forbidding northern uplands, climb up mountain peaks to perform their rituals and collect poisonous aconite plants to use on their arrow-tips for hunting.
Threats to a Hidden Community
For 36-year-old film-maker Moji Riba, the cultural richness of Arunachal, his home state, is “like a wonderful shawl woven in a myriad of colours and patterns”. Situated far east of the bulk of India, the state has borders with Tibet (China), Myanmar and Bhutan, but it is isolated by high mountains and dense forests, and regulated by a strict tribal protection policy that requires even Indian citizens to have a special permit to enter the region. As a result, the ethnic groups of Arunachal were, until recently, shielded from external influence. “The Arunachali have evolved an enviable understanding of their immediate environment, finding imaginative ways of survival in their rugged homeland,” Riba explains. “Over time, they have devised a bold celebration of the pageantry and patterns of everyday life. There is much to learn from their contributions to folklore, arts and crafts and philosophy.”
Today, however, economic development, improved means of communication, the exodus of the young and the gradual renunciation of animist beliefs for mainstream religions threaten Arunachal’s colourful traditions. “It is not my place to denounce this change or to counter it,” says Riba. “But, as the older generation holds the last link to the storehouse of indigenous knowledge systems, we are at risk of losing out on an entire value system, and very soon.” The risk of many of these cultures disappearing in a generation is particularly great as almost the entire body of local wisdom — from religious chants to tribe histories, from love songs to agricultural rituals — exist today only in the oral tradition. The death of every older person in a village means the loss of part of the local heritage.
Capturing a Culture
This realization led Riba, who holds a master’s degree in mass communications, to set up the Centre for Cultural Research & Documentation (CCRD) in 1997 in Itanagar, the capital city of Arunachal. Over the past decade, a team working at the centre has made 35 documentaries for national television stations and for government and non-governmental agencies. But the centre is more than just an archive or library, it is also a platform offering the tribal people an opportunity to voice their concerns and share experiences. In 2004, Riba was instrumental in creating the diploma in mass communications at Itanagar’s Rajiv Gandhi University, again to augment understanding of cultural values and local customs. He currently juggles his time as head of the university’s communications department with running the centre.
But the unprecedented rate at which cultural change is taking place is simply “too large, too rapid and too overwhelming” for the team to capture through standard methods. Riba’s solution is the Mountain Eye Project, an unconventional and ambitious initiative that aims to create a cinematic time capsule documenting a year in the life of 15 different ethnic groups. Riba will select and train young people from each community to do the filming. This gives him access to enough film-makers — a resource he lacked at the cultural research centre — as well as access to people with an intimate understanding of village life. Beginning in early 2009, these novice film-makers will capture a broad range of the tribes’ oral histories, as well as the rituals, ceremonies and festivals that take place over a year in their villages. Riba expects to collect about 300 hours of film per village, all of which will be recorded and archived in the native languages. He believes that the resulting 4,000-plus hours of video will provide an invaluable record of life as it has been lived in his state for centuries. The project will also engage scholars belonging to the 15 tribes from the University at Itanagar to analyse and translate this vast amount of data and organize it in a publicly accessible database.
Riba is philosophical about the inevitable limits on what can be saved for the future. “While there is unquestionably a need for the documentation of customs and beliefs,” he says, “we also understand that all this documentation and the outreach activities will not ensure that these customs continue to be practised in their original forms — it would be unrealistic to even expect it to do so. The forces of change are larger than what we can take on. We are instead trying to create a space where they will continue to live in some form or the other: some definitely in their practice like the singing of songs, the telling of folktales and the fun of the folk dances; others, like the Apatani nose piercing or the Wancho tattoos and the war rituals, to be understood and valued for what they would have meant to our people in another time and age. “I like to think of our heritage as an elastic band. I want to stretch this as much into the future generations as we can — till it reaches its edge and snaps. Each day I wake up and hope that this never happens. But that is sadly a finality we have to stare at — unless of course, there is a revolution of some kind!”
Each video volunteer will also produce a film based on a particular aspect of their village that moved them. These short films will be the cornerstone of an outreach programme, to be held initially at Itanagar’s Jawaharlal Nehru State Museum. A series of interactive workshops will take place where the films will be shown alongside traditional artistic activities such as mask-making, painting, storytelling and participatory games using local languages. Cultural heritage activity clubs will be launched in participating schools and colleges. Students will be encouraged to create information posters about various tribes and undertake field trips to the State Museum. Schools will hold events where students from different tribes can meet and exchange cultural experiences.
“It is my hope these outreach activities will inculcate in children and youth an appreciation of their traditional heritage, and help them make sense of their ancestry, their identity,” reasons Riba. The films will then be screened in New Delhi, giving the novice film-makers an opportunity to present their work to a large audience in a country where cinema is one of the most popular forms of entertainment.
Ultimately, Riba hopes to draw attention to this part of the world, enhance the centre’s visibility and encourage support from other sources. To get the project off the ground, he needs to purchase video equipment — each video volunteer will be equipped with a complete digital video documentation unit — and fund training. He explains that the funds from his Rolex Award will be used as seed money, launching the project and encouraging other donors to give support. “The scale of the project is large, it’s almost like working against the clock to try and get as much done within a limited time frame in a vast area. Therefore, the resources needed are also relatively large. “There is a crying need to fill the vacuum that exists in providing a platform for issues like the promotion of the indigenous languages, the ideal of tribal identities as a common shared heritage and the use of heritage education to enable the future generations to share, realize and respect the diversities in culture,” says Riba.
Professor Kambeyanda Belliappa, of Rajiv Gandhi University, needs no convincing about the far-reaching implications of Mountain Eye: “This is a path-breaking project, for it views the folklore and cultural heritage of the tribal groups in Arunachal Pradesh not as mummified objects to be confined to museums, but as a living thing that needs not only to be documented but also passed on to the next generation.”
Riba is naturally eager to preserve his own family’s heritage (part of the Galo ethnic group), as well as the many other cultures of Arunachal Pradesh. Like many young Arunachali, he speaks — and thinks — in English, deemed the language of opportunity in India, and also the language of instruction at his school and at university. But he vividly recalls his father’s funeral in 2000, where he felt more like a bystander than a participant while his relatives embraced his father’s body and sang a lament for him, an ane-naenaam. It pained him that he could not understand the eulogies they were offering his father or the memories of him that were being shared. “I could not even thank the people that sang them,” he concedes. “Indigenous languages have been caught in the crossfire between English and Hindi, the national language of India. Today, I am making a concerted effort to learn my mother tongue, the Galo language, and to encourage my boys — nine-year-old Jiri and Jili, aged three — also to learn it. Language is a significant part of our culture, our heritage, and we cannot afford to let it die. In today’s era of globalization, where everybody is encouraged to be the same as everybody else, language is one of the only things we have left to distinguish ourselves. Mountain Eye will help preserve these languages and hopefully encourage the audience to bridge the divide between modern society and their tribal identity, inspiring them to be in touch with their roots.”
Alexa Schoof Marketos
Published in 2008