In 2000, filmmaker, photographer and artist Anu Malhotra was in Arunachal Pradesh’s Ziro Valley, filming the region’s Apatani tribes for a documentary series, Tribal Wisdom. During the course of her stay, Malhotra was invited by her host family to attend a funeral. “I had been given a shawl to take as a present for the woman who [had] died and [I was] confused,” said Malhotra. As she neared the hut, where the funeral was taking place, she heard a “low gentle singing”, which surprisingly didn’t sound “sad” but was “happy and pleasant”.
The body, kept inside the long, dark hut, was surrounded by presents – tobacco, rice beer and clothes. “Everything she partook of in life, was being sent with her to enjoy in the afterlife,” said Malhotra. The shawl too joined the pile. Malhotra learnt that among the Apatanis, when an elderly person who has lived a full life dies, their life is celebrated. “They were singing songs of remembrance for the 90-year-old and [on] how she lived her life.”
While she was in the region, Malhotra got a chance to observe the lifestyles and traditions of not just the Apatanis, but of the Konyak tribe and the Tibetan Nomads as well. She decided to photograph and document them, as she feared they were “the last bearers and witnesses of their respective age-old customs”. A compilation of the photographs, taken over the course of a two-year period beginning 2000, were released in the form of a coffee-table book, Soul Survivors, in October.
The photographs cover the tribes’ way of life, how they built their houses, what they ate and drank, and how they raised their children. “I was travelling and documenting these communities at a time when everything was changing very fast,” said Malhotra. “There was a lot of intrusion of Western lifestyle, clothes were changing, and a lot of our living heritage was getting lost.”
In the chapter dedicated to the Apatani people, Malhotra writes about the bamboo and cane huts built on stilts in Reru village, each one with a little kitchen garden and decorated with the horn of oxen, or mithun. The essay on the Konyaks, one of the largest tribes in Nagaland, is accompanied by photographs of the Aoling Spring Festival, celebrated in the villages of Longwa, Chui, Wanching and Longmein. In the last section of the book, she writes about travelling to Lhasa in Tibet, and meeting the nomadic shepherds and herders.
“I wanted to revisit these photographs because they have now become archival material,” said Malhotra. “Bamboo huts have now been replaced by concrete structures, [many of] the children of the Apatanis and Konyaks are...rejecting their old lifestyle – they don’t want to wear the traditional clothes or eat the food.”
Her photos feature the elaborate headdresses worn by the Konyak men, the tattooed faces of the tribe’s elders, the plugs the Apatani women wear in their noses. Malhotra also writes about the Lhasa landscape and how it has drastically changed in the last decade: “The demographic of the region is perhaps irretrievably altered with migration.”
Malhotra’s photos provide intimate glimpses into the lives of the tribes. In the introduction to the book, art critic and writer Kishore Singh writes, “Anu’s obtrusive presence but unobtrusive camera eludes their understanding of the world, and maskless, they parade before her lens as she captures their most private thoughts: the unstinted gaze, the demeanour and poise, the soft smile, the flash of anxiety, the ease of gratification – a hard life well lived.”
The book, clarifies Malhotra, is not just about preserving the way these tribes look or what they wear. “It is about learning from them,” she said. “My photographs give an overview of the culture in general, but in my script I have tried to include ways in which we can and should be like them. Live with respect for our surroundings and our bodies.” The Apatanis, she says, plant four trees for every tree they cut, and largely enjoy a healthy lifestyle. “In general, in all three communities there is a sense of togetherness that I have never witnessed anywhere else. We need to learn how to function as a community from them.”
All photographs by Anu Malhotra.