“Memory is an unstable entity, a constant work in progress. At times, it can be articulated. At others, it is an illegible, undefined form… a scratch,” said Amit Mahanti, the director of Scratches on Stone, a documentary that looks at the history behind the formation of Nagaland. The film will be screened at the Public Service Broadcasting Trust’s Open Frame film festival in Delhi on September 17.
The title refers to scratches made on the stones of the village Longkhum by early Naga people with their spears. These stones are considered as protective totems for the village by the locals. Mahanti considers the omnipresence of stones in the Naga landscapes as markers that activate memories of resistance and resilience. And while memories may be in a constant state of metamorphosis, the permanence of these stones reflect the permanence of memories “in the face of a transient history that often tends to define itself in broad strokes”.
The history that Mahanti refers to is the decades-long conflict between Naga insurgent groups and the Indian state. After independence, Naga tribes assembled under the Naga National Council led by Phizo demanded for their right to self-determination. The movement led to violent altercations in Assam, following which the Indian Army was sent there in 1955 to control the situation. One man in the film recalls the time the army set fire to the granaries of Longkhum and the locals witnessed the flames that continued for months from their hideouts in the forests.
Violence continued even after the state of Nagaland was formed. Scratches on Stone looks at how these conflicts left a mark on the state’s present-day landscape.
Mahanti’s friend and photographer Zubeni Lotha was documenting Nagaland, trying to make sense of the place today in relation to its past. Lotha is present throughout Scratches on Stone and it is through her eyes that a lot of the story is told in the film.
“My parents would always ask us to not go out beyond a certain hour and sometimes, the gates would close at 3’o clock in the afternoon,” Lotha reminisces in the film about her childhood at the height of the insurgency. Her attempts to photographically document Nagaland is also a reaction to Austrian ethnologist Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf’s work, which includes some of the earliest anthropological photographs of Naga tribes. Mahanti’s film bridges the Nagaland from Haimendorf’s images with the contemporary reality of the state that Lotha wants to document.
The Shillong-born filmmaker became engaged with Naga history when he was filming the documentary Every Time You Tell A Story during 2012 and 2013. Co-directed with Ruchika Negi, that film delved into the history of the Ao Tsungkoteptsu shawl, a reward among Naga tribes for headhunting. “The attempt in that film was to look at the shawl, not as a symbol of violence, but more as a cultural symbol with its own codes, its own knowledge system, which had been transmitted orally down the ages,” Mahanti said. Working on Every Time You Tell A Story made Mahanti wonder about the larger history of Nagaland that formed the backdrop to the story of the shawl.
A definitive scene in Scratches on Stone shows four women sitting around their harvest in a domestic setting. The scene abruptly cuts away to a long shot of the women alongside a uniformed soldier. Soon an army truck passes by them. Mahanti called it a situation “that just happened, like we say in documentary parlance”. However, the sequence, although it might give the impression of a simple binary of an all-powerful military state and victimised people, was not included for this reason, Mahanti asserted. “Rather it was an attempt to direct attention towards the fact of the state or the military permeating into the everyday lives of people and the landscape, historically and in the present,” he said.
Early on in the film, in a sequence shot in Nagaland’s largest city Dimapur, a bunch of youngsters wearing trendy clothes, a far cry from the traditional costumes worn by Naga people in Haimendorf’s photos, are seen loitering about on the street and clicking selfies. What does the current generation feel about Nagaland’s violent history? Contrary to the filmmaker’s expectations, Naga youngsters yearn for normalcy more than anything else, he said.
“I expected all fire and brimstone in terms of loyalty towards the Naga freedom movement or antipathy towards the Indian state,” Mahanti said. Naga youngsters wanted jobs or the freedom to do business without being targetted for extortion by insurgent groups.
But the tales of violence that have been carried across generations will not disappear easily. “There is still a sense of anger that young people carry, subconsciously,” Mahanti said. After all, nothing is as final and absolute as the permanency of scratches on stone.