A house of the Khond people

The Khond people are the largest tribal group in Odisha, but are also found as far east a West Bengal, and to the west as far as Maharashtra. We saw an example of the huts that they build in the State Tribal Museum in Bhubaneswar. “Rather simple,” The Family said. I wasn’t so sure. It was big, had a tiled roof in two parts, with a gap for circulation. Architecturally, that roof was pretty complex and well thought out. The Khonds traditionally have a hunter-gatherer society, so I wondered what they are doing building huts. Perhaps there is a notion of home ground for a family. After reading about the elaborate decorations they have inside the hut, I regretted not coming to the museum at a time when the hut is open.

I walked closer and realized that this was the most elaborately decorated door I’d seen in the museum. The carpetry was simple: just three planks held together with bracings. But the door and the door-frame were carved quite extensively. When I looked up the history of the Khonds I was quite as taken aback as when I saw this door. It seems that the Khonds fought a war lasting a hundred years against the British East India Company (called the Ghumsar uprising) before coming under their dominion. Currently their lifestyle is under threat and the tribe is designated as a particularly vulnerable tribal group.

Smoke on the water

Beautiful carved and painted wooden cylinders. My first thought was that it was a flute. But where are the tone holes? Perhaps this was an overtone flute. Confused, I looked at the explanation. It was a tobacco holder from the Kutia Kandha people! Such beautiful objects for everyday casual use speaks of a past not only of plenty, but also of technical capability. The drilling of a hole in this long rod, the polishing and decoration are all accomplished technical steps. This object completely belied the adjective “primitive” that is used in most descriptions that I found of the people. The Tribal Art museum of Bhubaneswar is an eye opener.

The four pipes for smoking come from the Dongria Kandha people. Again, I found them remarkable. The thin gauge wire wound tight enough to make a working pipe requires considerable technical mastery. The pipes are not special objects, just things of daily use. To be able to spare time to make them requires a degree of wealth quite at variance with the media portrayals of these people who are engaged in a legal battle to keep their homeland from becoming open cast mines.

The Paraja people also used a similar technology to create pipes. I found it interesting that the stem and bowl seem to have been wound as one piece. The separation of a bowl from the stem simplifies the process and can lead to mass production. That was not the intent here.

This water pipe, a hookah, was made and used by the Lanjia Saora people. It is a beautiful, if slightly worn and battered, object for everyday use. The spout was turned slightly away, unfortunately. I would have liked to have seen the joint between it and the body of the water pipe. The placement of these artifacts for the consumption of tobacco against a purple background seemed specially designed to bring to mind a certain famous song from the early 70s.

Mondrian in a forest

Museums are at their best when they encourage you to explore more. By that reckoning the State Tribal Museum in Bhubaneswar was very successful. I was attracted to the line of huts in front of the auditorium by the beautiful Mondrianesque hut that you see in the featured photo. The shape is like a child’s drawing of a hut: round with a conical thatched roof, but the Gadaba tribe’s traditional construction is adept. The wood frame, the internal support pole for the roof made from a single trunk of a sal tree (Shorea robusta), and the wooden door and window (behind) are stained black, and the squares of plaster are painted in attractive bright colours. Unfortunately the Gadaba tribe’s culture is under strain, with many people having been displaced by the building of dams in Andhra Pradesh and Odisha.

The Gond people had centralized states for centuries before they were defeated by the Marathas and reduced to a political periphery in the 18th century CE.The Gondi culture is distinct, but is being slowly lost as they take on the language of the politically dominant people around them. The traditional houses of the Gondi are too varied to be captured in a single example. From the bungalow that we saw in the museum grounds I could recognize themes that I’d seen elsewhere. The bare earthen courtyard was one: this is a place where people can meet, both private and somewhat public; a place where the family will keep things they can’t bring inside, like a cart or bicycle, or agricultural implements or home equipment like a ladder, and it can even be a place to tie up a cow or goat. The bright geometrical paintings on the wall were another. The tiled roof and the elaborate construction spoke of wealth. I’ve seen that huts which poorer Gondi live in are simpler, and they often have a thatched roof.

Between these two was a layout which showcased the houses of the Juang people. Their lifestyle has been under threat since British colonial times, when their forests were declared reserved, and their traditional rights of use were taken away. The long hut at the back is called a majang, and serves as a dormitory where adolescent boys live. It also serves as a community hall. The veranda in front, the paintings on the walls, and the simple white door reminded me of the houses of the Saora people, although the tribes are quite separate culturally. The structure in front is an example of a injza, where a man lives with all the women in the family. Perhaps this construction is not complete, since it is meant to be divided into two spaces, one for sleeping and the other for storage and day use. On a positive note, it let me see the elaborate cross-braced framework on which the thatching of the roof rested. I also liked the carved posts around the injza.

Puste

Jewellery is always a statement about the wealth of the person wearing it. A tasteful heavy golden crown studded with diamonds, sapphires, and rubies stolen from across the world makes the same sort of statement as the coin necklaces (puste) worn by tribal women. I was quite as enchanted by the technique and history carried by these tribal necklaces as any other museum-worthy bling. You can tell which tribe made them by the construction of the necklace, but the coins tell a different story. The Mankirdia tribe make necklaces of plaited strands of thread, the Bonda use colourful beads, the Gandia will knot cord together, and the Koya coil rope over cord.

But the coins that they fix on these necklaces vary from one family to another, and also from person to person. The gold coins that I saw on a Mankirdia necklace (the featured photo) had inscriptions in a script which I do not know. Was this pre-British, or from one of the kingdoms that coexisted with the British Raj? The silver coins in the Gandia necklace raised similar questions.

The aluminium coins in the Bonda necklace were from the mid 1960s. The 10 paisa coin may now be worth anywhere between 25 and 250 rupees, depending on the state of the coin and the mint where it was struck. The rounded squares of the 5 paisa coins cost slightly less. They are not a fortune, but their current price in the coin collector’s market means that have gained a little bit above the purchasing power that they once had. I remember buying one lemon sweet with one of these coins. Today I might get twenty or more of these schoolchild’s treat with the money I get from one.

The two necklaces from the Koya were perhaps the most interesting. Both had coins from the early 20th century, bearing the face of Edward VII. The half rupee and one anna (one sixteenth of a rupee) coins will each fetch about a thousand rupees in the coin collector’s market, and therefore would have roughly retained their original purchasing power. Interestingly, one of the necklaces also contained a silver medal from the early years of the independent republic. That indicates that at some time coins from different puste were shuffled together. So these coins served as inheritance, and when inherited by an younger owner, coins from several sources were mixed. The idiosyncratic histories preserved in these puste can be endlessly fascinating.

Comfort zone

Even before the convenience of having a good lightweight camera always in your pocket, I was interested in taking street photos. The famous images by Helen Levitt, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Saul Leiter, Eugene Atget and many others showed me how to look at people in public with a photographer’s eye. I don’t breathe the rarefied air that these greats live in, but they have inspired me to keep a camera at hand. And among the many things that you can see in the streets of India, two things fascinate me most of all. One is the pheonomenon of pavement barbershops.

To set up shop one needs a barber’s instruments, and a chair. Of such simple things is a livelihood created. There is a trust in baring your neck to a stranger wielding a straight razor, so I like to observe the faces of the men getting a shave. And conversely, I like to observe the stress and strain in the body of the barber who takes scissors to another person’s hair.

This man caught my eye with his elaborate set up. Notice the chair and the headrest which can be set at different heights? Then there is the umbrella for protection (it was August, in the middle of the monsoon), and the drapes nicely hung over the spikes in the fence. I recall having trouble with the exposure: the light was not too good, and the umbrella created a shadow. I was happy with the final photo though, having got the tension in the barber’s body, his raised shoulders and the balance as he raised himself above the seated man’s head.

This scene caught my attention because of the deep red of the drape, the only touch of colour in the street. This was the first time I’d taken my camera out after the pandemic lockdown of 2020, and I was shocked by the lack of masks and distance between the two. It was another three months before I ventured into a hairdresser’s. So that’s one of my comfort zones, a route I take often while taking street photos. The other is another story.

Houses of the Saora people

We have driven through villages sometimes and exclaimed at the beauty of the traditional houses without knowing much about the people. The Museum of Tribal Arts and Artifacts in Bhubaneswar was a lovely place to start filling in that blind spot. In the grounds of the museum, in front of the auditorium, there were traditional huts of different tribes of Odisha built using the original techniques. The one you see here belongs to the Saora (or Sora) people. They are a tribe of the Munda who traditionally lives in the southwestern part of Odisha and in the adjoining northeastern coastal part of Andhra Pradesh.

The house had thick mud walls, extremely good at controlling the temperature inside. The roof was thatched. I could only see the bamboo structure holding the thatching in place. I hope the museum extends its labelling in future to include more details about the construction of the huts. In particular, I liked the raised verandah in front of the house: perfect for casual visitors. It was interesting that a gap was left for the door, instead of having steps to go up to the verandah for entry. The white Idital paintings on the traditional red exterior walls it are called Tanger Sum and serve a ritual purpose of guarding the house. Each village is also ritually protected by paintings called Gosada Sum made by the woman who serves as the shaman.

As you can see from these photos, the doors are made with planks of wood, which meant that villages had a carpenter. The paint seemed to be modern. I wonder how that bright red colour of the exterior walls and the white of the idital was originally made. Elsewhere in the museum I’d seen the kinds of traditional implements that the Saora people used in their terrace and swidden agriculture. They required a functioning smithy. But iron working is such an ancient art in India that I guess the instruments used by farmers and carpenters may have reached their optimal form long ago. Like a good museum, this one filled my mind with more questions.

State of rest

Corpus omne perseverare in statu suo quiescendi vel movendi uniformiter in directum, nisi quatenus a viribus impressis cogitur statum illum mutare.
(Every body must persist in its state of rest or of moving uniformly in a straight direction, except in so far as it is forced to change that state by impressed forces.)

Isaac Newton

Mahaparinirvana. It’s hard to imagine a state of peace deeper than the one that is achieved when a person who has attained nirvana during his lifetime passes away. That is the theme of the sleeping Buddhas that you see so often in Buddhist iconography. The statue that you see in the photo is in Bangkok’s Wat Pho, the Temple of the Reclining Buddha. It was a very hot day when I arrived here and sat in the shade to cool off. So I was in a state of peace, albeit lesser, when I walked around the statue.

Another place, another golden day. An afternoon spent taking photos of birds in the shallows of Odisha’s Chilika lake, ended with a glorious sunset. As the light failed I was forced to stop taking photos of birds. I was quite satisfied, and as much at peace with the day as a birder can be. It was time to catch the light through the reeds. Does that photo say “peace” to you?

I spent a month in Frascati one summer a few years ago. An old friend and a colleague was also there with his partner. A weekend before the solstice there was a program of music in the open at every square in the town. We spent the evening at an enoteca in a small square. Like many of these extablishments, you could buy jugs of fresh wine and sit at a table outside. We’d brought our own olives and bread, cold cuts and olive oil and salad. We sat there with the food and wine and listened to the music as we talked. I only had an old phone to take photos with; it didn’t do well with low light. Six months later I heard that my friend had tested positive for cancer. I met him once again after that, but this is how I remember the couple, by that last peaceful summer.

So many of my most peaceful memories are near lakes and by the sea! This is a photo I took on a rainy day on Lake Inle in Myanmar. Some villages on the lake (they build their houses on stilts planted in the mud) farm lotus, and use the fiber from the stems to make cloth. I bought a shirt made from this fabric, and found it was very comfortable after a couple of washes. In that moment I went wild photographing water drops at rest on the leaves with my trusty old Panasonic Lumix. You can see the reflection of the gray sky in the large drop in the photo above. The people on the lake live a hard life, but, at that time at least, their lives seemed peaceful.

How much space does a person need?

Tolstoy’s answer was six feet. Let me change the question to how much land is available in Mumbai to each person. The land area of the island city of Mumbai is close to 68 square kilometers. The number of people in this area was last counted in 2011, and was 12.5 million. It may have decreased a little since then, but this number will serve. Take away a quarter of the city’s area for roads. That gives us about 35 square feet of space per person. That’s a rather small room. Take away another half of the land area for offices, and you decrease the space to 12 square feet. We begin to approach Tolstoy’s limit. What chance, social distancing?

In a place like this you learn to be alone in a crowd. You can spend a quarter of your life packed like sardines into a can called a suburban train, and live a complete life in the space between your earbuds. You can get off the train, walk home to your 35 square feet bed-sit, and count yourself a king of infinite space. But you may have bad dreams.

Which is why work-from-home is a wonderful idea. As long as you have a job which you can do over the internet, what is it really that brings you far from your family and friends, from that familiar place that you grew up in, to a crowded city like this? We discovered the freedom of the internet during the pandemic. Immediately after the end of the lockdowns, we began to travel during the week, working on a laptop that you could take anywhere that gave you a wifi connection. I saw sunrises over deserts and mountain lakes during this time. And I saw nomads even more adventurous than me: kayaking between meetings, climbing cliffs with phone and earbuds in backbacks.

What keeps us bound to these cities? The concerts and dinners, the art and the collegiality of the workplace can be sampled a couple of times a week. But I love to walk the streets of the city, alone, camera in hand, taking street photos. Would I be able to watch people in this way in any place other than a city?

Mumbai again

Every now and then I see something so out of the ordinary that I feel like I’m a tourist in my own city. This view of hell in the making made me stop whip out my phone for a photo. A city which already has about 1900 cars per kilometer of road has added these large towers right in its midtown. As you can see from the photo, there are still many of the old eight storey houses left. But they are being sold to developers quickly. I’m so glad that there is a highway out of the town close to where I live.

Another uncommon sight: a stretch of road was being repaired! But why not? This patch of road is such a favourite of film makers that you’ve probably seen that door, that facade, in a hundred Bollywood movies set in Mumbai. That road roller will trundle away before the lights and cameras move in. I grabbed the opportunity.

There are pleasant things to photograph too. An artist with a conscience decorated the junction box right in front of Conde Nast’s Mumbai address. Is that a love letter to fashion? Or to glossy magazines in general?

A fisherman on the lake

Chilika lake was the first of India’s wetlands to be designated a Ramsar conservation site. Several rivers drain into the 1100 square kilometer area of the lake. Since it connects to the sea, the water is brackish, and you can get rays and lobster among other marine food here. This, the largest of the world’s brackish water-bodies, supports a large mass of people, as well as the largest population of winter’s migratory birds in India. The fishing village of Mangalajodi at its northern end perches on extreme shallows. Fishermen poled themselves along on flat-bottomed barges, laying lines. The man you see here wasn’t happy with us. We’d strayed too close to his net.