With his sand-coloured bags made of camel wool, one of the many highlights of the “Living Lightly” exhibition, 55-year-old Rana Bai, a herdsman belonging to the Maldhari community in Kutch, Gujarat, sits on a charpai in the lawns of Delhi’s Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA). Back home, he walks nearly 10 km every day, but these trails have led him to seven court cases imposed by forest officials. “We are told it is their land and we have no right to bring our animals. These trees belong to nature, nobody owns them. Initially, we were 110 herdsmen but such cases have made many people, involved in breeding camels and selling camel milk and camel wool bags, leave their occupation and move to other places. Now, we are only 10 in the group,” he says.
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Sushma Iyengar, who has spent 28 years among pastoral communities in Kutch, is the curator of the exhibition. She says, “The idea was to create a non-judgmental space where society and pastoralists can talk to each other, and understand their science, spirituality, culture, contribution to our economy, be it through milk, wool, meat, clothes or livestock. There are 34 million pastoralists who are moving and herding across the country. We wanted to start a discourse on why they do what they do.”
Nilkanth Nagapa Kurvar, 78, a Maldhari herdsman from Belgaum, Karnataka, who covers 500 km every year to graze his flock of sheep, has brought his sheep wool blankets to the exhibition. “New factories are being built and many farmers have taken over open lands, leaving very little land for our sheep to graze. We take our animals to farms where their fecal waste is used as fertilisers while they are allowed to eat grass in return. But the crops are loaded with chemicals and are resulting in many diseases in our animals,” he says.
From copper bells that are hung on ceilings to embroidered panels that document a herder’s life, the exhibition offers an insight into pastorialism and their crafts. Photographers who have researched and documented their lives are also presenting their work. Scotland-based Christina Noble’s black-and-white photographs are a result of 45 years of her research in Himachal Pradesh. A 1983 photo shows a Gaddi tribal churning lassi in a sheep skin sack at Miyar Nala valley, while another has a flock of goat and sheep crossing Rohtang Pass into Lahaul. Bangalore-based Kalyan Varma unveils his experiences of spending time with the Dhangars in Maharashtra, one of the last migrating communities in the country. He captures a wolf waiting for its prey while the Dhangars cook their dinner. A sequential frame shows the wolf stealing a lamb.
Organised by Sahjeevan and the Foundation for Ecological Security, the exhibition also has stalls selling food, art and crafts of the pastoralists. Iyengar says, “It’s a hard life, yet these pastoralists are doing it. But now their grazing tracks are finding many barriers due to urbanisation and setting up of factories.There hasn’t been adequate research on their contribution to the national economy. Through the visits of policy makers, students and artisans to the exhibition, we hope to engage with them.”
The exhibition is at IGNCA till December 18