Ramya Reddy's Soul of the Nilgiris is as much a history of place as it is a history of people
Ramya Reddy’s Soul of the Nilgiris is a tribute to the Nilgiris, a mountainous range whose landscape comprises shola forest and grassland, and the four indigenous groups that populate the upper regions | Urvashi Bahuguna writes in #PagesFromTheWild
Ramya Reddy’s Soul of the Nilgiris is a tribute to the Nilgiris, a mountainous range whose landscape comprises shola forest and grassland, and the four indigenous groups that populate the upper regions.
Three hundred stunning photographs accompany accessible history, personal conversations between Reddy and the adivasis, and misadventures in the mountains.
She takes note of all that has been lost in the Nilgiris and all that is in the process of being lost as she documents a way of life that may well tie into our long-term survival in an increasingly uninhabitable planet.
In this fortnightly column, Pages From The Wild, Urvashi Bahuguna looks at accessible, engaging books from around the world, on the environment and ecology.
In Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants, she writes of a fundamental difference between indigenous groups and settlers in their attitude towards land: “In the settler mind, land was property, real estate, capital, or natural resources. But to our people, it was everything: identity, the connection to our ancestors, the home of our non-human kin-folk, our pharmacy, our library, the source of all that sustained us.” Kimmerer is speaking specifically of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation in Oklahoma, USA, but I was reminded of her words as I read Ramya Reddy’s Soul of the Nilgiris – a tribute to the Nilgiris, a mountainous range whose landscape comprises shola forest and grassland, and the four indigenous groups that populate the upper regions.
She cautions that we are witness to the last of the generations of the Todas, Badagas, Kurumbas, Irulas and Kotas who carry traditional knowledge of the land and localised sustainable practices. That knowledge has been passed down as a means of surviving and thriving in harmony with the land through songs and stories that venerate the land, shrines that pay homage to natural bounty, the preservation of commons for each community that cannot be appropriated by any other and art forms that connect with the earth. The photographer spent over a decade walking the far reaches of these mountains with her husband, Rajesh, and their dog, Yogi, forming deep bonds with the indigenous inhabitants of a land whose biodiversity and favourable climate attracted British settlements in the 19th century, the development of tea estates and a burgeoning (and destructive) tourist industry.
Three hundred stunning photographs accompany accessible history, personal conversations between Reddy and the adivasis, and misadventures in the mountains. She takes note of all that has been lost in the Nilgiris (seasonal sources of food, water bodies, large tracts of biodiverse land) and all that is in the process of being lost as she tries to document a way of life that may well tie into our long-term survival in an increasingly uninhabitable planet. Soul of the Nilgiris is as much a history of place as it is a history of people.
The key to telling this story well was time. Reddy says that some elders asked her early on in her research if she would take what she wanted and leave, as some others had done before her. It took time for people to trust her. Going forward without “allowing for those relationships to form fully” and the acceptance and consent of the people involved would have been completely pointless. Over time, she has become a part of the landscape and (in some ways) of the people too. She travelled between Bengaluru and the Nilgiris for the years she worked on the book (with extended stints in San Francisco where her husband works) before finally moving to Coonoor for half of each year.
“A slow project like this is deeply affecting, it changes you fundamentally in many, many ways,” she says, “I have countless instances to demonstrate the generosity of adivasi spirit that I encountered on the field, from sharing warm meals in the most unexpected situations, to giving gifts of produce from their backyards, to overextending themselves to help me get to a place. I received a lot more than I can ever give back.” This deep engagement forced her to rethink her worldview and confront how little one needs to lead a rich, meaningful life – and how far humans are from practicing such a way of life. “The beauty of living in accordance with seasonal rhythms makes you want to harmonise with the natural world,” she says, “I know times are changing for them too but these are my learnings from the elders I was acquainted with.” Writing Soul of the Nilgiris became not only an exercise in documentation but a labour of love where she wanted to present these stories as beautifully as possible. This is apparent in the photographs, the folk tales and poems gathered in the book, and the anecdotes that Reddy shares.
When I suggest that painstaking projects like hers are unusual, she points me to the work of homegrown ethnobotanists, researchers and anthropologists such as Madhu Ramnath, Asoka Kumar Sen and Dr Tarun Chhabra who have variously captured the eco-cultural heritage of adivasis in the subcontinent, and the Chennai-based publisher, Tara Books, which has produced striking art books illustrated by artists of the Gond tribal art tradition from central India. She believes that the fiction of writers like Hansda Sowvendra Shekhar may even reflect the nuances of adivasi lives more effectively than anthropology texts. There is a wealth of little-known texts and compilations of folk tales, ethnobotany, eco-cultural heritage and farming practices published by independent writers, researchers and eco-development non-profit organisations. She hopes that better platforms may eventually provide these texts with wider readership.
She points out that important anthropological work is often sequestered in university libraries abroad. Organisations such as Keystone Foundation have been working on archiving the ethnobotany and farming knowledge of adivasis from over 45 groups spread over 150 villages in the 5500 square kilometres of the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. The foundation’s initiatives keep indigenous knowledge intact while also supporting small-scale tribal enterprises. There are plans in motion for a People and Nature Centre which will be a hub for indigenous culture, knowledge and art driven by the community where Keystone’s archive of knowledge will be accessible and retrievable for all.
She continues to discourage travellers from visiting the indigenous people, their sacred lands and settlements for pretty pictures “unless there is utmost sensitivity and an intent to deeply understand their lives”. The outside world must move beyond patronage and exoticisation if they want to support and engage with these communities, says Reddy. Through organisations like Keystone, there are opportunities for volunteers to meaningfully contribute to the communities. People who have the requisite power and privilege must preserve “the last of what is left of indigenous culture and ancient wisdom”. She argues that the dairy talents of the Toda men, the embroidering artistry of the Toda women, the sustainable honey gathering of Kurumbas, the gentle millet farming of the Irulas and the durable pottery of the Kotas must not simply be seen as tribal crafts that need a market. “They must be first recognised,” she says, “as the enduring economic practises that they are, and an example of human enterprise that has lasted centuries. There is an urgent need to find effective ways to preserve this knowledge. If its creators are truly empowered from ground up, they will have a lot to show the world.”
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