Monday, June 30, 2008

Notes from the filmmaker...

Misty mountains, winding ghat roads, lush coffee plantations and slender silver oak whispering in the breeze welcomed us to Araku Valley. The sheer breathtaking beauty almost made us forget why we were here - to document on video a photography workshop for a dozen tribal men and women from the Araku region. To provide them with the opportunity to handle a digital camera for the first time in their lives. To enable them to capture the magic and mystique of their environment. To enable us to see their world through their eyes. A mutually beneficial exercise.

The venue for the workshop was a charming convent where the Nirmala sisters also allowed us to house the participants. The serenity of the convent provided the ideal environment for learning and facilitated a flow of creativity. Surrounded by lush orchards and colorful flower beds, our workshop participants blossomed.

As with our other locations, here too we had a tough time keeping up with a group of enthusiastic photographers-to-be. There was cute little Dombai who walked barefoot blithely along the railway tracks because her sandal strap had snapped, without batting an eyelid; and Somesh with his Naandi hat tilted rakishly on his head, looking for all the world like a miniature version of Clint Eastwood; and Rambabu in flowing saffron flapping out the side of a jeep. And all the others, specially the women in such vibrant colors that they looked like birds of paradise, as they looked at their own lives with new eyes.

For us, it was a revelation. So many pairs of untutored eyes captured their environment in such innovative ways. We hounded them with our video camera, trying to capture what they captured. But moving images do not freeze just that one moment in time as a still camera does. So we shall have to use freeze frames to match exactly that effect!

Our first outdoor location was the charming tribal village of Gondivalsa – Dombai’s home. The little red-tiled huts nestled on a slope surrounded by coffee plantations. Our workshop participants sped up and down the slopes frantically clicking away with wonder at all the sights that they’ve taken for granted all their lives. Nothing was spared. From the little kindergarten school to the vegetable patches; from the quaint little dwellings to the cattle coming home from pasture; from religious rituals to banish the evil eye to paddy being planted; from the tilling of land to the exhilarating Dhimsa dance in which most of the villagers participated. Most of this was achieved under gloomy overcast skies, or by dodging raindrops, often under the nearest thatched or tiled roof – on one occasion I even found myself sharing my shelter with a stray dog, a piglet and a fat brown hen and her seven chicks.

The shoot at the village could only be upstaged by the train ride from Tyada to Araku. Our budding photographers were totally overwhelmed by the experience. As the bright blue train sped up the slope, chugging through innumerable tunnels (there are 32 tunnels en route!) they shot up hill and down dale; they shot the other passengers, vendors, each other, the dark tunnels and even a traumatized chicken hiding under a seat! It was an exhilarating experience for them, and a stressful one for us as we tried to squeeze in our camera and tripod into the crowded compartment, tried to prevent all and sundry from crossing our frame at random and keep our balance to get some steady shots. But the breathtaking view and unique experience made up for it all.

Our participants entered the fray again the next day at a nearby weekly wholesale bazaar (haat). They shot jackfruit from every conceivable angle, very ripe jackfruit which our otherwise tolerant videographer Srinivas abhors, hence most of the video coverage was in long shots! Baskets of half ripe tomatoes suddenly assumed an intriguing quality as they were shot in tight close-ups; neatly packaged towering piles of leaves (to be made into disposable plates) were lined up to be captured digitally; the multiple hues of an array of vegetables; colorful trinkets; snacks and sweetmeats; and so much more. We even accompanied an enthusiastic group way up to the top of a mountain where they derived a great deal of pleasure from shooting a bunch of little kids perched high up on a jackfruit tree.

Dogged by persistent overcast skies and intermittent rain, we were never sure if we would maintain our schedules. Every dry hour was a bonus and the sun’s flirtatious glances from behind the clouds elicited cries of gratitude and random clicking of camera’s to make up for lost time! One such event was a shoot at a granite quarry, where the craggy, forbidding rock face often became one with the dark clouds.
Other locations included a waterfall way up on top of a mountain. Our participants scampered uphill like a herd of mountain goats, while we ‘city slickers’ huffed and puffed our way up. On the way down, we were caught in a thunder shower and reached our next destination – the Borra Caves – looking like a bunch of drowned rats. But the awesome caves made us forget our discomfort and we were all dry by the time we left (reluctantly).

Another visit to a weekly bazaar (different one) was even more exciting…it was bigger, louder and smellier – courtesy the innumerable stalls selling different varities of dried fish. Fortunately, photography is a purely visual medium. The images remain, the odour doesn’t.

Last but not least, mention must be made of Naandi’s Program Officer, Prakash, who co-ordinated our activities, cajoled all the right people and charmed his way through all the obstacles we faced. An entertainer to the core, he neither offers nor accepts the word ‘No’ – always with a smile on his face. Nothing is impossible as far as he’s concerned. Thank you, Prakash, you made it so easy for us.

Having blazed a trail through Araku, FoE now moves on to Nagaland. The journey continues…

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