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Niyamgiri: an Anecdote

Blogger: Sidharth Mohanty

A view of the hills on our way to Hutisi village.

(This piece is about the trip made to Niyamgiri hills in March 2018 by five Odia artists: Satyabhama Majhi (Painter), Ashis Dhir (Photographer), Saroj Rout (Ceramic Artist), Julius Das (Painter and visual artist) and me- Sidharth Mohanty (Apparel/Textile/Product Designer)

When you live in a planned smart city like Bhubaneswar, you almost never think of how life could feel if you just surrendered yourself to Mother Earth and let the nature plan everything for you. While we urban dwellers keep perpetually designing and redesigning, constructing and reconstructing our lifestyles and surroundings and yet barely endure the taste of fulfillment; there on the other side one can see exclusive groups of human race who live sustainable lives filled with contentment, amidst nature in its crude natural form. Tribes, as we call them, live in various parts of the world with their own uniqueness in their ethnicity, culture, lifestyle, customs, arts etc.

In March this year, I had the opportunity of visiting one such primitive tribe of Odisha called the Dongria Kondh. This trip that started with the intention of brainstorming and research, transformed into one of experience that taught us values which we have nearly abandoned in our mundane urban lifestyle. With the hope of getting inspiration that could facilitate our artistic explorations, a group of artists including me and 4 others, namely, Satyabhama Majhi, Ashis Dhir, Saroj Rout and Julius Das, travelled to the Niyamgiri hills located in the Rayagada district of Odisha. With little secondary research about the Dongria tribes, we hoped to find stories that we could portray through our work.

A group of Dongria women coming down the hills to the local market in Bissam Cuttack for trading. A Dongria woman(2nd in the row) in a printed saree seen in urban cities. A young Dongria girl (4th in the row) in modern churidar kurta outfit.

Our journey started from Bhubaneswar and it was a comfortable 10hrs travel by train which got us to Bissam Cuttack, a small town at the foothills of Niyamgiri. While at the station there, we were already excited by the sight of few Dongria women in their natural white cotton sarees draped around their bodies in a unique fashion. Seeing those multiple clips on their hair was so thrilling that one could realise that internet cannot do justice to what one experiences first hand through naked eyes. I don’t know if the tea we were sipping then was truly delicious or was it the ambience and the excitement that made it feel so.

After freshening up, we started our expedition from Bissam Cuttack to the hills. The fresh air, the lush green mountains, the sounds of the streams, the chirping of birds, everything was so welcoming. Nature has a magnetic power that pulls you towards it. On our drive we saw Dongria men and women walking through the mountains doing their daily chores. One of the most interesting sights was that of a group of young and middle aged women returning to their village from a marriage ceremony. These women were high on their local drink called Salpa. What’s noticeable about this is the fact that a tribal community doesn’t judge its women and women in their community live their life as independent as a person and are not held by the strings of gender.

Painted wall at Hutisi Village.

One of the first villages we went to was Hutisi where the popular Meria festival was held this year. And that’s where we got to see the wall that had left me spellbound when Satyabhama had shown its picture during the residency at Utsha Foundation with Saroj. Saroj had apparently worked on a ceramic design project where I had the privilege to mentor him. The inspiration for his work was the stories of the Dongria tribes and the patterns that we saw on their jewelry, utensils, textiles, wall art etc. It was then that the idea of visiting the tribes got initiated. And hence, it was truly mesmerising to be standing infront of that wall with those beautiful triangular mountain patterns in organic colors of brick red, yellow and black. The wall belonged to their place of worship where they performed rituals of their festivals. Tribal art touches our heart because of its simplicity, its innocence of forms, its modest depiction of nature and its earthy feeling. The Dongria wall art is distinct in itself because it not only looks magnificent but also depicts their deep love for the mountains and their feeling of belongingness towards Niyamgiri, who they consider as their divine King. After spending some joyful moments with the women in that village, we proceeded to Khajuri village where we were to stay for the next few days.

Dongria girls and women cultivating turmeric in their mountains.

We spent the following days travelling to nearby villages like Kurli, Radanga and a few others and would spend the evenings in Khajuri with the Dongrias of that village. It was heartwarming to see how every village lived in unison, following the same day to day pattern of occupation, house hold work, traditions and rituals. The Dongria women spend their days in agriculture. They follow shifting agriculture and grow pineapples, jackfruits, bananas, mangoes, turmeric, tamarind, palm etc. Our phones and our cameras never stopped clicking as everything we saw was so picture perfect. Ashis, especially was extremely enthusiastic because he seemed to be having a gala of a time clicking the tribes in their traditional attires who resembled sheer sculptural beauty. From their saree drapes to their vogue hairdo, from their jewellery to their wooden carved doors, from their art on the interior walls to their body tattoos, each element we saw triggered our creative senses.

Being there, I felt, everyone has something to take back either in terms of knowledge, memory, experience or inspiration. And being artists, we all found something priceless that we could carry back with us to be able to enhance our skills and aesthetics. While Saroj would constantly discover forms, textures and patterns that were of relevance to ceramic design, Satyabhama would explore their body art that fascinated her as a painter.

A Dongria woman embroidering the shawl. (left) Satyabhama and Julius in Dongria getup. (right)

I was enchanted by the brilliantly embroidered Dongria shawl since the day I first saw it on the internet. When I saw an age old original Dongria shawl in Khajuri village, my emotions were all over the place. I felt shivers inside my body when I touched it and the excitement of wearing it and being clicked by a brilliant photographer like Ashis, is something that I cannot describe in words. The shawl is embroidered in vibrant colors of red, yellow and green. The colors truly resonate with their lively, exuberant lifestyle which we witnessed in their songs and dances in the evenings. None of us had network coverage on our cell phones, but we missed no entertainment as the Dongria women would sing melodious songs and dance in merriment taking us to a world of love and togetherness.

There was one more gripping fact that struck our attention. The influence of urban developments was quite evident among the young Dongria boys and girls. The change in youth fashion from traditional attire and hairdos to jeans, skirts, t-shirts and barbered hairstyle, the use of cell phones to click selfies and watch music videos inspite of the absence of network coverage, the emigration of youngsters to towns and cities for ambitious careers...These facts leave us with a debatable question. How do we preserve an exquisite and alluring tribal culture that’s facing a shift vis a vis urban developments that they look forward to.

Julius as an artist, who I consider to be edgy and new age, was affected by various such factors from the youth culture of the Dongria tribes.

Time flew before we even realised. Dongrias are a tribe that stands tall as an example of love, beauty, caring, sharing and giving. Their deep affection for nature makes me think how far we have travelled, as a race, from our roots. Niyamgiri signifies prosperity, rich tradition, warmth, well-being, togetherness; it represents indigenous art, high spirited culture and creative brilliance. I feel so proud as an Odia to be sharing this land of Odisha with such a vivid tribe that moved me as a designer and artist and filled my emotions as a human being.

Impressions of their wall art, their intricately crafted Dhokra jewellery, their elegantly draped white cottons, their songs of trees and trains, their folklores of Niyam Raja… have all left a lasting dent in our memories and would certainly motivate us to tell their stories through our work.

Let’s remember that our tribes are our nation’s pride. Let’s co-exist and spread the values of love and togetherness that we learn from them.

Special thanks to Mr. Surya Narayan Padhy who has been doing multi purpose work for the Dongria Kondh tribes for many years now.

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