In Photos: Fragile Environments, Steely Women

Photographer Asha Thadani travelled across Kutch exploring vulnerable ecosystems and resilient communities. Her photo essay speaks for rootlessness that seeds survival instincts

Asha Thadani’s photos speak for rootlessness that seeds survival instincts

There is tremor and timbre in most of Asha Thadani’s photographic work. A visual artist who upholds her interest in socio-political themes, her photography, especially in black and white resonates with cultural observations. On her Instagram page, time after time, you see themes of fragility and sustenance. Her work with the nomadic communities of Kutch particularly caught our eye, as the women she captures in these images seem to be walking on coals. Hot, flamed, scorching yet burnished with existential warmth. Much like the earth in the desert region on the Westernmost tip of India. In this interview, Thadani talks about what beauty, art and crafts mean to nomads devoid of social embellishment and why several communities already semi-nomadic might lean towards permanent settlements.

What made you take your camera to Kutch? Is there an abiding interest in the region, its costumes and people?

My interest in nomadic communities coincides with my interest in fragile environments. These tribes navigate a vulnerable ecosystem with minimal resources through their enormous knowledge of the delicate ways of the Kutch desert to maintain a consummate sense of balance. These people hold important survival lessons for societies immersed in materialism, ecocide and social rootlessness. They are the threshold between a world we are losing and a world we are making. The desert is forever changing and it is what makes its people maintain strong ties with nature and identity. Devoid of social embellishments such as a rank, job, a car or neighbourhood, they turn to the eternal impulse art.

“These people are the threshold between a world we are losing and a world we are making”.

This need to express oneself, to decorate, beautify, to consecrate with art and consequently craft, is vibrantly alive in the tribes of Kutch. Art begins with the body and extends out to envelope the home. Meaning and symbolism permeates all adornment. Tattoos, jewellery, attire and embroidery have deep significance. They reveal the tribe, the clan and even the specific events that mark the highlights of tribal history. Body wear is never a static expression but fluid. Women in most tribes wear all their ornaments for security as well as status symbols. Likewise, the exquisite Bhunga (the traditional hut) holds paintings which celebrate village life and depict the myths of creation imbued with the belief that they bring good fortune. Beauty isn’t just an aesthetic decision but has a direct impact on the flow of daily life.

Any particular reason you capture women in various moods and moments but mostly as existential strugglers?

It is the concept and imagery of the odhani (head covering) that led to my initial misperceptions about the social status and independence of women in these communities. However, living with them over extended lengths of time, revealed a refreshing take on the roles of men, women and family. The women work incredibly hard and are not confined to domestic work only. As part of a nomadic lifestyle, they play an important role in the rearing of livestock, making decisions related to buying and selling animals, setting up and dismantling their travelling tents and transferring knowledge in a robust and time-tested oral tradition. They are connected to various handicraft organisations that help in selling their embroidery work. I found their enterprising nature very inspiring. Pretty much like the desert itself.

The life of the nomadic Garasia Jath revolves around their livestock. They travel huge distances in search of suitable grazing land and water. The secondary products such as milk and ghee are sold or bartered to provide the tribe with other basic necessities. Camels are their social currency and serve as a ‘marriage payment’.

Did you choose a particular season? Because the photographs give a sense of summer heat.

I have visited the region multiple times. Each season brings with it new challenges and ways in which these communities navigate them. I felt it was important to cover every aspect of the migratory cycle to understand how they negotiate these harsh conditions. Each phase brings its share of resilience and relief. While change affects the entire planet, it is those living closest to nature that find themselves most affected. Here they use resources more productively like the use of solar power and a steady source of water collected in plastic containers. Using different materials in construction and the mechanisation of labour.

There are sociocultural changes too. Even their arts and crafts use different techniques and fabrics to accommodate changes in trends and demands for the new consumers they make products for. While there was no concept of doors to their homes earlier, now they use locks, keys and fences. Their perception of freedom is gradually changing as it incorporates values like durability and lifestyle habits of settled societies. Quite a few communities have become semi- nomadic and it is only a matter of time that they will devise ways towards a more permanent existence.

(L) The Meghwal women are famous for their embroidery work and are masterly wool and cotton weavers. The manufactured objects are either utilitarian, or the product of spare-time activity. The idea of a specialist or professional artisan has successfully emerged with these women creating handicrafts for sale. (R) The heavy nose ring of a Dhaneta Jath tribe is supported by a band of threads fastened to their braid. It is worn at all times, even by very young girls from the age of five. The costumes, textiles and jewellery of tribal India reflect the wearer’s marital status, occupation, seasonal changes and religious commitment, serving as an essential symbol of identity and ancestry.

A Shaman from the Dhaneta Jath tribe. The ceremonies and rituals associated with birth and death reflect a community’s deepest beliefs about the nature of human life. Death for them is not regarded as a separation and rituals involve petitions and offerings to the spirits. Being nomads, there is no cemetery or graveyard.

A sarpanch (village head) from the Rabari tribe. The Rabari are semi-nomadic and are traditionally expert camel breeders, cattle herders and shepherds. Since these animals need lots of space for pasturing, they live on the outskirts of towns and beyond. Thus they acquired the name Rabari, which means “outsiders”.

Many tribal communities have migrated to industrial and mining areas for skilled and unskilled jobs. However, the Koli tribe continues its centuries old occupation of making salt. Women work as hard as the men in these inhospitable conditions.

Nomadic tribes are always on the move. Their houses are temporary shelters. The traditional houses of the Fakirani Jath are made of reed and are easily folded, packed and transported on the backs of camels.

A Koli woman prays amid the salt fields as part of a fasting ritual. The practice of fasting (vratas) for moral cleansing is an Adivasi concept. Hinduism has, throughout its history, absorbed many aspects of tribal religion and the interaction has been a two-way process.

Jath nomadic women in their temporary settlement.