- a counterpose to the colonial anthropological representation of tribes and communities in India
What is it about:
An ongoing project (started in 2013) documenting the life of the indigenous Tibeto-Burmese Lisu tribe who live in the dense forests of Arunachal Pradesh along the India-Myanmar border. A community that lives without roads, electricity, hospitals, phone connectivity, emergency evacuation services or schools for their children.
The Tibeto-Burmese Lisu tribe lives inside the core area of Namdapha National Park (NNP) and Tiger Reserve in Changlang district of Arunachal Pradesh (AP), India. NNP is ranked in the world’s 12 biodiversity hotspots, famous for its rich floral and faunal diversity including the presence of four big cat species.
Arunachal Pradesh is India’s remotest North-Eastern (NE) state sharing its border with Bhutan, China and Myanmar (East) with the highest tribal population in India and second richest biodiversity. Historically, the Lisus had migrated from the Yunnan province in China prior to the Indo-Myanmar international border demarcation.
A largely unadministered terrain, they live without roads, electricity, schools, doctors, hospitals, phone network or most modern amenities. They live so deep in the forests that it takes them 3-6 days to trek 120-157 km on foot to reach the nearest town. The price of essentials like salt costing 30Cent a kilo inflates manifold to 2 USD. Here life is expensive, and death is cheap. Their children die without treatment; those who survive, grow up without education. Abandoned and forgotten, they were alone then, and now.
Despite the adversities, the Lisus cohabit symbiotically with nature –– revelling in its mysteries as a self-sufficient community. They treat their sick, build each other’s home, pray, celebrate and mourn together. Militancy is on a rise in the region, but the Lisus’ have opted for peace. Abandoning the forest they call ‘home’ is inconceivable. How does cohabiting with nature influence us? What lessons does this way of life offer mankind ––far removed from nature?
How does cohabiting with nature influence them? What lessons does this way of life offer mankind, in an era when the rest of the world has forgotten to cohabit, and instead have constructed a world far removed from nature?
My artistic challenge stems from the realization that traditional approaches are no longer as effective as they once used to be (Sekula, 1978). If the colonial-anthropological representational or documentary approach has divided us instead of bridging the society, then what alternatives do we have today? I search for these answers by exploring the relationship between humans and nature, using intersections between symbolism and mythology. I intend to evoke feelings that portray their state of mind and emotions over communicating facts.
I am further troubled by representational ethics— if identity of the unrepresented Lisus are mediated through ‘Imagined Homeland’, I wonder, how would they be perceived. Is a tribe a homogeneous group solely meant to be represented through the skewed colonial-anthropological lens focussing on their body, rituals, costumes, tools etc. showing them as another exotic race? Or do we work towards building a new vocabulary in our visual language? Do we further add to the spectacle or do we strive to humanise them? Why can our gaze not be shifted towards their despair, grace and state of mind over their body within the context of our own dreams, hopes, and imaginations?
I have adopted a more exploratory, surreal and evocative way of expressing the condition of the Lisu tribe eschewing the sensationalism of photojournalism -- to evoke an aura of their mythical world, reference archetypal interconnections between man, animal and nature, and borrow from dream symbolism instead of resorting to spectacle. The poetic representational approach, I believe, also aids in countering the colonial-anthropological exoticisation of societies, a trend that dominates visual practice even today.
1993: The first and only ethnographic account of the Lisus is made
2013-18: Process documentation
25 years ago in 1993, an Indian anthropologist Asim Maitra had visited the Lisus. He trekked through the arduous terrain of Namdapha National Park, stayed with them, made multiple visits and produced this book as a result of his engagement there. Since then, the world has barely taken cognizance of the life of Lisus, their existence, hardships, or even what they can offer to the world.
Surprisingly, no other ethnographer took cue from Maitra's work to continue or progress the research.
Imagined Homeland in the news:
September 6, 2018 by Ellyn Kail
De has taken an unconventional approach to telling the story of the Lisus; since the birth of photography, oppressed communities have been cast as “exotic” or “primitive” by those standing behind the camera. Instead of taking a “colonial-anthropological” look at these families and individuals, he’s chosen something closer to magical realism. The photographs themselves are rich with symbolism, and the Lisus’ animals and their environment become key characters in the narrative. If pure photojournalism is prose, De says his work is poetry. He makes sketches before constructing an image, and sometimes he’ll elevate the mythical atmosphere of a scene by adding elements like fog.
September 1, 2018 by Bhumika Popli
The Indian photographer Sharbendu De is also among the participants. His series Imagined Homelandis a six-year-long documentation of the little-known Lisu tribe living inside the Namdapha National Park & Tiger Reserve on the India-Myanmar border near Arunachal Pradesh. He said, “The Indian government has literally abandoned them and engaged in decades of neglect, abuse and deprivation of their constitutional rights. In 1983, India converted 1,985 sq km of their native land into a reserved forest without consulting, and declared them encroachers as well as left a few revenue villages locked between the eastern border of the park and the international border—cutting them off from the rest of India in an unprecedented fashion.”
Through his work, he hopes to put the spotlight on the Lisu people. According to him, there are no roads in the region and no vehicles for commuting. The tribespeople have to walk for three to six days, trekking 120-157km each way to reach Miao, the nearest town—which they need to access for groceries and other everyday needs, including medical attention. The series appears mythical even though it documents the daily life in those surroundings.
if you’d like to get in touch:
September 7, 2018 by Ellyn Kail
“Very few members of the media have traveled to the forests of Arunachal Pradesh, India, to tell the stories of the Lisu tribe, an isolated community of people who, for decades, have been denied access to basic human rights like healthcare and education. Sharbendu De is one of those few. He’s risked his own safety to travel to these forests and amplify the voices of the Lisu people, many of whom have become his friends. Instead of taking a traditional documentary approach, De choses to stage poetic, magical realist images that tap into Lisu mythology and the tribe’s connection with nature.”