- a counterpose to the colonial anthropological representation of tribes and communities in India
The Tibeto-Burman Lisu tribe has been living inside the dense contiguous forests of Namdapha spread over 20,000 sq. km from Arunachal Pradesh on the Indian side, into Myanmar. Their ancestors, a hunter-gatherer tribe from the Yunnan province in China— first reached Myanmar and then into India foraging for food — eventually settling in these Indian forests way before the India-Myanmar international border was demarcated in 1972. Distanced from the monetised economy bereft of most modern technological advancements, they made home in these forests.
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.
In 1983, the Indian government converted their native land into Namdapha National Park & Tiger Reserve on the India-Myanmar border of Arunachal Pradesh, India, and called the Lisus ‘poachers’ and ‘encroachers’ triggering decades of neglect and human rights abuse. Even today, they live inside the core area of NNP without roads, electricity, schools, doctors, phone network etc. They trek for three to six days through the dense forest braving inclement weather covering 120-157 km to reach the nearest town Miao for buying essential supplies, medicines etc. 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.
But abandoning the forest they call ‘home’ is inconceivable. They cohabit symbiotically with nature revelling in its mysteries, treat their sick, build each other’s home, pray, celebrate and mourn together.
How does a community respond with kindness and hope in the face of adversity? I wondered. Does cohabiting with nature
influence and shape us? Over the last seven years (2013-ongoing), I have gradually reflected on the Lisu way of life — philosophy and magnanimity of spirit — and realised that they epitomise the true essence of being magical.
I embraced poetic aesthetics and magic realism to evoke an aura of their mythical world instead of resorting to spectacle.
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?
1993: The first and only ethnographic account of the Lisus is made
2013-19: behind the scenes
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.
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.”