Mumbai: City photography group trails the Dhangars

Nov 11, 2018, 11:30 IST | Ekta Mohta

As demand for ST tag for the Dhangar tribe intensifies, TISS submits its long-in-the-making report

Mumbai: City photography group trails the Dhangars
A scene from Vittal Birdev Annual Yatra

The generational occupation of the Dhangars has been to live off the earth. As pastoralists ("shepherds and cowherds, blanket- and wool-weavers, butchers and farmers"), they make their way through mountains and forests, living like nomads.

Since schools and jobs don't follow them on foot, they've remained economically backward and socially aloof. For the last few decades, they have been demanding inclusion in the Scheduled Tribes (ST) group. They make up nine per cent of Maharashtra's population (roughly a crore), and are currently included as a Vimukt Jati and Nomadic Tribe. Ahead of the elections in 2014, the BJP had promised them ST status; and in 2015, asked the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) to prepare a report on the same. That report, after combing through 324 villages and interviewing 20,000 people, was finally submitted last week, and chief minister Devendra Fadnavis said that it was "not hostile to the [community's] demand."

A shepherd with his herd at Masai plateau, 30 km from Kolhapur
A shepherd with his herd at Masai plateau, 30 km from Kolhapur

At about the same time, from October 27-29, a group of 11 photography enthusiasts, which included 21- to 61-year-olds, visited Bambavade, close to Kolhapur, to spend a few nights with the Dhangars and celebrate the Vittal Birdev Annual Yatra, at Pattan Kodoli village, with them. The tour was the brainchild of Aslam Saiyad, general manager at Frameboxx Animation, and a photographer since 2011. The idea, according to Saiyad, was not just to take good pictures, "but also live, learn and experience life up close with the Dhangars."

Back from the trip, he tells us over the phone, "Most photographers are driven by the technical aspects of the camera. My aim was to take them to the communities and listen to what they have to say. A few participants were shocked to see they were just like us. We weren't going to some exotic place in Africa. The communities are evolving with us. The idea behind the tours is to see them, understand them and respect them. And photograph the journey. Photography is not the important point of my tour, understanding them is."

The photography group with Aslam Saiyad (sitting, in centre). Pics/Fahim Sayed
The photography group with Aslam Saiyad (sitting, in centre). Pics/Fahim Sayed

At the festival, Dhangars from Maharashtra, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh had come together. "Dhangars are all the same," says Saiyad. "They live very close to nature. I'm not much of a believer in religion, but I like how people come together to celebrate. How these fairs are good for communication, business and culture.

Photographers come [in throngs to such festivals] because haldi is showered in the air. I was quite satisfied that we accomplished what we'd set out to do. There was a meaningful dialogue."

When we ask him for his reading of the pending ST status, he says, "I don't know why they haven't got it yet. Our education system makes it mandatory for people to follow the system if they wish to progress. We have not created a system in which nomads have the same power [as us]. Our system breaks them. They follow their own cultural norms, and they are becoming alienated from us. What is the value of this education is also a question. Perhaps, we should think of living like them." And not force them to live like us, is what Saiyad leaves unspoken.

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