Activist-lensman Samar Jodha’s new work on dying Assam tribe

November 11th, 2008 - 3:08 pm ICT by IANS  

New Delhi, Nov 11 (IANS) Photographer and filmmaker Samar Singh Jodha has captured the life and times of the Tai-Phake people - an endangered tribe in Assam, in his new exhibition of portrait photographs, “Phaneng: A Journey Into Personal Engagement”, that has opened in the capital. Jodha’s exhibition opened at Arts-I, a 360-degree art promotion, education and display facility, at the Scindia House Monday. The show closes Dec 7.

Jodha, a social activist-cum-photographer who has spent 18 years in visual communication, devoted the past four years exploring the upper reaches of Assam bordering Arunachal Pradesh - documenting the Tai-Phake tribe - an indigenous race in Phaneng village whose culture is under siege from rampant coal mining in the region, influx of Hindi-speaking miners from the plains and their urban ways.

The tribe is on the endangered list with only 1,500 survivors.

Jodha has documented the old, young and the handful of children of the Tai-Phake community in a series of 12 large black and white portraits that showcase the tribe’s losing battle against survival and industrialisation.

The portraits are stunning in detail. Men and women in their late eighties and nineties, who helped fashion the destiny of the land by joining hands to pave the historic Stillwell Road in the vicinity, appear in Jodha’s frames as wizened and antiquated creatures with folded skins and soul-searching eyes - shrouded in rheumy films of moisture. They steadfastly refuse to work in the mines.

The photographs are arranged in a darkened room, set to the jungle music of cricket calls and insect buzz which is all Phaneng can flaunt as an apology for traditional music. It has none.

“I tried to give the viewers a feel of the dark coal mines near which the village is located and its bleak ambience of silence,” Jodha told IANS explaining the backdrop of the show.

The series was conceived when Jodha drove down the Stillwell Road, built during the World War II to connect Myanmar (then Burma) with Arunachal Pradesh and India.

The photographer has been helping the Tai-Phake people find alternative livelihoods. “I have been involved in several welfare projects in Phaneng to help the tribe survive. I helped them build a village eco-tourist resort, started an education programme and have just finished building a monastery,” he said.

The photographs were part of his documentation project - that Jodha worked on in a little hut-cum-studio he built for himself in the village. “Phaneng has no electricity and the villagers subsist on agriculture,” he said.

Jodha, who goes to Phaneng every six weeks, is committed to his art and cause. “Art needs to have politics inside it. An artist must stand up for what he believes. Phaneng to me signifies the politics of coal mines - the ills of unplanned private mining and its impact on livelihoods in states like Jharkhand, Bihar, Bengal and Orissa,” the artist, who started moving away from commercial and advertising photography a decade ago, said.

A 10-minute movie capsule that accompanies the large format photographs captures the ravaged topography of the land - devastated by open cast mining.

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