Snapshots of cultures on the verge of extinction

Express News Service

If you ever chance upon the Instagram page or the website of ‘The Last Avatar’ you will come face to face with the haunting eyes of a woman from the Bhil tribe in West India or the smiling face of a Dropka tribeswoman from the Dha village in Ladakh. An ongoing archival project, ‘The Last Avatar’—it was founded by travel and lifestyle photographer Aman Chotani (33) seven years ago—aims to document indigenous tribes as well as unexplored places of the country. “I went to Canada and I was amazed by how they were preserving their tribes’ cultures and traditions. However, it is not the same in India. The rich heritage of our indigenous people is dying,” shares Chotani, who shuttles between Noida and Leh. 

According to the last census of the Indian population conducted in 2011, around 8.6 per cent of India’s population is made up of indigenous tribes. However, a number of them are unrecognised by the urban population mostly because we are not in contact with them and their cultures. “The tribals [who are undocumented and live in remote villages], with their defining headgears and prominent tattoos, I believe, are similar to the mythological representations of pagan deities. The name comes from the fact that they are the last gods left, and through them, I can document their dying culture,” says Chotani.

Kshatriyas of Kumaun

A treasure trove of culture 
To begin with, ‘The Last Avatar’ was to be collated as a  photobook. In time, it has curated as a digital archive that documents the cultures of many tribal communities in India. “The book is only the first step. I want to make a complete digital archive where people will learn in detail all the tribes in the country,” shares Chotani. He also mentions that he plans on creating a 10-episode web series next year, which will feature 10 tribes that the project has documented. 

Through ‘The Last Avatar’, Chotani and his team of five have documented more than 25 indigenous tribes till date. These range from the Raikas from Rajasthan, the Apatani tribe from Arunachal Pradesh, among others. “The best way to interact with the tribespeople is to be humble, and respect their culture. When I have had a language barrier, the local people in the area have proved to be very helpful,” Chotani says.

The project is also a means to break preconceived notions about many of these tribespeople and Chotani recalls his experience with the Konyak tribe. When he first visited this tribe in Nagaland, he realised that their reputation as headhunters made many warn him not to meet them alone. “Everyone kept telling me that they are dangerous and I should be careful but I had a wonderful time with them. They were so welcoming; I even had the opportunity to live with the king.”

Preserving culture
‘The Last Avatar’ was registered as an NGO in 2019. Along with the documentation, they work towards tribal rehabilitation by conducting special art and cultural workshops—folk storytelling, traditional paintings, etc.—to connect the youth in tribal areas with their roots. “The youth have started adopting Western beliefs. They don’t wear traditional clothes; many don’t live with their family. I wanted to make them proud of their legacy,” he shares. His team will also be setting up a dental camp in Leh in July. Talking about the importance of this project, Chotani concludes, “It’s beautiful that we get to explore these cultures and the people who are part of it. They are as much a part of India as we are. People should know about them.”

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