Charmed by ethnic splendour

Charmed by ethnic splendour

Celebrated anthropologist and ethnographic filmmaker Michael Yorke is coming back to Hyderabad and Adilabad after four decades to visit the Raj Gonds...

Celebrated anthropologist and ethnographic filmmaker Michael Yorke is coming back to Hyderabad and Adilabad after four decades to visit the Raj Gonds on whom he did research along with prolific anthropologist Prof. Christopher von Furer-Haimendorf. About his recent visit to Adilabad, he says, “I am hugely excited to meet the Raj Gonds again. I have heard that a lot of changes happened there, and I am enthusiastic about it. I am also excited to meet a few people whom I met 40 years ago, and they are still alive and healthy.”

Hitchhiking to India
As a young man, when I was 18 or 19 years, I was very unhappy at school, I was unhappy with my family. I ran away from school and from my parents and I hitchhiked to India in 1962. And I was totally fascinated by India. I was just standing beside the road catching buses going on bullock carts, etc.

It took me five months to travel from North France all the way to Turkey, Iran, down through Balochistan, upto Quetta and from there to Amritsar, then Delhi and Muzaffarpur and then upto Kathmandu, where I nearly died, I was in a coma because of Hepatitis. I was taken back on an aeroplane on a stretcher to London, to go to the Tropical Diseases Hospital. So, I have never managed to see India, but India had cast this magical spell on me.

Being on road for a year and a half
I was travelling for nearly a year and a half. I was stopping at places and working in here and there. I took a brief job in Turkey and I worked at a research station in Israel. Those were the two big jobs I had. Otherwise, I was living on nothing. I was hitchhiking and that time I left England with 180 Pound Stirling in my pocket and I lived on that for a year and a half. And that journey formed me as a person, it gave me motivation.

I realised that I could enjoy life because I hated it in school, I had fallen out with my parents, my family they did not make me happy, but I came back from that trip thinking I am somebody, I can enjoy my life now. I do love my family, of course, I do, I have always done, and I was interested in education and I joined the university. I rediscovered myself. It was the days of hippie travellers and I was a hippie (laughs). Actually, it was before the hippies they came in the 70s and in that period, we were called ‘Dharma Bums’.

Learning photography
When I was hitchhiking across India, I made friends with a Danish man and travelled with him. And he had run out completely of money and I bought his camera from him. And I started taking photographs and I realised I was good at it (smiles). And when I came back to England, I took a job as an apprentice for a famous fashion photographer and I worked for him for three years and he trained me as a photographer for three years and I learnt the skills of photography and I really admired some famous photographers like Henri Cartier-Bresson, a French observational cameraman, he was my guru, I never met him though. And then as an anthropologist used the camera and there is a whole discipline called ‘Visual Anthropology’, which is using cameras either to make films or take photographs, capturing and preserving vanishing tribal culture.

Meeting Haimendorf and the Indian connection
My mother suggested I meet Haimendorf, she was very good friends with him, although they did not marry. My mother, Angela Duncan, was a daughter of old British colonialist, she spent her youth in Shanghai and then she was in Hong Kong and her father was Sir John Duncan and he was a Major General in the British Army and his father’s mother was a Bengali bibi… not necessarily wife, maybe a I may be I have 164th per cent Bengali DNA in me (laughs).

My grandfather (Sir John Duncan) was Assistant Collector in Punjab and then he became an engineer and he built a famous palace in Murshidabad. A huge palace. Sir John Duncan’s father was Duncan MacLeod, and he had two illegitimate children by that Bengali woman and two children were christened by father Duncan MacLeod and the kids took Duncan as their surname. I have historical connections with India, I did not know this when I was young. I came to know this connection a few years back.

Becoming ethnographic filmmaker
After recovering from my illness in London (after coming back from Kathmandu), I started reading a lot about India as I wanted to really understand India well, so I did a graduate degree in Anthropology looking at India and then I did my postgraduate research on Prof. Haimendorf in which I had to do the field work. And he told me to come and study the Munda people of Jharkhand.

Then I finished that study and I got my doctorate and he the said that he wants me to accompany him to Raj Gonds because at that time the Raj Gonds were going through economic and political instability. It was all caused by the money lenders before the Maoist problems, but they were developing there. The Indian government wanted Haimendorf to return to look at the reasons for this deep dissatisfaction among the Adivasis in the erstwhile Andhra Pradesh. And that is the history of why I came to study the Raj Gonds. But then my skills my friendships and my personal networks caused me to become a filmmaker rather than an academic anthropologist. So, then I moved and made films for BBC and other channels.

40 years ago
Before meeting the Raj Gonds, I studied the Mundari tribe of Southern Bihar, which is Jharkhand now. I lived with them two years before meeting the Gonds. And I found that the Raj Gonds were completely different, there were highly sophisticated people. They had old aristocratic ideas about themselves as being the ‘Rajas’ in the 16th century with the history of big forts and armies being large landholders and that was lost but then they were much more culturally sophisticated people than the Munda tribe.

But they all were classified as Adivasis, so I was astounded at the cultural advancement and the educated historical knowledge and fantastically grand epic mythical traditions the Raj Gonds had. I felt that here are highly cultivated people maybe they are classified as Adivasis, but they are very profound cultural value people.

After 40 years
It is the same situation with Jharkhand adivasis, there has been a lot of problems with the government and there was a lot of instability in the area with the whole concept of ‘Red Crescents’ and the problem of the development period and it was considered to be insecure to comeback. Prof. Haimendorf did come back for a brief and his son also came back on those one or two brief visits. I could not come back apart from security is also that I was no longer a practising anthropologist, I was an ethnographic filmmaker working with the BBC. And it was not my job to do research.

My career had taken me in different directions what is so fascinating in now the ethnographic films I made for BBC have now become very valuable ethnographic and anthropological documents they are not just valuable for foreigner to see what these people are like half a century ago but a valuable to people themselves who are trying to revive their ancient traditions when they have been lost for various reasons like development practices, political instability and economic suffering.

Living with the Raj Gonds
I was in Adilabad for 18 months. I had to learn the language for a start, which I found very difficult because I find the Telugu language like listening to water running over pebbles and also Telugu language is like machine gun fire. I always found it difficult to understand Telugu. And Gondi basically is half Telugu and half Marathi, and I found it very difficult to understand it. So, I learned the Gondi language.

I also learnt the value of all traditions because the Raj Gonds have a remarkable institution, which is traditional minstrels and bards. They have incredible profound knowledge about mythical origins of the clan deities, of medicine and creation of the world. They are like a living library of knowledge and understanding and I have never met people like them in my life. In Britain, we value written history, facts, archives and hard information. And here the history is based on memory and mythology, not hard facts. But you believe this to be true because an expert has told you it is true.

A Raj Gond is only remembering what his father told him and these were passed in every generation. However, the narrative always changes, and moulds and it is flexible unlike Western history, which is factual. But if it is flexible it becomes very human, it is always reflecting the problems of the period. I began to realise that memory is almost important that recorded archival information and it is richer.

Whiling living there I had to cook over the fire. I had to adopt the kind of style of cooking the tribals were doing around me and I ate the same food which they ate. And there was a man, who had a family, children and wife, and he helped me in collecting firewood and in cooking. So, there were two of us doing it and at the end of it, we were a family of four people living together. It was a very labour intensive lifestyle.

There was no electricity in those days, and we had to collect our own firewood, dry cow dung for fuel and pick up vegetables from the forest. So, we spent a lot of time staying alive. And the time left was done in doing serious anthropology research.
If I had to go somewhere I had to borrow a ‘bandi’ (bullock cart), and borrow a couple of bullocks from somebody and when I reached the village I used to release the bulls and they would go back home and then I had to borrow another bullock cart from that village and come back and release the bulls and they would walk back home. It was a wonderful public transport (smiles).

Filming technique
In those days you had to film on film, and you have a separate sound recordist and you had a clapper board and you had to tell somebody to reload the magazine in the film camera. So, in order to make a film, you needed a team of 5-6 people to make a film. Nowadays you can pick up a video camera and do it entirely yourself by holding it in one hand. In good old days, it was very heavy and clumsy, and film cost an enormous amount of money and you could have a ratio of 12:1, you shoot 12 hours of film for a one hour finished edited film; nowadays you can shoot 100 hours to produce 5 minutes (laughs).

It was totally a different skill and I loved that skill because it forces you to think about what you are filming and to think before you switch the camera on, because the minute you switch on the camera you are tearing a Rs 1000 note for every second it progresses and the discipline of old fashion film making is something that is lost in the modern era, these days you don’t have to focus a camera it focuses itself, it adjusts itself, no need light metre as it is automatic now. Everybody is making films now, but they are not making good quality, well-researched narrative structures.

The changes in Raj Gonds
I am hearing from the people about the changes that are happening there, and it is frightening. Since I was with the people, they went through three decades of economic misery and not being looked after being very well because of the whole Naxal problems in the area. Now that is not there.

And a lot of development is given to the Gonds and the adivasis in India, which has created a lot of good things, but it also created cultural and social change and whereby something of great traditional value has been forgotten. I am told that tradition bards are declining and there is nobody who knows the old oral stories. The Dandari festival, which was done traditionally then is now all Bollywoody and glitzy.

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