In 1998 I went on a romantic impulse to photograph the tribes of India. During this journey I came across the Bakharwal nomadic pastoralist tribe in Ladakh and I lived and travelled with them through Kashmir upto Manali for over a month. Pitching tents at a new place every night, dismantling and packing the ‘household’ and its spare contents on horseback every morning and grazing herds of goat and sheep through pastures during the day was the adventure I had dreamed of.
I belonged to a ‘settled’ world and was fascinated by these routine migrations. I envied the Bakharwal for their freedom and mobility and their use of it as a resource. But what struck me the most was that their entire life was defined by and centred around their animals.
I was impressed by the balance between these people and their animals, and between animals and the environment that fed them. It’s the deep awareness of the uncertainty and fragility of their resources that makes nomadic populations constantly work to maintain this balance. Their mobility is part of a constant cycle of creation and recharging. I found that the interconnectedness between human animal populations in tribal societies had a deep sense of reciprocity.
I noticed that as humans and animals moved from nature to more individualistic, urban societies, the equation developed an edge that intrigued me. It led me to observe human and animal relationships more attentively and prompted me to travel to different parts of India to understand how communities related to animals – by living with them, by loving them, by working with them and by incorporating them in their everyday traditions and cultures.
I began documenting these situations in 2010. My journeys took me to the north, the south, and to every other part of this vast land. I’ve presented several ideas here that don’t only illuminate the living breathing history of the human-animal relationship but tell the story of who we really are as well.
Seeing the Taj Mahal mirrored in the Yamauna river from a boat had always been an essential part of all my visits to Agra . But this time the river had dried up completely. I walked across the river bed to the other side and found this boy collecting sand to construct a hut nearby. A stark contrast to the most photographed monument in the backdrop.
Cattle markets of nomadic people have always interested me. It’s the only time of the year these wanderers are the least mobile. Sleeping in their tents at night throughout the duration of the fair always took me back to my memories of the nomadic Bakharwals that sparked this series.
Having photographed tribals extensively, I noticed the goods being bought, sold and bartered gradually changed. But what remained constant was the the market conclude in a cockfight. A huge spectacle charged with tense energy, locally brewed alcohol and tobacco that brought together people from the mountain and plain and me closer to home.
This picture was shot during a Bison Horn Maria wedding. I stayed long enough with them to witness a birth, a death, a harvest, a shiver, a sweat, an animal sacrifice. Basically the circle of life.
Standing head on before farmers and cattle charging through burning haystacks, while viewing it through a lens that distorts one sense of distance is probably the most adrenalin charged moments of the series. I felt this situation was one of equals. Because it challenged the instincts of each one involved in the making of this photograph.
I liked the way this mahout was nestled between his elephants. Though I was warned against going up close, I took a chance and captured a counterintuitive moment.
The Bishnoi community are natural conservationists. Animals are drawn to their villages. Deer attacked and injured by wild dogs are brought to the temple where they are taken care of and healed.
An exhibition of Asha Thadani’s photographs is on at NCPA from August 11-21.
This article was first published on The Wire.