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The barefoot auteur

Latha Jishnu  |  New Delhi 

Surya Shankar Dash stirs the development debate with his films chronicling the violent threat to the idyllic life of the Dongria Kondh people in Niyamgiri.

Dambu Praska, ageless and smiling, plucks the single string of his wood and gourd instrument, and sings of how Niyamgiri — the hills, streams and lush forests — was formed centuries ago and still sustains his people. He is a balladeer — ah yes, they still roam the sylvan kingdom — of the Dongria Kondh tribe in the Niyamgiri Hills of Orissa, who takes them through their simple history. But Dambu Preska’s song has a new edge to it as he warns the Kondhs of what is in store for them with the incursion of a global mining giant into their pristine land.

In a lyrical 13-minute film titled The Lament of Niyamgiri: A Dongria Kondh Song, documentary film maker Surya Shankar Dash captures the idyll and the coming tragedy of these hills in a gently flowing cadence that makes it a riveting film. It’s the hallmark of all his productions. Even the one-minute Shot Dead for Development, an animated film about the assault of mining companies on the indigenous Adivasis, combines idyll with violence to tell a powerful tale. The 2008 film was remarkable for its use of the traditional art of the Saora tribe of Orissa with simple animation techniques to depict the brutal assault on the Adivasis in Kashipur and Kalinganagar for resisting mining and industrial activity. It was highly praised at screenings in London last year.

Dash, 30, is a bearded barefoot filmmaker from Bhubaneswar who started out as an advertising copywriter for Lintas in Delhi, Film, however, was his passion, and his wife Gunjan, a textile designer who he met in Delhi, recalls how he borrowed Rs 10,000 from friends to make a two-hour feature film called The Trail of the Tin Soldier. Gunjan says she never really understood what the film was about while Dash explains that it was “an attempt to get into the mind of the pilot of Enola Gay” (the plane that dropped the atom bomb on Hiroshima). He has discarded complex intellectual genres of filmmaking to tell simple and powerful stories of what is going in his home state in the name of development. And he prefers local idiom and motifs to convey his stark messages.

Dash says the use of Saora art, and the music of the Koya and Bonda tribes in Shot Dead for Development was an angry reaction to the wall paintings splashed across Bhubaneswar by the government to highlight the beauty of Orissa’s tribal art and culture. He says, “The irony is that the initiative was sponsored by the very companies which were displacing and killing the tribal people!” In his three years of itinerant filmmaking, Dash has got to know most of the Dongria Kondh villages and this is reflected in the natural portrayal of the people who show little signs of being self-conscious.

Thus, he also knows, like his famous anthropologist friend Felix Padel, the British researcher who earned his doctorate from the study of the Dongria Kondhs, a lot about the place and people that not many others do. Like, for instance, the many indigenous varieties of mango that the Niyamgiri Hills provides in plenty. His latest production, The Last Mango Season, is a seven-minute tribute to the splendour of the local fruit, which he fears will disappear like most of Niyamgiri’s rich biodiversity when Vedanta starts mining the hills for their rich deposits of bauxite.

As such, a sense of foreboding, of despair, is never far from Dash’s thoughts and tends to punctuate his conversations, too. Surprisingly, though, he draws hope and strength from his hill friends who face the future with a rare inner serenity. “The Dongria Kondhs are a gentle people and shy for most part unlike the Bonda (earliest known settlers in Orissa) who have become aggressive,” says Dash. And adds,“They are also strong. Whenever I feel depressed about what will happen to this wonderful habitat of theirs, it is someone like Ladha Sikaka who gives me strength.”

And who is Ladha Sikaka? He is one of the many friends that Dash has among the Dongria Kondh and one who can be seen delivering a powerful message in Public Hearing — The True Face of Vedanta, a documentary that mandarins in Delhi ought to watch carefully, and not merely because it is making news globally for stopping an environmental award to a well-known company. For one, the film exposes widespread pollution and contamination of water sources in Lanjigarh by the alumina refinery set up by Vedanta Resources, the UK-based mining conglomerate.

For another, in a first, it brought into the public domain the charade of public hearings conducted before setting up giant industrial projects on tribal lands. In this film you hear anguished and angry testimonies of those who suffer dispossession and also bear the brunt of industrial pollution in the hinterland. The injustice of the current development paradigm has given Dash his current mission in life. He sees himself as the messenger of Niyamgiri, which literally means the hill of law or justice, and is venerated by the Dongria Kondhs as Niyam Raja, the sacred dispenser of law — to people and to the environment.

Dash’s moment of epiphany came three years ago when he went to Koraput to make a typical tourist view film on tribal people “doing their rehearsed song and dance routine”. He did make that film but a chance encounter with a displaced tribesman changed his perspective and turned him “into a different person altogether and a different kind of filmmaker”. Since then his films have chronicled the life and struggles of the Dongria Kond and Kutia tribe of Niyamgiri Hills.

As a filmmaker with a growing reputation, Dash’s local knowhow is in demand internationally. Currently, he is working on The Forest Speaks, a 45-minute documentary chronicling the assertion of people’s forest rights for a research project conducted by the University of East Anglia in the UK. That’s professional recognition and he welcomes it in a way. But his barefoot style of filmmaking has yet to change. He still uses a basic DV camera, which does not give the best quality footage, and he still needs to pass the hat around to raise funds for his projects. As the messenger of Niyamgiri, he has no problems with that. He seeks only a wider audience.

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First Published: Sun, July 12 2009. 00:30 IST