On the road with Manou - Hindustan Times
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On the road with Manou

ByManou
Jun 05, 2024 09:26 PM IST

For about a decade, the photographer has no fixed address. Here, he writes about travelling across the Northeast, documenting aspects of their cultural heritage

For the past 10 years, I haven’t had a permanent home. I’ve travelled to 18 states, spending at least a month in each. When I wanted to sidestep the weight of planning and longed for comfort and familiarity, I returned to places I liked more: Auroville, Dharamshala, Shillong, Aizawl, Nagaland.

The Kanchenjunga (Manou)
The Kanchenjunga (Manou)

I like meeting new people and have formed what feels like extended families in some of these places. Since I have mostly felt free to move around, sometimes nostalgia of people or a time or even an odd curiosity to see how things may have changed would draw me back to a place.

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In August last year, while I was living in Auroville, I got a call about a six-month project called The Great Himalayan Exploration, a collaboration between UNESCO and Royal Enfield. The project aims to document the intangible cultural heritage of local communities in the Himalayan region of Northeast India. My brief was to photograph the people behind various cultural practices and examine the ecosystems within which they exist. To build context, I scanned old photos from personal albums, took pictures of living spaces and landscapes, and explored archival resources. From November 2023 to April this year, we were in West Bengal, Sikkim, Tripura, Mizoram, Assam, Nagaland, and Meghalaya. These pictures are a visual record of the remarkable people I’ve met and places that left their imprint on me.

November 2023

Mirik, West Bengal

Bishnumaya Pradhan at home in Mirik (Manou)
Bishnumaya Pradhan at home in Mirik (Manou)

Bishnumaya just turned 100 this October. She comes from Pokhari, about 15 kilometers from Mirik town. As we spoke, she recalled old memories, her expressions shifting as if reliving those moments. She seemed elsewhere, gazing past me into the distance, and then, as if continuing a conversation with herself, she said, “Nowadays people ask about caste when they meet someone, and how is that of any use?”

She described how, when she was small, there were no proper schools in her village. She learned to read and write, however little, by arranging corn kernels on the ground to form shapes that resembled letters and numbers. Reflecting on her long life, she added that everyone around her — friends her age and younger siblings — is dead, and she feels like a monster who swallowed them all.

Mirik lake (Manou)
Mirik lake (Manou)

The sun is out, but it’s only warm where the light falls. The history of Mirik is reflected in its lake, which used to be a marshland. According to Wikipedia, the name Mirik comes from the Lepcha words Mir-Yok, meaning “place burnt by fire.” It’s very green now for a place that was once burnt.

A town fair is underway, offering a range of attractions: a Ferris wheel, flower park visits, fast food stalls, ice cream carts, horse and boat rides, live pop music, card game betting, balloon shooting, local bingo-type card games, and hoopla with prizes up for grabs. Some prizes are cash with notes of 20, 50, and 100 rupees.

****

Darap, Sikkim

Sanchamaya at home in Darap, Sikkim. (Manou)
Sanchamaya at home in Darap, Sikkim. (Manou)

Sanchamaya, 74, sits with her friend Bodhimaya in the front yard of her house in Darap, both are lifelong farmers and belong to the Limbu community. They’re nice and welcoming. It’s our second day in Pelling, West Sikkim, and I’ve ended up at the wrong house. Today, we’re supposed to see a drum dance(chyabrung) performance by local Limbu boys, which I’ll catch later.

They talk in basic broken Hindi, with Shusan (our local contact) translating most of it. Sanchamaya leads me to the back of their house, where she proudly shows me trays of large dried cardamoms. Later, we’ll visit her cardamom field. The women also cultivate mosambi, oranges, guavas, maize, peas, ginger, and onions. Sanchamaya spends her days with her friend and her grandchildren, working in the fields, and cooking in the kitchen.

****

Chuba, Sikkim

I visited Chuba village, three hours from Gangtok, with Semeon from Haflong, Assam. A textile design graduate from NID, he works at Sonam’s design studio, EchoStream, that’s based in Gangtok. Semeon was familiar with the village and the community.

Arun Gurung, founder of Chubako (Manou)
Arun Gurung, founder of Chubako (Manou)

Arun Gurung and his wife, founders of a small cooperative called Chubako, are endeavouring to revive an old tradition of sourcing wool from indigenous banpala sheep to make clothes. In this village of 43 families, one person from each household now works for Chubako.

The rug has been designed by Sanskruti Shukla, co-created with the craft community of Chubako for Echostream, Gangtok (Manou)
The rug has been designed by Sanskruti Shukla, co-created with the craft community of Chubako for Echostream, Gangtok (Manou)
Gangamaya Gurung (Manou)
Gangamaya Gurung (Manou)

Local stories of the craftspeople of Chuba are showcased and incorporated into wool through interactive workshops focused on storytelling and design development. The felted art rugs depict the flora and fauna of Sikkim.

Gangamaya Gurung, 83, Arun Gurung’s mother, lit up like a child when she saw Semeon. They share a close bond and are great friends. Despite her age, Gangamaya remains active, tending to sheep, cutting grass, farming, and weaving. When asked about her leisure activities, she said, “Eat, watch TV; eat, watch TV.”

****

Takarjala, Tripura

Sampati Debbarma, a farmer, returning from work in Takarjala, Tripura. (Manou)
Sampati Debbarma, a farmer, returning from work in Takarjala, Tripura. (Manou)

****

January 2024

We have been out on this trip for three months now. My thoughts are scattered in a kind of bardo between the world I know and the world I am coming in contact with. I picture house fronts with flowers in Darjeeling, winding roads, the long cold rivers snaking past mountains that seem no bigger than my thumb, the snow capped peaks shifting colours, and prayer flags in high altitudes and on house doors. Gangtok’s Lal Bazaar skateboarders flash by, as does a school in Tripura where a student lives on 700 a month; nini bung tamo and four other sentences I learned in Kokborok nag me like a tune. From Sidangcherra to Pecharthal to Panisagar to Damchara checkpoint, we make our way by road from Tripura into Mizoram. I think about where I will be in the summer and see a white fluffed cloud taking the shape of a growing tree far on the horizon.

****

Khatla, Aizawl

Krismas Ruaitheh (Christmas feast) at Khatla Presbyterian Church, Aizawl. This is my third time in Aizawl. I used to go for dinners, sometimes evening tea, to my friend’s family home further up the road from the Khatla church. We are here to document the traditional community feast of the Mizos.

Priscilla (Manou)
Priscilla (Manou)

Priscilla is currently pursuing her BA in Political Science in Delhi, and she’s home for the holidays. She was volunteering at Khatla Presbyterian Church where she and her friends were tasked with serving lemonade, a customary drink after the meal. For Priscilla, the most remarkable aspect of the feast is its longstanding tradition — dating back to pre-Christian times — where the entire community comes together to share moments of joy and sorrow. They still use changel hnah (plantain leaves) — the traditional way to serve meals.

**

On an idle walk one evening in Khatla, I find myself in a local thrift store and get invited to meet James Lalhmingliana. He is 80, one of the founding members of Aizawl’s first bike club, Aizawl Thunders. He went to school at St Edmund’s in Shillong.

James Lalhmingliana at home in Khatla, Aizawl. (Manou)
James Lalhmingliana at home in Khatla, Aizawl. (Manou)

In 1966, he joined the Mizo National Front uprising, fighting for freedom. He went underground for seven years, first in Arakan, Burma, then in 1969 to East Pakistan for shelter. “It was useless,” he says. “We wasted our good years. When I came back, I was put in jail, but not for long.”

He has been housebound for years due to his health.

****

NagalandThis is my fifth time in Nagaland. I first came here 10 years ago and stayed at Kevesho’s home. He is the father of the Tetseo Sisters, a well-known folk group of four sisters from Nagaland.

Kevesho Tetseo at home in Kohima (Manou)
Kevesho Tetseo at home in Kohima (Manou)

Kevesho Tetseo, son of Nülhüprü Tetseo was born in the 1950s in Thüvopisümi village, Phek District, Nagaland. Initially schooled in the village, he finished his secondary schooling at the Government High School in Kohima and graduated from Kohima College. He worked in the education department and is now retired. He has been active in cultural music scene, in the preservation of the Chokri language, and in the church choir since his youth.

The tati is a single string musical instrument that accompanies the singing of li, the indigenous songs of the Chakhesang Nagas.

Kevesho learned how to make tati by observing village elders and has been making them since the 1990s. He has made made many tatis and has also improvised on the design by using steel wires as strings thus prolonging the life of each instrument.

He says the woven shawl he is wearing in the picture is a thipiqhü, the most prestigious shawl among the many traditional clothes of the Chakhesang tribe. It is a shawl they wear with humility and honour.

“Nagaland is my home and I love my culture, its rich traditional heritage, and the natural beauty,” he says.

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Duncan, Dimapur

Daisy Yaden, who will turn 98 this month, was born in Zotlang, Mizoram. She studied at the Welsh Mission School in Mission Veng, Aizawl. She learned to weave shawls on a backstrap loom, stitching, and baking from her mother, often baking cakes in the fireplace. She taught in the interiors of Nagaland, in places like Noklak and Changtongya. She started her career by teaching people to be self sufficient — how to cook, make jams and pickles. These are skills she picked up from the British magazine, Woman’s Own. She also used to compose tunes for children at Sunday school. She loves gardening and her favourite film is Gone with the Wind.

Marian,16, trying a sari for the first time, 1960s Kohima (Manou)
Marian,16, trying a sari for the first time, 1960s Kohima (Manou)
Daisy Yaden at home in Duncan, Dimapur. (Manou)
Daisy Yaden at home in Duncan, Dimapur. (Manou)

I am sitting with Marian, Daisy’s daughter, at her home in Duncan. Marian, now 75, lived in Bombay from 1970 to 2012.

She went to college there and worked as an air hostess with Air India for 34 years. In 2012, she returned to Nagaland. We agreed to meet again for lunch and look at her old photo albums.

Manou is a street-style and fashion photographer. https://www.instagram.com/wearaboutblog/

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