January 24, 2020
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In A Nation Pained By Farmers' Suicides, What Keeps Animal-Herders Buoyant?

An ongoing Delhi event on India’s pastoral groups focuses on new-age dynamics of Gujarat’s Kutch

In A Nation Pained By Farmers' Suicides, What Keeps Animal-Herders Buoyant?
In A Nation Pained By Farmers' Suicides, What Keeps Animal-Herders Buoyant?

Why don’t animal-herders commit suicide? Well, unlike with farmers, mobility enables pastoralists to overcome the vagaries of nature. A constant change of livelihood plots is integral to their age-old ethos steeped in hardships.

India has no less than 6% nomadic livestock farmers among its 1.33 billion people. Yet it was only this month the country saw efforts to take a holistic view of its pastoralists from across regions, by providing a common platform for interdisciplinary ideas so as to catalyse pertinent grassroots initiatives.

An ongoing event in the national capital seeks to boost the conservation of indigenous breeds and their eco-systems by facilitating a better understanding of the potential of pastoralism, courtesy a face-to-face between experts of its varied facets. ‘Living Lightly’, as the 17-day endeavour is named, pools in world-wide suggestions from not just anthropologists, biologists, social activists and cattle-grazers  themselves but presents the community’s art, crafts, cuisine, legends and daily life. A just-concluded academic conference follows up with a stakeholders’ consultation, while the mainstay is an exhibition punctuated by workshops, installations, literature sessions, cultural shows and a film festival.

The December 2-18 get-together by two non-profit organisations captures the culture of the pastoralists alongside their remarkable history of migrations, cyclical movements and the economics of herding. “It’s human habit to settle somewhere. In the process, one often forgets to look at communities that are always on the move,” notes community worker Sushma Iyengar, who is the lead curator of ‘Living Lightly’ on at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA). “The unique creative impulses of herders in solitude are often ignored. An emphasis on agriculture has weakened research on India’s pastoralist systems that have 200-plus communities.”

‘Living Lightly’, being organised by Gujarat-based Sahjeevan and Foundation of Ecological Security, unveils stories of pastoralists across Indian corners, but focuses on Kutch region of the western state known for its semi-arid lands permitting a unique lifestyle over millennia. It looks at the future of pastoralism, suggesting revival of traditional governance systems and resolution of resource conflicts in ways that facilitate the profession’s integration with farming and afforestation, says Chetan Jha of the 15-year-old Foundation based in Anand.

Such dynamics have well been presented aesthetically. The exhibition at the Twin Art gallery essays the day-today materials and aesthetic expressions of Kutch’s pastoral groups, while all along reminding the visitor with the community’s three basic things—as if a motif: the leather footwear, herding stick and the cowbell. In fact, the hollow-cup metal-casts worn by cattle occupy one section. “The Lohars (blacksmiths) make them, and the (peripatetic) Maldhari herdsmen modify each to find the intended resonance,” points out Shourya Moy of 1991-founded based in Bhuj.

Mud-pots of different shapes, sizes and designs etched on them suggest whether the milk it stores will be of camel, cow, goat or buffalo. Variety clothes weave the warp and weft of Kutch’s garment legacy. A headphone-attached trek down a zigzag corridor lined with hanging cloths displaying lyrics of ethnic songs will echo the musical and literary richness of the region that revels in folk tales about Hindu and Islamic hero-heroines. Just across the corridor, a 30-minute film runs in a loop on four walls, narrating pastoralist Kutchi life defined by flocks of tall camels—one breed even swimming swampy waters lined by mangroves under azure sky.

Outside, a stall sells kosher Kutchi food; workshops trained two dozen city people how to experiment with camel-cheese sandwiches. Sahjeevan’s founder trustee Sandeep Virmani enters into a mock trade with trusted middleman Abdul Gani of Kutch’s Banni grasslands, where sale of animals are struck after bargaining through clandestine hand-clasping signs that denote prices. Next to them are scores of pastor-life images by six photographers. One of them, young Ishaan Raghunandan, has his section teeming with pictures by rustic Kutchis who he taught to operate the camera in the last two years.

On the lawns, an installation has rounded animal-dung cakes bearing placards displaying nuggets of information on cattle poop. Kutchi herdsmen bask under wintry sun that casts shadows on a rectangular stretch of sand which symbolises a curious work by Pugees who can detect—from the footprints—the animal or man who walked down any local track. A customised board game involves six participants to play, and eventually realise the ill-effects of overgrazing.

A trade store houses Deccan’s Gongadi crafts, handspun Sindhi shawls, zip-less leather bags and Pashmina woolens of Leh, among others. “Some of the fabric is tailor-made to new-age urban requirements,” says volunteer Shabri Wable. “But the basic philosophy stems from Katchi: minimum waste of cloth.”

IGNCA plans to take ‘Living Lightly’ to other Indian cities, says Sachidanand Joshi, member-secretary the 1985-founded autonomous institution under the ministry of culture.


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