In 2004, a documentary was released about the indigenous people with whom I had lived and worked 5 years prior. Few people saw the film then, but it is now available in its entirety on Youtube where it has nearly 29,000 views. Filmed, directed, and edited by Mr. Sathya Mohan, Chenchus: Children of the Forest opens with birdsong playing in the background, a scene of 2 men in loincloths performing a ritual to an unseen deity, and then cuts to smoke on a cliff side. As the camera pans out, bamboo poles tied end to end are being lowered down the cliff – a man in a checkered headscarf climbs down the bamboo ladder, the entire side of his naked body exposed. He uses the knobs of the bamboo as rungs for his hands and feet. He steps off and onto a ledge as another rope with a smoky rag is lowered, and insects swirl around him. The purpose of this expedition is revealed as we see him breaking a honeycomb from the overhang of the ledge and placing it in the basket as the title appears on the screen followed by the subtitle, “An ethnic vision by Sathya Mohan.”
2003. Chinthala. I had returned to the Nallamala forests to see my friends and field guides. At that time, everyone I knew well was still alive. Of the three young men who were my closest friends, two were married, and one was estranged from the group. Venkatayya took me to a room with a TV and a small gray box which I later learned was a VCD player. The devices were connected to a car battery with cables. A wire came in from a gap in the wall which was jury-rigged to the main power line. As the teens were quick to remind me, the villages did not have electricity despite the fact that one of India’s largest hydroelectric plants was 25 km to the north, and current lines from the dam were literally passing overhead to the cities of Kurnool and Prakasam to the south. Power also flowed, of course, to the North, to Hyderabad, already dubbed the “Hi-tech city” by then Chief Minister Chandrababu Naidu. From their perspective, the teens were on the wrong side of society’s decision to preserve the forest by limiting electricity, and by extension, the desire of Chenchus to live inside the tiger reserve. But, my friends were not going anywhere – this was home. Technology and materialism had found their way here, and this home theater setup would have been unimaginable just a few years ago when I lived here.
“The Chenchus are a Telugu-speaking food-gathering tribe living in the Nallamalai forests of Andhra Pradesh in India. Spread over the districts of Mahbubnagar, Kurnool, Prakasam, and Guntur, they are a conservative tribal group and have not made many changes in their lifestyle or tried to adapt to modernity. They live in the enclosed space and geography leading a life of unbroken continuity.”(From Chenchus: Children of the Forest)
In 1999, there was already a nostalgia for bygone days about the purity of the forest when the trees were thicker and the tigers more numerous. As the Forest Department had a nostalgia for the forests, the Chenchus too had nostalgia about their history – elders back then were strong and could kill tigers in hand-to-hand combat; they did not get cataracts because they ate wild forest vegetables instead of white rice; the trees were wide and water plenty. But, at least in the roadside Chenchu villages where I spent most of my time, and where I didn’t see a single loincloth, there was nuance and complexity in their understanding of the “outside world” and their place in it.
Another teenager, Naganna told me a Chenchu story once about a frog in a well, the equivalent of the English idiom, “big fish in a little pond.” This frog was the king of the well, but having been born there and never having left, he assumed he was the king of the world. Naganna was comparing one of the Chenchu elders who had scolded him to the frog, noting the irony of a traditional story serving as a rebuke to the pride of authority.
The documentary concludes with footage of a wedding ceremony and then, a freestyle dance: The rich folklore of their forefathers inspires and guides them to maintain a solemn? (solid?) tradition – the dance, the gaiety, and the lyricism of their life reflects their joy and innocence as they live a life of rich contentment, seeking and aspiring for very little.
Chenchus: children of the forest, true to its title, is an ethnic vision. It is one view by an outsider, just as mine is, and it seems oblivious of the power imbalance in being the person telling the story. It captures footage that is already historical, and is a beautiful record, but it fails to show Chenchus as individuals with unique personalities and histories. By framing them squarely in the ‘primitive past,’ it takes away from them the possibility of change and growth, of the human experience of facing an unknown future. To celebrate someone as a child, especially one of the forest, fails to appreciate them as adults, equals, and ultimately as fully human.