Old Distillery’s crumbling walls draped in frames of Andaman people

Four weeks on a boat, for six successive winters. Lugging heavy camera equipment through jungle trails and across the Indian Ocean helped Andreas Deffner come back with pictures of the Andamans, where not many a lens had travelled before. His snapshots documenting the Karen people of the islands covers the walls of an unusual space— the rundown distillery with crumbing walls at the end of Beach Road. “Artists have always been the first to turn dilapidated or rundown spaces into something more, before the commercial developers step in,” says Mr. Deffner. “This has been the case at the time of the Berlin wall.”

His exhibition is hosted by Pondy Art, an organisation that tries to raise awareness on a particular subject every month through photography. This is third at the Old Distillery, after the organisation lost the wall on Beach Road.

Mr. Deffner’s frames are a peep into the food habits and customs of the Karen people of the Northern Andamans, who were originally brought from Burma by the British, being natural hunters and skilled to survive on the jungles of the island.

Pointing to an old man on a boat depicted in the picture on the outside of the distillery, Mr. Deffner says, “He knows his way so well around the islands of Andaman that he is like a human GPS [Global Positioning System]. He has been around for 50 years, on a boat put together by wooden planks.”

Mr. Deffner accompanied the Andaman and Nicobar Environmental Team — including environmentalist Rauf Ali, Harry Andrews, former president of the Madras Crocodile Bank and researcher Manish Chandri — which was carrying out research.

On why he chose the particular group of people, he explains, “As a photographer, you have to respect the privacy of those who do not like to be photographed. As other tribes are off-limits, this is closest to life on the island. Also, westerners have a romantic idea of the good native. Coming here helped me disabuse that notion”. The impact of an attempt to civilise the natives, which resulted in the loss of their natural medicine, among many things, comes across strongly. Unlike some of the indigenous tribes of the Andaman who keep to themselves, the young generation of the Karen people have taken up jobs. “But there are some of them that live in huts in the forest. The research team stayed in the upper part of the house where a couple and eleven children were living in the lower part,” he adds.

The shots have deliberately been composed in black and white, as Mr. Deffner felt the colours could take away the focus from the content, given that the Andamans had the reputation of being an exotic tropical paradise. Photographs are up on the ceiling, the crumbling walls and even on the tall tower-like structure, Access to the show is free and open till dark until mid-March.

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