Interview Life & Style

Memories of the peacock crown

A 1970s photograph of Michael Yorke (far left) with a group that enacted Ramayana

A 1970s photograph of Michael Yorke (far left) with a group that enacted Ramayana   | Photo Credit: By arrangement

British anthropologist Michael Yorke is revisiting Adilabad 40 years after his research on the Raj Gond tribes

Michael Yorke, in his mid-70s, barely contains his excitement at the prospect of reconnecting with people of Adilabad-Asifabad during his fortnight-long trip. The last time he visited Hyderabad was in the 1980s for a film on Unani medicine, and as a stopover for another film on fishermen in the east coast who invented the ‘kattu maram’ or the catamaran.

Speaking to us while in Hyderabad for a series of events over the weekend, the anthropologist reminisced his stint in Adilabad with a twinkle in his eyes. He had accompanied his professor Christoph von Furer-Haimendorf, the celebrated anthropologist who now has a memorial in Marlavai, Adilabad, for a post-doctoral research on the Raj Gond tribe, from 1976 to 78. Living and researching in Ginnedhari and the Tiryani valley villages, left him enriched. “I broke through the bubble and understood cultures better,” he recalls.

Michael Yorke

Michael Yorke   | Photo Credit: By arrangement

In 2017, some of Michael’s photographs were showcased in Adilabad, and some of the natives were overjoyed to see images of their grandparents. Michael hasn’t been in touch with people from the region after he completed his research and left for England: “They didn’t have telephones. Internet penetration has been good only in recent years.”

He felt nostalgic when he learnt of the enthusiasm his photography exhibition generated in 2017. “I learnt that people were excited to learn from my photographs and the documentary about how rituals were conducted in the past. This means a lot to me, proving that the work I had done was not just academic,” he says with pride. In the 70s, he observed the economic travails of the Raj Gonds. “There have been social, economic and political changes since then and now they are trying to revitalise their culture. I’m happy my work helps in some way.”

Spotlight on Dandari
  • The highlight of his stint in Adilabad was filming the BBC documentary ‘Raj Gonds: Reflections in a Peacock Crown’ (1982) on the Dandari festival. “It was a dramatic and marvellous example of a community letting its hair down and breaking all rules of normality. They expressed their economic frustrations, showcased their glorious history and traditions, all through street theatre or ‘kelk’,” Michael recalls. By then, he had done two documentaries for BBC and felt he had to educate people in Britain about minority communities in other parts of the world. The documentary was filmed in the Tiryani valley village, where there was no electricity. “People danced and performed around flares or fire. Our crew came in with lights and generators. Word spread far and wide; people from other villages that were about half a day walking distance, poured in. All night they performed and we filmed. The festival would go on till 4am and people would wake up around 6.30a.m. to work. The festival grew bigger and we sensed the exhaustion and sleep deprivation. Finally we pretended to have run out of battery and wound up the shoot.”

Much before the research, Michael hitch-hiked through India in 1962: “I was a student, a failure in school, running away from my past. I wandered away from my home and ended up in Kathmandu, fell sick and had to be flown back to England in a stretcher.” Nevertheless, the journey filled him with a sense of wonder. “Coming from a British military family with no cross cultural references, I felt connected to India. I went back and read up about India and can now call myself as a bit of expert in adivasi culture (Michael Yorke is the chairman of Adivasi Arts Trust, a UK-registered NGO).”

As a student of anthropology, he re-visited India along with his professor Haimendorf. When he arrived in Adilabad-Asifabad in 1976 and met the Raj Gond tribe, he was surprised. “I didn’t think they were adivasis,” he says. The people were far different from the West’s imagery of a crude hunter group one normally associated with the definition of a tribe. “The Raj Gonds were intelligent, sophisticated, aristocratic people who took pride in their culture, had fantastic art forms and street theatre; they had a minimal caste system,” he recalls. Michael learnt that the Raj Gonds were a flourishing tribe in the 16th century who fell through rough times. The then district collector had wanted to return land that had been illegally transferred to non-tribals back to the original tribal landholders, based on the ‘laoni kas patta system’ Haimendorf set up in the late 1950s. “I helped the tribals send petitions to the district collector,” says Michael. He travelled on foot and bullock cart. “I had a reputation to live up to. To the people, I was the son of Hanuman Rao (that’s how Haimendorf was addressed by the locals). I was well taken care of wherever I travelled.”

Michael was limited by his inability to speak Telugu. “I spoke some Hindi, but Telugu was tough; it sounded like water flowing over pebbles in a brooke. The Gond language was a mix of Telugu and Marathi.” Help came from local interpreters Jalapathi Rao and Abdul Majid.

Photographic journey

A portrait of a girl by Michael Yorke

A portrait of a girl by Michael Yorke   | Photo Credit: By arrangement

Between 1976 and 78, Michael Yorke shot more than 1500 images, in black and white and colour. These are intimate portrayals of people. Some of them are now on display at the ‘Among the Adivasis of Adilabad’ exhibition at Saptaparni, Banjara Hills, till February 12.

It wasn’t easy developing the photographs in the villages in the 70s. “There was no facility to process colour photographs. Black and white could be worked upon but unfiltered water would be used, which added a lot of specks to the photograph. So I began sending the films to England for developing and printing,” Michael Yorke recalls. This meant that the people, his photography subjects, couldn’t see and understand his work. Nevertheless, they trusted Michael and let him into their space. “Photography can be exploitative. But as an ethnographic photographer/filmmaker, it’s important to earn people’s trust,” he asserts. As a tip to budding photographers, he says, “When you ask for permission to shoot, people stop being normal and put on a special layer of polish and varnish for the camera. You have to break that layer.” Michael will showcase his photographs in Adilabad when he attends the Keslapur Nagoba Jatara from February 4 to 6.

In Hyderabad, he’s addressing photographers of the Hyderabad Centre for Photography on ‘Understanding Others: Visual Anthropology - Archives and Tribal Identity’ at the State Gallery of Art on February 3. He will then head to Adilabad.

Michael will return to Hyderabad to deliver a talk ‘Impressions on revisiting Adilabad’ at Saptaparni on February 12.

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Printable version | May 27, 2020 7:37:48 PM |

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