Tales from crocodile island

Updated - February 08, 2019 01:53 pm IST

Published - February 07, 2019 01:21 pm IST

CHENNAI : TAMILNADU : 06/02/209 : FOR METROPLUS : Sylvia Nulpinditj, Aboriginal Australian artist, here in Chennai for Churning Waters Festival in Chennai on 31st January 12019. Photo : K. Pichumani/ The Hindu

CHENNAI : TAMILNADU : 06/02/209 : FOR METROPLUS : Sylvia Nulpinditj, Aboriginal Australian artist, here in Chennai for Churning Waters Festival in Chennai on 31st January 12019. Photo : K. Pichumani/ The Hindu

We are about 20 minutes into our conversation when artist Sylvia Nulpinditj breaks into a wide smile for the first time, flashing pearly whites. The 45-year-old Aboriginal Australian woman, at the fag end of her trip to Chennai, maintains a veneer of seriousness until she is asked to describe the place she grew up in. Having never been outside Australia, she says this is something she has never had to describe before.

Sylvia is from the Yolŋu community, a tribe settled in north-eastern Arnhem Land, in the Northern territory of Australia.

“It’s pronounced ‘yaw-ngyu’,” she explains, adding a nasal tick to the ‘n’. An appointed cultural leader of the Yolŋu tribe, Sylvia’s talents are multifaceted: she is a dancer, singer-storyteller, and a weaver, she works as a radio presenter at the Aboriginal Resource Development Service, and has made two movies on Yolŋu culture for Screen Australia. She speaks five languages, including the Yolŋu dialect Djambarrpuyngu, and English.

“In my tribe, the elders choose certain people based on our respect for our culture, discipline, and obedience. We are appointed as artists, as people who will carry forward the Yolŋu heritage in a ceremony,” she explains. The artists are responsible for passing on the weaving traditions, the songs and stories told, to the future generations.

“We have manikai (songlines) that acknowledge where we came from: our country, waterways, ancestors, and the animals around us. These songs are also danced to. That is how we pass on the knowledge of our lands to our children,” she says. So movements mimicking the flow of wind, water and music, for example, are part of the dance.

In Chennai as a part of the Australia Fest, she has collaborated with indigenous artists from Australia and Chennai, to choreograph a dance-drama Churning Waters, that looks at climate change and the future of water scarcity.

She shows us her handicraft: a dreamcatcher, and two baskets. “We make these using pandanus, a tree similar to the palm tree. At a young age, we are taught how to take its thorns off, splice and dry the leaves, to use them as weaving material,” she says. Depictions of these traditions also find place in Sylvia’s paintings, a few of which hang at the Aboriginal Bush Traders art gallery in Darwin.

Back home

Even though Sylvia is based in Darwin today, home for her is the outskirts of the Milingimbi island. “It’s called the Crocodile island, the waters around the mangrove trees are infested with them,” she says.

“We are taught from a very early age to live in harmony with them, and not venture too deep into the waters.” She adds that people there are mostly hunter-gatherers, fisherfolk, and weavers. “In our settlement, we have one school, one clinic, one government office building, and one shop.”

She works as a radio presenter, speaking on various issues related to her community such as the importance of a good education and the dangers of petrol-sniffing among youngsters.Given that people like her have been gradually moving to bigger towns in hopes of more mainstream lives for their children, she believes it is important to hold on to the traditions of their people.

One of the unique Yolŋu beliefs is that the entire world is divided into dhuwa and yirritja : two forces that create a powerful balance in the universe, much like yin and yang. Everything from people, to animals, to rocks and stars and the sky is either dhuwa or yirritja . “For example. the sun and the morning star is dhuwa , but the moon, the night sky and stars are yirritja ,” she explains. Herself a dhuwa , she is married to a yirritja man, and their children are yirritja as well: a dhuwa can only marry a yirritja , and vice versa.

Yet another belief, one that every woman especially must learn, is the art of mourning. “When a person dies, we need to know how to mourn and cry so that their souls are guided back to where they came from,” she says. Every ten years or so, the elders come together to choose young people from their community who can pass on their traditional knowledge in a ceremony called ‘narra’.

A whole new world

The Yolŋu are decidedly non-vegetarians. For them, worms found in rotting mangrove trees are a delicacy best had raw. Her first ever trip outside Australia, has been to Chennai. “The food is spicier than I am used to. But I do like those round fluffy things you have... made of rice?” she says, referring to the quintessential idlis.

There has been one thing, however, that struck her about the city. “Everyone is brown-skinned! When I am with your people, I feel like I am back home,” she grins.

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