Reflections from Nila Yatra: Exploring interconnections, conflicts and new ways of experienc(see)ing

Written by Navnee Bagaawat | Yatri | Nila Yatra 2019


Nila yatra, even though undertaken on motor vehicles, was all about slowing down in a world that is increasingly putting an impetus on competition and running against time. In a world where we are largely unaware of where our objects of consumption come from and where our waste is disposed off, Nila yatra aimed at exploring one’s relationship with the world and the environment we live in, to see anew the river, its people and the traditions they together keep alive.



The connection between the river and the communities around it came alive as we witnessed the various folk art and craft forms around the river. A connection that seemed so organically in place could only be comprehended by immersing oneself in the lives of people surrounding the river, even though just a glimpse, but by attempting to make bamboo baskets and earthen pots. The mental and physical strength, precision and practice it takes to continue with a tradition for generations is not something one can just read of a book to understand. The challenges, when one hears from the people striving through these traditions become imminent and real.



Various action and revival projects are operational on river Nila but very little action has been undertaken in practical terms as compared to the research that has been done on the river and its people. One of the major challenges in revival and action work on Nila is due to the political affiliations of parties across the three districts that Nila covers, each having their own vested interests. There is a lack of consensus as well as collective understanding due to which work is often interrupted before it begins and there are, further, funding challenges. The lack of cohesion between the various departments across the various panchayats is an issue of concern.



Nila supports agricultural practices along its bank which form the backbone of the communities surrounding the river. Further, potters and bell metal artisans use the clay from the riverbed, weavers use the grass growing along its banks, the black soil in paddy fields gives natural colour and 12 crafts survive around the river. As explicated by Vinod, the co-founder of Vayali group, communities live in perfect harmony with each other participating in creating parts to engender the whole, for instance, the potter makes the rounded pot in the Veena, the bell metal artist makes the metal rings and agriculture forms the base for everything.



Various challenges were observed as being experienced by communities surrounding the river, namely, changes in traditional art practices due to mechanization and globalization which in turn leads to life style changes; the degradation of the river, its clay and surroundings hence the need to source material from nearby states leading to financial stress on artisans; introduction of newer, cheaper, less labor intensive alternatives that tend to compete with the handmade, more expensive and labor intensive practices. The growing introduction of cheaper, substandard quality alternatives for handmade products and growing consumer culture is heavily contributing to the death of undervalued folk traditions.



Most of the artisans had been practicing the traditional occupation since many generations but, according to them, the coming generations are not interested in taking the traditional folk art practices forward. They do not want to engage in back bending hard labor and getting their hands dirty and feel a sense of shame in being associated with such forms of labor, even when they pay the same as other forms of subsistence.



Art forms like bell metal work, handloom, grass mat weaving either are dying a slow death or are adapting to changing times. One such art form is shadow puppeteering which has evolved and been improvised upon to include newer, more popular forms of puppeteering along with the traditional ones to appeal to all kinds of audience.



The role of the current education system in progressively distancing and alienating the children and youth from their immediate surroundings and nature was discussed in one of the sessions. In the chain of automatons that the school education system is aimed at producing, there is no time for the children to engage with their natural environment, hence disabling any kind of engagement. When the children do not have the time to engage with the river or observe life happening around them, how would they ever feel close to it to be willing to work towards protecting it, let alone connecting with it and feeling for it?



In line with the above, Ambrose, the man behind Farmer’s share (our home for the 7 days of the yatra) discussed the lack of respect for the farmer’s efforts in growing food as a much more serious problem than the use of chemicals in growing food.



The problem of the newer generation is that we are so disengaged with our own environment and community that we do not know how we are intricately interlinked with each other. If the generation would not care enough about its natural resources then it becomes all the more easier for big corporations and uncaring government and profit makers to infiltrate the environment and exploit its resources for economic profit.



Nila yatra made me understand how ecosystems thrive around a river, how much commitment, persistence and hard work goes into producing a pot, a grass mat, a cotton cloth. Coming across any art form in the future, I would be more appreciative of the work and certainly curious about the context and stories behind the products that I so mindlessly consume.




Navnee is from Delhi and is a recent job walkout, exploring her real interests. She enjoys travelling and meeting with communities, immersing herself in varied cultures.


P.S: The images used in this blog are clicked by Aravind Gopinathan. Rights are accredited to the photographer.

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