This article originally appeared on VICE Asia
As photographer Aman Chotani traveled around India, he discovered a pocket of the country which is largely sidelined. In the midst of rapid urbanisation and Westernisation, there still exists a significant amount of tribes and tribal communities in the country. These tribes, collectively known as Adivasis or “original inhabitants,” retain their centuries-long traditions and are often ignored by the Indian government and society. When Chotani realized this, he knew he had to find a way to preserve these tribes.
Enter The Last Avatar, Chotani’s photography project that launched in March 2018.
“I want this to act as an archive for future generations, researchers or anybody who might be interested in knowing these tribes,” Chotani told VICE. “To our dismay, we realized how their cultures are slowly vanishing and being forgotten. This is too big a loss to be handled.”
Chotani initially intended to capture the tribes through a photo book but he eventually expanded his vision into a digital project that now consists of a website and Instagram account. He and his co-founders Vishal Bali and Stanzin Chokphel, who are part of the production team, collaborate to produce the various components of the initiative. Writers Roohani Sawhney and Vrinda Vaid also work on the project by telling the stories of the indigenous people.
While the photo book is still in the works, they now also host workshops and art classes for tribes in their villages.
After researching the approximately 645 tribal communities of India, Chotani and the team made a shortlist for the initial phase of the project that consists of about 25 tribes. So far, they have captured 15 communities across the country, covering the regions of Gujarat, Ladakh, Odisha, Rajasthan, Nagaland, Himachal Pradesh, and Arunachal Pradesh.
For the most part, each tribe’s openness in front of the camera depended on whether they’ve been exposed to photography before. Chotani said he and his team were welcomed by most indigenous communities they visited but that some tribes were shy at first.
“It is more to do with the kind of rapport you built with them,” he explained. “I personally believe in building a relationship and spending time in knowing them before asking them to be photographed. And mostly they have happily agreed.”
The photographer found the experience to be inspirational, especially in the way that the tribes choose to live their lives.
“They had an extensive pool of knowledge to share with us,” said Chotani. “Each community was unique in itself."
His photography vividly captures the distinct nature of every tribe—from their folk music, dance forms, and artifacts. He views each of these elements as “the various gifts of culture” that the tribes offer.
Each tribe’s geographic location plays a huge role in shaping their lifestyle, the photographer said.
There’s the Konyaks of Nagaland, who live in a tightly-bound community led by traditional chiefs. There’s the Red Aryans, or Drogpas, who reside in Ladakh and previously kept themselves isolated, forbidding marriage outside of their own community. Then there’s the Aghori, a group of Hindu ascetics who perform post-mortem rituals and often depict Hindu gods such as Lord Shiva.
“Imagine living in a realm between life and death—that’s Aghori,” explained Chotani. “I see them as magical, [living] an extraordinary life.”
Chotani has also worked with the Ahir, Apatani, Bheel, Banjara, Gaddi, Raikas and Kondha tribes.
The various aesthetics of each tribe are central in each of Chotani's photographs. They're visible in the flamboyant headgear worn by the Drogpas, the regal turbans donned by the Rajasthani tribes, and the tattoos adorning the faces of the Konyaks.
In a way, Chotani’s photographs shed light on these communities that are often ignored by the larger Indian population.
According to the last nationwide census in India conducted in 2011, indigenous people and scheduled tribes make up 8.6 percent of the country’s population, which is around 104 million people. This is the largest indigenous population of any country in the world. Still, the rights of these tribes are often a contentious point in Indian politics and society. Amnesty International has long advocated for Adivasi rights, empowering the communities and making sure they are protected.
“A range of protective laws have not prevented indigenous communities in India from having their lands taken, their livelihoods destroyed and their rights trampled on as a result of business activities,” declares the Amnesty website.
The digital project also acts as a time capsule for the rapidly changing communities. Chotani observed in his travels that not all traditions are as well-preserved as others. For example, the tribes of Rajasthan still adhere to traditional modes of dressing but members of many other tribes nationwide now wear modern clothing.
This change is also noticeable in the technology, career aspirations, and food habits of some members of these indigenous groups. Chotani said that televisions and mobile phones were used by tribes “even in the remotest areas.”
“The younger generations [in these tribes] are highly influenced by the urban culture. This has led to the extinction of a major chunk of their traditional aspects,” said Chotani. “They are leaving behind their traditional setup and fast assimilating to the urban lifestyle.”
For Chotani, this is why The Last Avatar is important.
“This project is our initiative towards saving what is being forgotten,” the photographer said. “Documenting [each of the tribes] has been a soulful journey.”