A portrait of a pink-cheeked Drokpa woman from Ladakh in India's far north, wearing a goatskin cape, chunky silver jewellery and a headdress of flowers. A wrinkled woman from the Apatani tribe in Arunachal Pradesh in the country's north-east, with nose plugs (originally intended to make women of the tribe less attractive) and dark facial tattoos. A Raika male, a traditional pastoralist from the western desert state of Rajasthan, with a gargantuan red turban framing his forehead.
These are some of the dramatic portraits from The Last Avatar – a project started by Aman Chotani, 31, an Indian travel and lifestyle photographer. With a master's degree in photography, Chotani has spent years documenting the culture and lives of people in different parts of the world.
In The Last Avatar, which he began in 2018, he documents the traditions of the tribal communities of India, before they vanish for ever. Adivasis, or the indigenous tribes of India, make up 8.6 per cent of the country's population, or 104.2 million people, according to the last Census of India in 2011.
In some of the north-eastern states, such as Arunachal Pradesh, Meghalaya, Mizoram and Nagaland, the majority of the population is tribal. Many of the tribes live in remote forested regions, with little access to education. Some are not immune to the onslaught of modernity, however, with mobile phones and television sets wheedling their way into some communities.
Chotani planned for The Last Avatar to form a photo book, but it has since expanded into a digital project complete with Instagram account that he runs with Vishal Bali, Stanzin Chokphel and Roohani Sawhney. He shortlisted 25 tribes from an exhaustive list of 645, and has so far photographed half of them.
So, what inspired him to start the project? “It’s the beautiful people I met, the enchanting places I visited and in particular my guru, Louis Kleynhans, an award-winning photographer, whom I used to assist in Durban, South Africa. He used to cover the local tribes in the jungles in Africa, and also helped in building their communities, and that’s what I started doing when I came back to India,” he says. “I started travelling and documenting the tribes and got into sustainable tourism, wanting to support our culture by telling the stories out there.”
Chotani is full of fascinating insights about the people he meets. "Men in Rajasthan usually grow long moustaches. In fact, moustaches in Rajasthan are symbolic of one's social status. But have you ever thought about why it is given so much importance there? Rajasthan has been a desert state, and the moustache works as a filter. Every small thing has a logic behind it," he says.
"The Raikas in Rajasthan, are recognised by their distinctive red turbans, but not many people know that the turban performs multiple functions – from saving them from scorching heat to being a makeshift pillow to rest on, a rope when in need or simply to accommodate small essentials needed during travels."
It is not always easy to photograph these tribal communities – many are shy of strangers and social contact. "We started our journey through schools, took workshops there and got connected to the people of the village, and then connected with their families. And when they got comfortable with me, I started shooting them," Chotani says. This takes him anywhere between one and three months.
The process has been enriched along the way. "As I started working with them and my interaction moved to a more personal level, they started sharing their stories and their life experiences," says Chotani. "I started understanding them, their beliefs, their traditions and their customs. Living with them, rejoicing in their festivals and special occasions made me understand how warm and welcoming their hearts are.
“Their lives are all about sustainability and community strength. The Apatani tribe in Arunachal Pradesh collectively work on each other’s farms, use commonly owned resources equitably and even utilise waste water for fish farming.
"A few years ago, I was in Ziro valley in Arunachal Pradesh. Late at night, our bike broke down and some tribal men found us. They took us with them. I wasn't sure if that was the right decision, but we did not have many options. They took us to a social gathering with some great food, music and dance.
“Apparently, they had a match and their team had lost and they were celebrating that. Imagine. We celebrate victory, they were celebrating their loss. Also, later, they took us to the winning team’s celebration. A small incident, but so much to take from it. This shows how deep-rooted their ideologies are.”
Chotani is not only a photographer; his involvement and plans go deeper. "As a part of this project, we are publishing our first book in April, and then a series of books covering all the tribes of India and then around the world. It is being designed in a way that it gives you an understanding of how enriching our indigenous systems are.
"We also hold cultural workshops in the tribal areas that we have been travelling to. These are intended to help the younger generation realise the importance of their traditions. Even in the remotest regions, mobile phones and TVs have made their presence, and 50 years from now, nothing will be the same."
Chotani is developing "art labs" across these regions to educate school students of various tribes about their traditional art forms, rituals, language and culture. "For example, the Drokpas of Ladakh raised the concern of their language becoming unpopular among the younger generations, and how it is close to being extinct. So, such aspects will be identified and added to the curriculum," he says. Most importantly, each lab will have a customised curriculum designed in accordance with the needs of that particular community.
“I choose to call these tribes the last avatar as they are the only keepers of our true Indian culture. They are the reflection of our heritage,” Chotani says. We need not develop them, but rather we need to learn from them. They have sustained themselves and survived without being dependent on any modern-day amenities or technologies. We aim to trace these original knowledge holders, and document and preserve their practices to create a cultural archive for our future generations.”