You look at this frail woman in a black saree and wonder if she is the woman who understands every move of the formidable Elephas Maximus, the Asian elephant.
Prajna Chowta doesn’t leave the confines of the forest she lives in with her French filmmaker husband Philippe Gautier and four-year-old daughter Ojas, for a major part of the year. And when she does come to the city, she wants to “run away, back to the forest”.
An ethnographer and one among the handful of women mahouts in the country, Prajna bought agricultural land in the forest located at the intersection of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Kerala. The forest area includes the Mudumalai, Bandipur and Nagarhole reserves. And thus was born the Aanemane elephant camp, run by the Aanemane Foundation, started exactly ten years ago.
But why this fascination with the elephant? Why not the tiger, for instance, I ask her. “My fascination started with my interest in tribal communities, the mahouts, and their lives. The relationship between man and elephant interested me,” she explains. “The elephant has always been an important aspect in our culture and history. But when you look back, kings such as Chandragupta Maurya, as far back as 300 BC, had tamed elephants because the elephant was useful in their armies. Ancient civilisations have the elephant has an important symbol. The Mohenjodaro seal, if you think about it, has the elephant on it,” Prajna adds.
Her book, ‘The Elephant Code’, which is a result of her 16 years of personal experience in elephant camps and among mahouts, was released just on the heels of the elephant being declared a national heritage animal. It also follows the latest report of the Elephant Task Force, which makes important observations and recommendations that will have a bearing on elephant conservation. But Prajna refuses to comment on anything to do with policy. Her life lies with the elephants at the camp, for now.
The elephant has been the subject of many of Prajna and Gautier’s films, notable among them ‘Hathi’, which was made in 1996-97, and went on to win much international acclaim, including its being screened at the Montreal international film festival in 1998 and winning the Golden award at the Seoul Film Festival the same year.
The couple has also collaborated to make the trilogy ‘Elephas Maximus’. The last of the trilogy, the ‘Elephas Maximus - God and the Elephant’ tells us how the earliest memory of the elephant for Prajna was of the one at the Durga Parameshwari Temple at Kateel in Dakshina Kannada district.
Hailing from the Mangalorean community of Bunts, Prajna is daughter of art collector D K Chowta and former general secretary of the Karnataka Chitrakala Parishath Art College, and has a famous sibling in music director Sandeep Chowta.
But, that memory of the elephant at Kateel was just that. A memory. It was only later when she travelled across the country understanding the India that her school education in Bangalore never showed her that she began to understand the man-elephant relationship. In the North-East, for instance or in the jungles of Karnataka. In 1998, she took up the Old Elephant Route Project that studied the past and present migratory routes of wild elephants between India’s North-Eastern region and Burma.
Her master’s degree in Anthropology and Art History at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London, did come in handy. Her interest in communities has meant she understands the socio-economic conditions of the mahouts, the Kurubas who live in the forests, and their bond with elephants.
So, what is life like in the forest? “We live in an open house, with no doors. We have very few belongings, a few mats, a mosquito net. We have an open kitchen. There is no electricity, there is no running tap water. We have three solar panels which has helped us to plug our batteries, only lately. There is hardly any connectivity, and when there is, we make calls, if only to say ‘Hi, can we call back’?” she explains.
Isn’t being in such close proximity with elephants fraught with danger? “There is a thin line between a ‘tamed’ elephant and the wild one. I have often been reckless, asking for the chains of a wild elephant be taken off, even with a child. But, then, when you see the female elephant of our camp approach the wild elephant in a calm manner, not bothered by our presence, it is a great experience,” she says.
“I want my daughter to have these early memories of living here. That will help shape her perspective later,” she adds. And so, little Ojas plays with the tribal children, and is already used to seeing elephants, an experience not many city-bred children can ever imagine having. An elephant is to the rest of us just a presence in a temple or a zoo.
What about her daughter’s schooling? “I may be tempted to move to a town for her education for a while, but no, never to the city. I just don’t miss the city, not one bit. It is only the paper work that brings me here,” she says.
After her book launch and the screening of the films, Prajna is back to the jungle where she belongs. And it is there, in all probability, that she will celebrate her 40th birthday, come December. And the trumpets, most likely, will blare.