Framing the tribes of Bastar

Sometimes, gems of talent live in our midst for years, without us realising their presence. Ninety-one year-old Ahmed Ali, father of actor and social activist Nafisa Ali, has done a jaw-dropping 80 years of photography in India. Starting as a schoolboy who loved to click his family and friends, he went on to become the only photographer to document India’s growing industries and mines, right through the 1950s and 60s.

Now he is showcasing magnificent photographs of tribals in Bastar, Chhattisgarh at Alliance Francaise, July 12 onwards. These black and white shots, taken way back in 1956, are sure to leave one charmed.

Born to the illustrated third presidency magistrate of Calcutta S Wajid Ali, Ahmed was packed off to a boarding school in Ranchi. One of his aunts gifted him a box camera as a parting gift.
Ahmed became so fond of photography that he would shoot in the school premises in the day time and develop the prints in his dormitory at night. When his principal discovered this, he granted him a small cabinet to use as a dark room.

After school, he decided against going to an engineering college and jump into professional photography right away. The growth of industries and product promotion in India was at its peak and Ahmed got to shoot every upcoming factory and mine in the country. As word of his talent spread, more assignments came his way such as the Bastar tribals’ project.
     
The humble nonagenarian informs Metrolife, “The famous Swedish documentary director Arne Sucksdoff was planning to make a film on a young Bastar tribal. He was looking for a tiger which could be tamed for a scene. Fortunately the animal exporter who could arrange for such a tiger was a friend of mine and he invited me to join him in Bastar. That is how it happened.”

Ahmed stayed in the dense jungles of Bastar, estimated to be slightly larger than Kerala, for a month and took over a 1000 photographs. These are largely of the indigenous Maria and Muria tribe, their markets, festivals, art and craft, local temples and the forests and wildlife.
He remembers, “The women of Muria tribe wrap a cloth around their waist and throw it over the shoulder. On the other hand, Maria women stay bare-chested. That is how we distinguished between the two tribes. But what is similar between the two peoples is their customs. They adorned themselves with heavy neckpieces and tattoos, drink todi made of mahua flowers and dance with full gusto during festivals. They made for beautiful photographs.”

Other than that, Ahmed has taken some beautiful pictures of local shrines – shiv lings and large statues of Ganesha - most of which go unnamed. Then there are shots of tribal art – figurines made of terracotta and brass and jewellery. The wide shots of Bastar give a panoramic view of its dense jungles and wildlife such as tigers and herds of bisons.
Ahmed says, “I revisited Bastar 10 years back. Though the tribals recognised and greeted me, many things had changed – their innocence and lifestyle. I feel happy to have documented them in their aboriginal stage – a part of tribal history.”  

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