“Madgo and Lokkhmi belong to the Dongria Kondh tribe,” explains Karan Kumar Sachdev of the subjects of his winning Portrait of Humanity 2019 image. “I stayed with them in their village in the Niyamgiri hills for a few days.” The tribe are a marginalised community in the south west of Odisha, India, an area that has been at the centre of a land dispute for several years.
The Indian government has been campaigning to mine for bauxite in the area since the early 2000s, which the residents of the Niyamgiri hills have fiercely contested. For hundreds of years, the Dongria Kondh tribe, along with the Kutia Kondhs, and many communities of Dalits, have lived peacefully in quiet and inaccessible hamlets on the slopes of the Niyamgiri hills, but have found themselves having to fight to preserve their way of life, and their land. “The Dongria Kondh are a tight-knit community,” says Sachdev. “They are entirely removed from urban, or even rural, society as we know it.”
The discovery of bauxite (a sedimentary rock that contributes to the production of aluminium) in the Niyamgiri hills led to the construction of a refinery in 2004, and in a rush to acquire mining rights, environmental laws were violated, and the Dongria’s consent was not sought. In April 2013, the Supreme Court gave mining clearance only on the terms that the village councils give permission. All 12 villages selected by the government voted against the project, yet the fight is still ongoing.
Observing their way of life, Sachdev explained how “Madgo and Lokkhmi were completely one with nature – respecting the land, even worshipping one of the mountains, which is a deity to them.” In his photograph, they share laughter and wear traditional Dongria clothes, as Madgo perches on a yellow chair, which has become a recurring symbol in Sachdev’s work. The Yellow Chair series are portraits of different people in their own surroundings, united by a common chair. “It is a story of sameness and differences,” he says. “While there is so much that sets us apart, there is also so much that binds us together, and in keeping an anchor of sameness in the work, this interplay becomes apparent.”
Sachdev was touched by his time with the tribe, and the friendship between the girls. “Madgo and Lokkhmi have always lived in the same village in the Niyamgiri hills, where they grew up together,” he says. “They were both very shy, but some of that shyness melted into a burst of laughter as we joked in our only common language, sign language.” While the government continue to try to mine in the region, the members of the Dongria Kondh tribe remain resilient: “Let our blood flow like a river, but we won’t allow mining,” said a resident last year.
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