The Spirit of change

A new documentary, Spirit, tells a story of longing and belonging in the Indian Himalayas, exploring what it takes to make a home in a remote community in the thralls of change

Dr Jane Dyson, University of Melbourne

Published 7 November 2019

The village of Bemni sits high on a wind-swept ridge at an altitude of 2800 metres, in Uttarakhand, a state in the Indian Himalayas.

I first began living there in 2003, when I spent 15 months conducting research for my PhD in human geography.

The village is in an area known as Dev Bhoomi or ‘The Land of the Gods’. Picture: Ross Harrison

I worked with children aged 10 to 18, examining their household and farm work which they juggled alongside their schooling.

Since then, I’ve continued to work with the same young people, who are now in the 20s and 30s. I’ve attended their weddings and watched their children grow up.

Some have left the village for marriage or work, and each have their own stories of success, loss, love, and disappointment.

The village, too, has changed dramatically.

In 2003, there was no road – it was a day’s uphill walk to reach the village. There was no electricity or telecommunication, and schooling stopped at Grade Five.

In the last eight years, we’ve seen the building of a road and new schools, and the installation of electricity and a telecommunication tower - infrastructures that have radically improved livelihoods.

It was those young people I worked with who were at the forefront of creating these changes, often through sustained political action and protest.

They were immensely proud of their work for their village and were keen to tell their story.

Pandav Lila is a 10-day reenactment of sections of a Hindu epic. Picture: Ross Harrison

Our first film, Lifelines, aimed to do that.

More recently, however, villagers have worried about the impact of these changes on social relationships and cultural practice. As education increases, so too has outmigration.

Several men leave in search of work (although many return) and some families are sending their children out to find better education. These shifts can strain relationships between generations, whose approach to rural lives are increasingly different.

More importantly, villagers began to question what these changes mean for people’s sense of belonging both to the community and the region.

Bemni lies in an area known as Dev Bhoomi, ‘The Land of the Gods’, said to be inhabited by some 640 million gods.

This religious history forms a major part of who these villagers are, how they relate to the land, their livestock and each other.

But a sense of belonging to a place or community cannot be assumed, it is never innate. Rather, it is created through the slow alchemy of everyday work, friendships, love and loss.

It is made and remade through shared practice and belief. Put simply, one has to work at it.

I was interested in the work, time and love that goes into creating a sense of belonging in Bemni, both at an individual and a collective level, and how this might change over time.

But I also wanted to explore how it feels. A film seemed the best way to explore that.

Through conversations with villagers, we decided the extraordinary but little known Pandav Lila festival – which is unique to the region – provides a powerful lens through which to tell these stories.

The Pandav Lila is a 10-day reenactment of sections of the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata.

It tells of the adventures of the five Pandava brothers and their shared wife. It is not simply heritage theatre but has a strong ritual purpose, believed to protect the village cows from outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease.

Without it, the gods become angry and curse the livestock.

The festival is a huge commitment that involves the entire village both in preparations and performances. The stage is set, vast cooking pots are hauled out, and each household contributes flour, oil and lentils.

Villagers worry about the impact of change on social relationships and cultural practice. Picture: Ross Harrison

Then for nine long nights from 9pm to 3am, the dancers - who are bodily possessed by the gods - enact their stories.

It’s a euphoric and exhausting ten days that binds villagers ever more closely to each other and the land.

Our final film, Spirit, co-directed with Ross Harrison, has already won several awards at film festivals around the world, including in New York, Germany and India.

It weaves together the collective celebration of the Pandav Lila with the life of an educated daughter-in-law, Saraswati, who wonders how she will ever settle down in the village.

The two threads form an intimate story of longing and belonging in the sacred landscape of the Indian Himalayas and asks what it takes to carve out a home in a remote community in the thralls of change.

Dr Jane Dyson’s new documentary, Spirit, is released worldwide on 7 November. See the Spirit website for more details.

Banner: Ross Harrison

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