CHENNAI: Aha na ena soluven, indha azhagiya poonga, indha vanathin perumai, aha na ena soluven. Suthilum paaru Kaani kaara kootam. (Ah, how do I describe the astounding beauty of nature and the forest? Look around, you’ll find the Kaani tribe coexisting peacefully).
A group of tribal women rhythmically sing these words, in praise of their habitat, as they perform the Kolattam joyfully. Just this one captivating shot from a five-part documentary film series, The Kaani’s — Indigenous People of the Western Ghats, on the tribe in Tirunelveli, is adequate to offer some insight into their simple lives. The five to six-minute-long episodes explore the tribe’s reverence towards nature, age-old culture and traditions, livelihood, medicinal practices, and festivals and rituals.
An enriching expedition
In July 2021, the project was initiated by V Vishnu, district collector, Tirunelveli, and District Arts Society, Tirunelveli. After an arduous month-long shoot and post-production work, the film was officially released on March 19 at Porunai Nellai Book Fair by Kanimozhi Karunanidhi, MP, and Thangam Thennarasu, Minister for Department of Industries, Tamil Official Language, Tamil Culture and Archeology, Tamil Nadu. “Fifteen of us executed the assignment without any network connectivity or electricity. Walking was the primary mode of transportation.
The tribe lives in Agasthiyar, Servalar, Chinna Mayilar and Periya Mayilar hamlets, all situated near Servalar and Papanasam dams, and Injikuzhi area that is deep inside a dense forest. It took hours to trek from one mountain to another and meet the people. Despite all the odds, it turned out to be a life-changing experience for all of us,” beams K Devabalan, the film’s director, and founder of Bright Ray Productions.
Beside it being a noteworthy project in their career, there were plenty of takeaways along the journey. “It’s inspiring to see the tribe worship and celebrate the sacred aspects of nature and its offerings. They believe that the land and people are inseparable and interdependent. They don’t fear the forest or its animals, instead, they respect them and live in harmony with the ecosystem. It was common for animals like tigers, deer, wild pigs, bison, bear and leopards to be on their prowl at night. They even reassured us that animals and humans do not invade each other’s boundaries,” he says.
Spread across five settlements, the population of 400 is governed by Mootukaani, the village chief; Vizhikaani, administrator; Moodhavan, an expert farmer; and Pilathi, the physician. “The people are modest, soft-spoken, and understanding of emotions. They did everything possible in their capacity. We wanted to shoot a wedding ceremony for an episode and the head immediately organised one where a newly-married couple offered to get featured. The entire village gathered near a waterfall to commemorate the affair. Their dressing is elegant. The men are bare-bodied but wear dhotis.
The women wear saris and floral jewellery. They speak a unique dialect of Tamil. For instance, we say thanni, they say neer; we say mizhagai (chili), they say kandhari (a spicy variety) mizhagai. They showed their truest selves to us and that adds more authenticity to the film,” he notes.
Living life to the fullest
With farming being their key occupation, they consume staples such as freshly-sourced tapioca, honey, and nine varieties of tubers. This nutritious diet coupled with rigorous walking, gives them well-built bodies.“They effortlessly climb mountains day in and day out; all barefoot. Their energy levels are incomparable! Nobody there has a paunch or belly fat. I was shocked to see a 54-year-old swiftly climb a tree and bring three harvested jackfruit.
Imagine the strength he must possess to carry many kilograms of fruit on his shoulder. Even a 100-year-old lady, who stays near the origin of the river Thamirabarani, prepares masala using a grinding stone. Catering to these men, who’re constantly on the move, are Odavalli creepers — a variety of creepers that secretes water to quench their thirst. Such miracles can be witnessed only in the forest,” he shares.
The indigenous people pray to stone deities or forest gods and goddesses for their well-being and prosperity. They are well-equipped to handle emergencies in case of snake bites or other health conditions and diseases. The hills in the surroundings are home to various herbal medicines with medicinal properties.
“One such medicine prepared by Pilathi is Garudarkuzhi kashayam which extracts snake venom from the body. The kashayam is usually served in a coconut shell. We even documented more than 30 medicinal herbs. One of their key treatments is a steam bath prepared using 102 flowers. Anybody can take an organic steam bath that will cure them of all problems instantly,” details Deva.
With all the basic necessities in their ambit, the tribe seldom ventures out of their settlement. “People are married within the community. There’s a functioning school for the tribal children. One or two from the younger generation moves out for additional income. But everything that’s required to sustain is available at an arm’s distance. The settlements got access to electricity a few years back,” he says.
With modernisation, climate change and globalisation impacting their lifestyle and livelihood, the tribe is facing an inevitable transition and grappling with pressing problems to sustain in the long run. “At a time when mankind is moving away from nature, the Kaani tribe’s way of living can be a fascination to modern man. Perhaps, this film could teach a lesson or two about living in harmony with the environment,” he concludes.
Watch the documentary series on YouTube channel: Collector Tirunelveli. For details, visit: brightray.co or Instagram @brightrayproductions
Behind the scenes
Director: K Devabalan
Cinematography: Navin Kumar
Film editor & Sound designer: Ponnuvel Damodaran
Content writer: Maria Selvam
Production executive & Designs: Paari Vasan
Colourist: Sreeram Balakrishnan (Get In Dream Studios)
Associate director: Soundhar Sakthivel
Designs & Publicity: Manikandan Venkatachalam (Get In Dream Studios)
Aerial cinematography: Balaji & Karthikeyan Kumaresan
Assistant cinematographer: Nirmal & Harish
Data management: Vinoth Balan
Photography: Bavish Balan
Camera assistant: Sakthivel & Pandi
VFX: Amarnath, CG: Mithun
Subtitle: Pradeep K Vijiyan
On International Day of Forests, we call your attention to The Kaani’s – Indigenous People of the Western Ghats, a five-part documentary series on the lives of the Kaanis who proudly coexist with nature