Tara Douglas: ‘Their stories keep the Wancho together’

Interview with the filmmaker and cultural researcher on her work with the Wancho community.

Published : Oct 20, 2022 10:40 IST

Tara Douglas’ pioneering work has helped preserve the folktales and legends of various tribal communities of India.

Tara Douglas’ pioneering work has helped preserve the folktales and legends of various tribal communities of India. | Photo Credit: By special arrangement

Over the past three years, United Kingdom-based researcher Dr Tara Douglas has been digitally recording and documenting the traditional stories and songs of the Wancho tribe of Arunachal Pradesh. Her pioneering work with the UK-based charity, Adivasi Arts Trust, has helped preserve the folktales and legends of various tribal communities of India. In this interview, Tara Douglas talks of her work with the Wancho community and other tribes, as well as her project of presenting traditional tribal stories through animation. Excerpts:

How did your project of documenting the stories of the Wancho tribe start?

I have spent many years researching the stories and cultures of Indian tribes for two digital media projects: “The Tallest Story Competition” (completed in 2006) and “The Tales of the Tribes” (2017). The first one, by West Highland Animation, is a collection of short animated films based on Adivasi stories from central India. The second one, by Adivasi Arts Trust, began as a practice-led PhD research project and produced a series of short animated films on tribal stories, four of which are from north-east India.

I have a background in film and animation: I completed a PhD in Digital Media from Bournemouth University (in the UK) in 2015, for the research and media project, “Tales of the Tribes: Animation as a Tool for Indigenous Representation”. After that, I wanted to continue the work with tribal communities and artists, adapting their stories for animation. Film and animation are a way to engage young people from all backgrounds, including tribal communities, in indigenous narratives, folklore, and knowledge. After getting acquainted with my work, many people told me they wanted to get involved.

One of them was a young designer from the Wancho community who had studied animation at National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad. When I asked him about the folktales of his community, I realised the extent [to which] the younger generation is losing touch with their oral heritage. There are no published collections of Wancho stories, and as I was preparing a proposal for a post-doctoral research project, I decided that I needed to visit Longding district to identify stories for the animation project.

Since it is a restricted area, I got the permission to visit after several months. I went there first in November 2019, visiting several villages with my new Wancho collaborators and recording stories narrated by the elders. Since they spoke in Wancho language, the audio-visual recordings required translation. I have since returned to the Wancho area six times to translate the work and to introduce some of the young people in the village to the processes of creating animation.

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What was the experience like?

I am the first foreign woman to have visited some of the Wancho villages in the upper area of the Patkai Hills bordering Myanmar. The people were, of course, very surprised to see me when I first turned up in 2019. I was lucky to have two wonderful collaborators from the community, Banwang Losu and Jatwang Wangsa. They are both teachers and are fluent in English. That was important because the elders, who are the storytellers and knowledge-keepers in the community, do not speak English.

I was introduced to the Wancho village, Kamhua Noknu, by Banwang and Jatwang. It is a homogeneous Wancho society consisting of more than 250 households (around 2,000 people). I recorded the memories of the elders of Kamhua and five of the surrounding Wancho villages using a digital DSLR camera. The elders were happy that someone had come to document their memories, which are likely to be forgotten soon. Their society is changing fast with the coming of modern education and a more modern way of life.

The terrain is steep and the roads are difficult: I would go up and down the hills with my Wancho friends by foot. Jatwang sat with me for hours to translate the stories, helped by some others. We have recorded and translated 31 stories, transcribed them in English and in the new Wancho script invented recently by Banwang Losu. That means that we have all the material as bilingual text.

Kamhua Noknu village, Longding District.

Kamhua Noknu village, Longding District. | Photo Credit: Tara Douglas

Our manuscript, The Stories of Our Ancestors: Myths, Folktales and Memories of the Wancho of Arunachal Pradesh, is to bepublished by Niyogi Books in 2023. We have also subtitled many of the video clips which are now uploaded in a digital online archive at https://catalog.paradisec.org.au/collections/TD4

The folklore of the tribal groups of India is both unique and similar. While many of the themes recur, the details, characters, places etc are specific. Working with the Wanchos has been a bit different mainly because of the remoteness of the area, which, in turn, has preserved the tradition better than in some other regions.

The Wancho people are still traditional, which not only applies to their way of life but also to their values. Mostly unaffected by the economic changes that “modernisation” introduces, their generosity, care, community-bonding and sense of equality are intact. As an outsider, I was alien to them, but they were always protective towards me and looked after me so well.

For example, in every Wancho household, a visitor is invited to have food, unlike tea offered to visitors elsewhere. The Wanchos are deeply connected to their land, and are resourceful, resilient survivors: they know how to live in difficult physical conditions in remote places with limited access to facilities.

The folktales belong to an ancient oral tradition. Have they evolved in in their retelling over the years?

The storytellers remember different versions. Each storyteller remembers a story according to his own understanding, experience and interpretation and will recount it in his own way. They like to discuss and compare the different versions, then nominate the person who knows the story the best to recount it for the recording. The younger people may know some parts of the story, but when it comes to making a recorded version, it is always an elder who is authorised to tell it. While both men and women know the folklore, it is usually the men who are the nominated storytellers whereas the women like to sing traditional songs while pounding rice, or as lullabies for their children.

Participants at an animation workshop organised by Tara Douglas in Kamhua Noknu Government Middle School, in Longding District, in 2020.

Participants at an animation workshop organised by Tara Douglas in Kamhua Noknu Government Middle School, in Longding District, in 2020. | Photo Credit: Tara Douglas

Is the younger generation interested in keeping these stories alive?

The Wancho people are proud of their culture because it is what keeps them together, gives them a sense of identity. However, as the younger generations travel out of the villages and seek employment elsewhere, their links with the stories are weakening. They now face pressure to become educated, find jobs, and earn incomes. They are also losing touch with their mother tongue as they are taught Hindi and English in school. It is very important to keep the traditions alive for the well-being of the community, and they realise this. Which is why they are happy and cooperative when I document the stories and traditional practices.

How was your film “The Myths of the Wancho” received by the Wancho community?

I screened the two documentary films that I have made with the Wanchos in Kamhua Noknu village on December 5, 2021. It was a challenge because of the technical requirements. I borrowed the projector and generator from the school and the amplifier from the church, and a team of local boys set up a huge screen in the common ground of the village for the screening.

It was a big occasion for them because they don’t have these kinds of screening events. About 500 people attended, many of them children and young people. They loved TheMyths of the Wancho because it was about them: it had their stories and people speaking in Wancho (with subtitles). It is very important to share the audio-visual material with the community, involve them as much as possible and develop trust and friendship. Once they have seen the footage, I can screen it elsewhere. So far there have been no objections, but if there would be any, it has to be taken into account and acted upon. I depend on their feedback, inputs, and translations.

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What other tribes of Arunachal have you worked with?

I have worked with the Tani group who live in central Arunachal Pradesh: with the Adi, Galo, Nyishi, and Apatani. One of the stories in “The Tales of the Tribes” series was an adaptation of a story about Abotani, considered the ancestor of the Tani people. In 2017, I worked with Rajiv Gandhi University near Itanagar to translate and record the film dialogues in Apatani and Galo, and later that year I went back to central Arunachal to screen “The Tales of the Tribes” to local audiences in Ziro, Basar, as well as in Itanagar.

Young people from the Wancho community participate in the animation workshop organised by Tara Douglas in Kamhua Noknu Government Middle School, in Longding District, in 2020.

Young people from the Wancho community participate in the animation workshop organised by Tara Douglas in Kamhua Noknu Government Middle School, in Longding District, in 2020. | Photo Credit: Tara Douglas

Is the method of preserving folktales through animated films generating more awareness and interest?

“The Tales of the Tribes” series presents adaptations of the stories of the Tani; the Lepcha of Sikkim; the Angami of Nagaland; a Manipuri story and one from the Pardhan Gonds of central India. Animation is a good way of engaging younger people in traditional stories and storytelling. When the story is adapted to the medium of animated film, it inevitably undergoes transformation because the oral form is very different from the audio-visual. The process of adaptation is complex and interesting, and this is what I was studying during the PhD.

The animated films can only be the starting point for someone to get interested in the storytelling traditions, but it is a way to engage diverse groups of people in traditional culture during workshops to decide how it should be done. We have to do a lot of research, looking at the anthropological texts as well as listening to storytellers.

What are the new projects you are working on?

My ongoing projects include the publication of the collection of Wancho myths and folktales, and adapting a Wancho story for a short animated film. There is a lot more documentation to be done with the Wancho community and other local groups, the Mao community of Manipur, for example, are also interested.

Another project is to make an animated film on the myths of the Andamanese people. The project has started, but I will need to record dialogues for the film in the Andamanese language, of which only a few speakers are left. The work requires financial and logistical support. It is difficult to do this work in India, and I am also applying for a comparative storytelling, documentation, and art project based in the UK.

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