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Songs of leaves and rain

Documentary >> An Ode to Marang Buru directed by Ambuja Kumar Satpathy Produced by Vasundhara 56 mins

By Radhika Panigrahi
Published: Thursday 15 January 2009

"We do not believe in temples. Our gods reside in forests," one of the characters in An Ode to Marang Buru said. Marang Buru is the god of forests to many tribal communities in Orissa. The film is about their stories; it is about biodiversity conservation. In an era, when biodiversity is fighting the market forces for survival, there are citadels of conservation led by communities, which sustain agro-biodiversity in different parts of Orissa. Ode to Marang Buru is about communities who guard these sacred groves.

The film does not talk about their unequal fight with market forces. It instead celebrates their festivals, sings their songs, joins them in their veneration of the sal and kendu trees and tries to understand how king earthworm levelled the soil for these trees to grow. There are no experts in the film; the camera is an empathetic observer as the tribal people relate their stories. At Kesharpur in Nayagarh district, for example, it melds with a group of women singing about a particularly hot summer. "To get rid of the scorching heat, we need shade. But how do you get shade when you go about plucking leaves incessantly. The shortage of leaves has to be worried about. Mind that, o burglar," the song goes.

An Ode to Marang Buru also tries to tap into the ethno-botanical wisdom of Orissa's tribal communities. A lot of this is about the sal tree, a major sustenance source of tribal people in Orissa. The film is rich in other details. It takes us to the first recorded instance of community forestry in Orissa. A local historian tells us that in 1936, Sambalpur district's Prajarakhit Samiti issued norms for forest usage. A small section of the forest was set aside for local use and the rest was designated inviolable.

The local historian then goes on to inform about other institutional arrangements to protect forests. Among them is thengapalli, stick rotation. The camera follows a group of colourfully-clad women as they go about describing the system. Village councils intimate households about their forest patrolling duties by placing thenga, wooden sticks, on their door steps an evening before. The councils determine the number of pallis, persons on duty. Every household must participate in thengapalli. Refraining from duty without informing or without adequate reason invites compensatory duty on two days. "The stick has saved our forests from destruction," a woman remarked, her eyes redolent with pride.

Community-based forest-management systems have succeeded because they relied on the autonomy of villagers. These systems are estimated to have secured nearly 1,800 hectares of forests in Orissa. In recent times, individuals have also contributed. The documentary introduces us to one of them: Sri Shramik Jogi. A schoolteacher by profession, Jogi has mobilized people of 300 villages in Nayagarh district in forest protection. The camera tracks his students as they recite: "Without trees there will be no rains, and without rains there will be no grains." It then introduces us to wizened Udayanath Khatei of Kesharpur village in Nayagarh. In his eighties now, Khatei spearheaded a campaign that rejuvenated forests around 20 villages near Kesharpur in the 1960s and 1970s.

Jogi and Khatei are among the few tribal people whose names we learn. One wonders why the directors let his proud interlocutors remain anonymous. Is that a cinematic device?

To this reviewer, a film that draws on people's voices would have struck a greater cord with a basic introduction. But that's a minor quibble. An Ode to Marang Buru evokes empathy. Will it influence our policy makers?

Radhika Panigrahi is a film editor

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