A triumph for the indigenous knowledge system | Counter-currents
“And then the two disappeared?! – the boy asked his father in amazement. The father didn’t answer, only a strange smile appeared on his face. The movie has ended. The audience rose from their chairs but there was still no buzz inside the theater. Everyone bewitched. The legend got us all.
I walked into the theater with enough skepticism, doubting the hype about it, but in the end I was surprised by its brilliant handling of the script. Kantara is praised for genuinely other reasons, but one aspect that deserves its share of applause is its justified recognition of the importance of folklore. To understand why this makes a special case, we must first understand what folklores are. Folklores are magical, not because they contain magic, but because they have meaning. These are not just stories and legends, they are part of the indigenous culture – a treasure trove of a deep knowledge system, known as the Indigenous/Traditional Knowledge System (IKS/TKS), which is often overlooked. or misunderstood by the mainstream.
Simply put, Indigenous knowledge is embedded in the traditions and cultural practices of communities with a long history of interaction with nature. A system of knowledge that evolved independently and before modern science and evolved in almost every community. And, it guides them in the fundamental aspects of their daily life. But this decision-making reasoning often takes on the appearance of rituals and confuses common sense. For example, a sacred grove is sacred by cultural practice, but the underlying ethnoscience is – it harbors biodiversity that can function as a source of other natural resources on which they depend. So “do not harm this vine in the sacred grove or the deity will get angry and look for a bad omen” is basically not a superstition but a pearl of wisdom acquired over time to protect the vital resources of the operation. However, a “bhumi-pujan” before plowing was not a ritual to be followed, but a cultural practice to subtly link the community to the fertile land with respect. It is a system of knowledge, as the ecologist Dr. Fikret Berkes has observed, that can be approached scientifically or danced around and told like legends. And that is exactly what is happening here.
Actor-director Rishab Shetty founded Kantara on this practice-oriented, faith-based knowledge complex that is very unique to tribal communities to animate their struggle for survival. What also seems to be a struggle to save nature and conserve the forest. And these two are often linked. Kantara showed courage to enter this interconnection, often forbidden to Indian filmmakers. Shetty braved to do it and did it remarkably.
He delivered a potent masala movie with all the makings of a typical box office hit, but the masalas are blended together so well that they transcend typicality. A grand cinematic experience that takes viewers to a completely different world, makes them believe in the legend and bow to the tribal demigod Panjurli, the guardian of the forest. The film won laurels for its sheer brilliance in multiple aspects, but a special standing ovation for Rishab for picking up this ignored tribal outcast as well as an environmental issue.
The so-called uncultivated indigenous communities may not know science as we know it, but they know how to extract the root of a plant without killing it, they know where to stop – before that tuber, that boar or that tree does begin to deplete. They know how to harvest resources without ravaging the forest. And how do they do it? Designating sacred groves, creating taboo species, observing hunting restrictions, performing harvesting rituals that imbue a sense of ethical obligation, bond them in mutual respect with nature. And as environmentalist Dr Madhav Gadgil identifies, it’s all embedded in stories, dances, rituals and a belief system – believing that “if we follow the do’s and don’ts, the half- God will protect us by protecting the forests”. Causality takes second place, all questions are respected. In the film, there are references to such cultural practices of the community. What may seem like superstition may have a deeper meaning. Anything that our mainstream science fails to understand, not necessarily native gibberish or voodoo.
Modern science has made us question everything (which of course is not bad!), but it has questioned us so much that it has made us arrogant, stripped us of a sense of respect, made us selfish and believing that if it’s not the modern scientific way, there can be no other way. This dazzling light of this chauvinistic science dries up the romanticism of mystery and blinds the fear of the unknown. Kantara reminds us of this. In the age of super-fast technology, ethnoscience reminds us of the wisdom accumulated over generations. A poetic form which is – “if you press your ears against the rocks, the forest will speak to you”. Where facts and greed bring ethics and respect to their knees, we need legends. When common sense is of no value in protecting forests and human rights and you have to fight in court to succumb, you need legends.
The beauty of Kantara is that he stands with the tribes to save their rights and their forests in their own way – rooted in their knowledge-practices-beliefs complex. And that too in all cinematic greatness made the film a true legend!
Authors biography : I was an IT professional struggling to make a mark in the conservation and sustainability space. Now, as a PhD student at ATREE, Bangalore, I am exploring the indigenous knowledge systems of the Adivasi communities of the Chotanagpur Plateau with a focus on the mahua tree and fruit bats.