Phantom India, Episode 6: “On the Fringes of Indian Society” - Louis Malle

In Episode 6 of Louis Malle’s seven-part documentary series on India, Phantom India (L'Inde Fantôme), the attention is turned to some encounters with people and groups that were ostensibly outside his principal focus, which was to come to grips with the mystery of essential Indian culture. The activities described here offer something of a potpourri, and their only common trait would seem to be that they are outliers. Nevertheless, there is an additional unifying thread in this episode that relates to Malle’s overarching theme, and that is the degree to which Indian society has always largely tolerated and provided a peaceful home for diverse customs and lifestyles. The episode successively takes up the activities of five interesting social groups, each of which has its own fascinating ways of operating.

1. The Bondo People
He first describes his strenuous hike to meet up with the Bondo people, who live in the forests of Orissa, in eastern India. The Bondo, who number about 5,000, are a fiercely independent aboriginal people who live completely outside ordinary Indian society. Their language, for example, has nothing in common with other Indian languages. The men, who are only semi-clothed, hunt with bows and arrows. The women wear only a couple of items of clothing: (a) an extremely low-hung loin cloth, which leaves their buttocks almost completely exposed, and (b) a collection of thick brass necklaces – nothing else. Unsurprisingly, their quasi-nudity attracts the attentions of Malle’s camera. Despite their primitive conditions and isolation, though, the people seem not to have minded the intrusion of Malle and his small crew.

Further attesting to the fact that the Bondo people do not seem to stand on ceremony was the fact that the boys and girls of the tribe mix together with total sexual freedom and often live in unisex dormitories, where they can better acquaint themselves with future spouses. But perhaps the most interesting aspect of the Bondo, at least to Malle, was their women, who (unusually for India) outnumber the men and traditionally marry men who are about a half-dozen years younger themselves. The principle labour of these women involves the construction of straw brooms, which they sell at a local Indian market for the extremely low price of ten brooms for a single rupee. This occasional visit to the market is the only contact and economic commerce that the Bondo have with the outside world. Amazingly, the pitifully small amount of money collected from these sales apparently all goes into buying more brass necklaces for the women.

Despite the simplicity and seeming innocence of these primitive Bondo people, however, their frequently sad countenances suggested to Malle that their lives were very hard and are far from the paradisal existence that he had hoped to find.

2 Christians in Kerala
Kerala has a significant number of Christians, and the Christian Church in India traces its history all the way back to the visit of St. Thomas, the Apostle, in 52 A.D. Nevertheless, Malle observes that Christian evangelism hasn’t made much progress in India, despite efforts by both the Portuguese and the English. The small minority who are Christian, according to Malle, are “fanatic”. The conversions that the Christian manage to make apparently come from either the highest or the lowest castes, and indeed the caste system persists just as firmly within the Christian community as it does in the Hindu community. Thus the Christianity in India seems to be something of a hybrid with aspects of Hindu practices. This should not be surprising in light of the fact that Muslims, too, both in Indian and Pakistan, also live according to the caste system.

3 Jews in Cochin
Malle also visits the Jewish community of Cochin, which was even older than the Christian community, claiming a continuous history of 2,600 years in India. Remarkable, and a further testament to Indian cultural tolerance, is the fact that India is the only country in the world that has not ever subjected its local Jewish community to persecution. But the Cochin community that Malle visited was very small, only about one hundred members at that time. In connection with such a small group, Malle disparagingly criticised their exclusive endogamous social practices, by which inbreeding, he dismissively claimed, had weakened the community and made them sickly and physically degenerate. The people that Malle interviewed, though, asserted they were very happy with life in India, where they lived in relative prosperity and free from persecution. The community population had been diminishing by emigration to Israel ever since 1948, and in fact today, it has apparently dwindled to zero. (There is still a Jewish community today in Mumbai, numbering about 5,000 people, but, sadly, they were targeted by Muslim terrorists in the Mumbai bombings of November, 2008.)

4 Aurobindo and Pondicherry
Malle and his crew next cover the Sri Aurobindo Ashram in Pondicherry (Puducherry), which is situated in an enclave in Tamil Nadu in southeast India. The founder, Sri Aurobindo (Aurobindo Ghose, 1872-1950), was a remarkable figure who managed to be a prominent Indian nationalist activist, politician, philosopher, poet, and yogi. After his political activities were essentially stifled by the government, he retired from politics and founded the ashram in 1920. He was soon joined by a French woman, Mirra Alfassa (1878-1973), who became his spiritual colleague and was eventually simply referred to as “The Mother”. She took over management of the ashram in 1926, when Aurobindo retired into meditative seclusion. By the time Malle arrived in 1968, The Mother was very frail and not making public appearances, but she was still making recordings to deliver to her followers. The ashram is attractive to educated, prosperous Europeans and Indians, and many of them have come from all over the world to settle down there, bringing their wealth with them. There is a progressive school, athletic activities, and small businesses – all run by the devotees. All of those interviewed by Malle asserted that they had found an inner peace and understanding that had led them to true happiness. Malle is nonjudgmental, but seems sympathetic. At the time of Malle’s visit, the ashram was in the process of planning and constructing their utopian city, Auroville, near Pondicherry, and it continues to operate today, with a population of about 2,000.

5 The Toda People
Malle’s last topic in this episode is his visit with the Toda people. Here, at last, he claims to have found the real, utopian society. The Toda people, numbering only about 800, live high up in the Nilgiri Mountains in Tamil Nadu and remote from the rest of the world. There they seem to live in a state of nature, all practicing free love throughout their lives. Malle asserts that no Toda girl is a virgin past the age of thirteen, and that sex is considered by these people to be a simple, natural need. In those days of Malle’s visit (1968), because Toda men outnumbered the women, women would often marry all the brothers of a given family (fraternal polyandry). In this connection and as a consequence of the prevailing free love practice in the society, paternity was impossible to establish, so the oldest brother was automatically designated to be the legal father of any offspring.

Besides free love, though, there are other attractive features about the Toda way of life. The people have never waged war, and they have no weapons. Fighting is not something they do. Although they never took to farming, they are nevertheless vegetarians, and live off milk, honey, and wild fruits. Their land is communally owned, and they have no laws, leaders, or hierarchy – complete egalitarianism. If ever there is a dispute among the Toda, a council of elders is gathered specially for the occasion in order to resolve the issue. The people, themselves, Malle observes, are generally carefree, and he captures on film their spontaneous ability to improvise songs and dances to suit the occasion. But Malle worries that encroaching “civilization” will eventually and inevitably absorb these people and divert them away from their idyllic ways. Although we are only talking about 800 people out of the vastly populated subcontinent, Malle laments the thought of such a passing –
“. . .these 800 Toda are the last remnants of a free society. They never knew war, hunger, prudishness, or injustice.”
If Malle were alive today, he might perhaps view the fate of the Toda people as a metaphor for the relentlessly homogenizing impacts of globalization on all of Indian society.

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