“Did you know, there are very few incidents of divorce in aboriginal people? That’s because a family is a closely-knit unit. The day starts at the same time for the wife, husband and children; they share the workload and their problems and hammer out solutions together. Since they are together most of the time, there is hardly any scope for discord,” says Harpal Singh.
It is not often that one comes across people like Harpal, full of anecdotes and stories on the lives of tribals from the Adilabad district of Telangana.
For more than a decade now, 56-year-old Harpal, a Senior Assistant Editor with The Hindu, has travelled extensively across tribal areas in the state and highlighted several unique stories in English, to reach out to a larger audience.
Born in Adilabad town in 1961, the seasoned journalist did his schooling and graduation in the district.
“My father had migrated from Punjab in the 1950s and I was raised over here. I did my post-graduation in Journalism from Osmania University (OU),” Harpal says.
“I started my career as a trainee reporter in 1988 in Hyderabad for a now-defunct newspaper called NewsTime. I later became a staff reporter and also worked in Deccan Chronicle for one year,” Harpal narrates.
Harpal took a 10-year hiatus, from 1990 to 2000, from journalism when he moved back to Adilabad and there was a lack of opportunities.
“In 2001, Deccan Chronicle started a Karimnagar edition and I applied for the post of reporter from Adilabad and got the job. I shifted to The Hindu during the 2004 elections, as they did not have a reporter in the district,” he adds.
Harpal says it always struck him that tribal persons were happy despite the harsh conditions they live in.
“The most striking feature for an outsider who goes to tribal areas would be the poverty. However, many fail to look beyond the materialistic aspect and recognise that they are still happy,” smiles Harpal.
As far as his love for travelling was concerned, Harpal says, “I adopted an adage coined by a prominent Adilabad artist called Gurji Ravinder Sharma, who said ‘Kuch dekhne ke liye mat jao, kuch bhi dekhne ke liye jao’ (Don’t go to see something, go to see anything). This really became my purpose.”
“I began travelling to far-flung villages. Initially I spent a lot of time observing the locals. I never asked them probing questions,” he adds.
Over time, he got more comfortable with the locals and vice-versa.
While Harpal can’t speak the tribal languages of Lambadi and Gondi, spoken by the Banjara Lambada and Gond communities respectively, he says that he can understand the nuances of the language, thanks to working for so long in the field.
“If I’m going for a specific story, I ask questions related to that, but I also observe their general lifestyle and their culture,” he adds.
On the tribal trail
“The tribal calendar is divided into two parts. While six months are reserved for agriculture, the other six months are marked for the spiritual journey. The locals undertake a pilgrimage to visit local deities in makeshift temples. These walks would be within 40 to 50 km from their village, and they walk the entire distance barefoot,” Harpal explains.
He also cites the example of the Jangubai (a local goddess) pilgrimage.
“All the villagers decide upon a date and then set out in bullock carts and caravans. Women and children take turns to travel on the carts, which are stocked with fodder and food grains,” he says.
When asked about how tribal persons generally receive non-locals, Harpal says, “A stranger will be as welcome as an old-timer but tribal persons are reticent about giving out information about their culture and life. People have ridiculed them and labelled them as superstitious, and they don’t want to be treated like that.”
“However, once you have their trust, they are open and will talk to you about everything. I really enjoy travelling there… the locals are so simple that you just can’t help falling in love with them,” he adds.
Tryst with photography
Till 2009, Harpal was strictly a reporter, always accompanied by a stringer photographer.
“During the 2009 elections, the photographer fell ill. It was a crucial period. There was no time to appoint another person at such short notice, so I decided to borrow a point-and-shoot camera from my friend and shoot the pictures myself,” Harpal says.
“As I travelled, I saw a decorated bullock cart and caravan that made for a lovely sight. I just rolled down my car window and took a picture. I didn’t know its value then,” he recounts.
That visual had Harpal wondering about how politicians campaign in these villages when the tribal persons were on their pilgrimage.
He later found out that the politicians took the effort of getting the itinerary of the locals and adjusted their campaigning schedule accordingly. The picture that he clicked from the car window also became his first photo to be published in The Hindu.
“Since then I’ve never looked back. I bought my first camera in 2010 and another one later,” he says.
Till today, Harpal doesn’t own a professional DSLR camera and says that he prefers lightweight digital cameras.
“This is because they are easy to handle and they suit my way of working. I like to take action pictures, when people are moving. If I take time to adjust the lens and setting, it will make my subject conscious and the candidness will go. In many cases, I just roll down my car window and take my photo,” he laughs.
In 2012, Harpal signed up on Facebook and started putting up his pictures. Though he had no sense of direction initially, his friends list kept growing and many suggested that he should come out with a coffee table book.
“Without realising it, I had a good collection of photos on tribal life and culture from my daily travels. Lakshmi Prabhala, an independent photojournalist in Hyderabad, suggested that I conduct an exhibition and put me in touch with Goethe Zentrum,” Harpal says.
Since then, Harpal’s photographs have been displayed at various places, including Osmania University and the World Telugu Conference that was held in December last year.
Harpal says he plans to continue doing what he does, until he decides to call it a day.
“I must thank The Hindu as it has been a huge support, without which I could not have done so much. After working for 13 to 14 years, I still feel that I haven’t probed enough,” he quips.