As anthropologists, we work with rural communities in North India in facilitating spaces where people of different genders, religions, castes and classes can come together to address social issues through verbal performative traditions.
Scripting folk tales and songs for short films, these projects have sought to engage everyone on an equal footing as actors, designers, directors, and scriptwriters. Along with our community collaborators, we have used filmmaking not only for ethnographic documentation, but also as a platform for imagining and intervening in futures.
Community-based and creative approaches to research and activism, such as ethnographic filmmaking with its potential for wide knowledge dissemination, provides important means for envisioning and preparing for what the coming years may bring.
Espírito Kashi was founded in 2011 by Rajat Nayyar, a visual anthropologist and currently a PhD Researcher in Theatre and Performance Studies at York University.
From 2011 to date, the project has produced a series of ethnographic films directed by Rajat Nayyar – ‘Antim Samskar’, ‘Thalua Club of Varanasi’, ‘Weavers of Barabanki’, ‘Vivah Samskara’, ‘Janeu’, ‘Jakari’, ‘Crossing a River, Losing a Self’, ‘Tenali Rama and Greedy Brahmins, ‘Ropani’ and ‘Kashi Labh’– that were screened in their respective communities and posted on Espírito Kashi’s YouTube channel. Aaji, the protagonist of the film ‘Ropani’, is a low-caste woman who hosted the screening herself in Burhwal village to an audience consisting of all caste groups. This screening pushed social boundaries and interrogated caste norms, particularly because it allowed upper-caste members to experience Aaji’s everyday life, listen to her songs, and engage in a post-screening discussion with her. In another instance, Jakari, a film about Haryanvi women’s folksongs, acquired over a million online views and hundreds of comments from diasporic communities all over the world. Kashi Labh the film explores the way in which Hindu pilgrims and their families stage a distinctive politics-of-care, while they anticipate and create the possibility of Moksha for their dying relative in Varanasi, India’s holy city. The film was premiered at Royal Anthropological Institute (RAI) film festival 2019 in Bristol, UK and continues to be screened around the world.
Rajat Nayyar received financial support and mentorship from Ashoka University’s Mother Teresa Scholars network in 2014-2016 to build Espírito Kashi, after he graduated from the Young India Fellowship. Over the years, this project has introduced many aspiring social change makers to the importance and ethics of working and collaborating with rural communities in designing local solutions. Motivated by such learnings, many of them have pursued careers in Media, Rural education, Anthropology and Arts. One such volunteer completed his Master’s degree in Social Entrepreneurship at Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS), by using Espirito Kashi as a case study to gauge audience reception of our ethnographic films. Such endeavors led us to receive a small fund and regular stipends in 2015-2016 from the TISS-DBS partnership.
We sought to bring change not only at the community level but also to state policies surrounding the safeguarding of folklore. In collaboration with an NGO called Leadership Projects for Bihar, our team, led by Rajat Nayyar, organized a folklore documentation drive that documented 220 artists and 400 folksongs in 50 villages within the state of Bihar. Through this campaign, many rural women performed publicly for the first time, and the resultant film was released and lauded by Nitish Kumar, the Chief Minister of Bihar. However, such experiences alerted us to the cultural appropriation, ethical, and funding issues that may arise when employing a state-sponsored model of archiving folklore.
Espírito Kashi has since begun to advocate and work with long-term ethnographic methodologies that involve providing filmmaking workshops and affording community members with opportunities to create their own folklore archives. We are focussed on finding new work ethics that ensure that members from rural communities are not dispossessed of meanings and values when development (and modern education) is seen as the only solution. As such, along with our collaborators, we have used filmmaking for the ethnographic documentation of folklore and as a platform to stimulate the imagination and enact a politics of hope and possibility. The local youth—having gained some knowledge of drama and filmmaking—further developed an initiative to create their own films that reimagine futures. Some have gone on to pursue higher education with a focus on their local folk and agricultural traditions.