Updated: Mar 18, 2019
If there is any project that has come close to risking my equipment and life, it was photographing the Dhaneta Jats.
An old foxed book in my guest room , spots of deterioration and yellow with age had majestic strength to send me searching the Baani grasslands for India’s most reclusive tribe - The Dhaneta Jats. Protective, traditional and almost impossible to photograph, I yearned to see them up close.
Braving the heat and the long stretches of parched dusty desert along with a local contact, I went in search of the elusive Dhaneta Jats . In the West Baani , 100 kms out of Bhuj , my guide took me to the first Dhaneta village.
He introduced me to the so called village headman, Gulam Saga Jatt.
Dhaneta Jats are sunni muslims and proud of their community and ancestry. Gulam Saga flaunted that the Dhanetas own the ‘best milk-producing buffalos in the country’. These buffaloes are prized possessions and cost a fortune in the open market . People as far as from Punjab come to buy these buffaloes. The conversation quickly changed to the drought that the region was facing and the hardship the tribe was going through and that many families had migrated to other regions for this season.
I, then requested his permission to click pictures. They started with buffaloes and their terrain and houses, the men flaunted themselves in front of my camera proudly displaying their precious buffaloes. Funnily, they huddled together supporting their shepherd’s crook, sporting the rugged smile and brawny built in the traditional Kurta pyajama.
The Dhaneta men are proud of their buffalos . They are prized possession
However , the biggest differentiating factor between many tribes in Gujarat is the dressing and ornaments worn by their women. While men lend personality to the tribe that can be witnessed in person, women stand out distinct with their colorful clothing, jewelry and intricate embroidery.
Unfortunately, the village headman out rightly denied permission to click their women. Gulam Saga said that they do not appreciate their women being photographed. He also knew about social media and how pictures travel . This is also a reason why photographs of Dhaneta Jats is rare even on media.
On my insistence he offered that I could photograph his wife. We were enroute his house when his sister met us. Gulam Saga , after pondering a few minutes, said that I could click her pictures. But the task to photograph the Dhaneta Jata isnt that easy. The lady immediately covered herself and all I could capture was her heavy gold nose ring peeping out of her head scarf.
Thereafter he denied permission to click his wife . According to him, I already had a picture of his sister for whatever purpose I wanted a photograph !
I left the village feeling incomplete and frustrated. My guide said that getting the pictures I had managed was a stroke of luck. We started for the other Dhaneta village and offered a ride to a stranger who turned out to be a local.
The second village was about 15 kms away from the first one. En route I saw a truck carrying Dhaneta women huddled together at the back while the men were in the front seat.
Reaching our next destination, I was asked to go around some houses and click the area if I wished to. This is where the Dhaneta Jata live . The houses are made of sticks, hay and tarps.
The Dhaneta houses made of sticks, hay and tarps
I spend a while photographing the houses and the possible lifestyle the Dhaneta Jata live. On my way back, I clicked other women who were passing by. Suddenly, I found myself under the aggressive verbal attack of the men who insisted I show them what I had clicked. I had to delete the pictures taken to calm the growing aggression.
This was indeed a tough project under the Dhanetas careful 'hawk' like guard.
I spoke to the headman of this village as well. The refusal persisted. There wasn’t a chance to get a glimpse of their women. The light was slowly dying. The setting sun was taking away all hopes that I can capture some glimpses on my camera.
However just then the headman magically relented. He told me I could click an old lady living in a house nearby.
The inside of the Dhaneta house (left). Women leave instantly in presence of camera ( right)
Inside the modest Dhaneta Jat's house I met this old lady. Her face poignant with the number of years and wrinkles lending her an edge of wisdom. She started conversing freely with me. She told me that she has been wearing the large nose ring since the time she got married – almost 60 years ago. The nose ring is called 'Nathli'. It is heavy and is supported by a string of black threads pinned to her hair. It is an indispensable part of her now. All women wear a colorful long shirt and lose pants. And always cover their heads irrespective of age. Although she had never faced the camera before, she appeared nonchalant both towards the camera and my presence.
The Nathli is a fist size nose ring balanced with string of threads pinned to the hair
I wasn’t done yet, I wanted to capture more about their life, traditions and living conditions, but the roadblocks were innumerable.
The same man we had offered a ride, said that I should head to the village water source at this hour to capture some candid life moments of Dhaneta women. He also came along to convince and comfort the women and men for just a couple of pictures.
Reaching the well, I chanced upon an extreme stroke of good luck , I was just in time for the most beautiful glorious and almost enchanting sight of the Dhaneta Jat women in their traditional wear .Their colorful patterned outfits accentuating their substantial gold nose ring , carrying pots of water over their heads , slowly treading their way to their huts. A sight so beautiful and distinct - worth every effort.
I stayed at this spot for 20 minutes, taking pictures maintaining the balance of proximity, respect and hospitality. In a matter of minutes , men started huddling together and the vibes of aggression and discomfort were palpable. My guide asked me to leave the spot immediately lest I ran the risk of losing the work.
I wrapped up my equipment soon leaving the Dhaneta Jats to their private world.
As my car left, i turned back to see them disappearing in the horizons. The mirror work of their scarves shining in the setting sun like a trophy I had chanced upon!
I have resolved to come back here soon. My story of photographing the Dhaneta Jats is going to continue..
As told by Navtej Singh.