I had catapulted myself into what the Lonely Planet referred to as, “India’s Wild West.” Situated in the state of Gujarat, surrounded on all sides by vast and desolate salt flats, was the rugged, the wild and the tribal, Kutch. Bhuj had been my main jumping off point for exploring the surrounding tribal areas, home to some of the most embellished peoples I have ever seen.
I met Umesh, a local ethnomusicologist who had contacts with the tribals in surrounding villages. He put me on a bus with a name, and a couple of dusty hours later I was dropped on the roadside. It didn't take long for curious locals to start swarming around me. A couple of chaotic minutes later a phone was produced, a call made, and my guy popped out from the bushes across the street.
I still had no idea where exactly I was going or who I would meet, but I followed him along a well-trodden footpath that brought me to a compound of mud houses, painted in an array of bright colors. Here, the tight-knit Meghwal community lived; a group whose ornate costumes and hand-embroidery is world renowned.
While seated in a traditional bhunga stocked to the brim with machine-embroidered bags and other souvenirs, I began to realize that I was in a tourist-trap. I had come for much more than buying a t-shirt or a sequinned handbag –– I was pushing hard against my fear of a world that fascinated me but from which I was extremely removed. I was determined to breakthrough my nerves and befriend this community however much suspicion my appearance aroused.
In an attempt to bond quickly I decided that I would forgo my privacy and peace by insisting to sleep together with a family in their bhunga. They protested my wishes, claiming that I wouldn't be comfortable. I insisted. After cozying up with 5 other people on the floor of the hut that night I awoke to a dramatically different scenario than the day before. The women began to request my assistance with the daily chores, the children called me by my name, and other families invited me to visit their homes to drink chai. Persevering with friendliness and an over the top comedic personality seemed to be the right ingredients for chiselling away at the reserved nature of the Meghwals.
Day by day we let our guards down with each other and they allowed me deeper into the intimacy of their homes and hearts, finally regarding me as a sister. By the third day, they dressed me in their traditional clothing, applied surma (eyeliner) to my eyes, and offered to find me a husband! Although, the greatest sign of acceptance came from the withdrawn Uncle Barmal, who offered me a bidi (cigarette) to smoke while we sat around an evening fire. The cold stares that I initially received had turned into beautiful smiles; the ones that were the hardest to open up ended up being the ones with the warmest hearts.
Even for an avid traveler like myself, I still experience nerves when I attempt to integrate into an unknown community. I am often worried about being perceived as someone who is just coming to take things away to impress my friends. However, I know that in building relationships with my subjects the photograph is a gift given to me in gratitude.
The great Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado once said, "Photographs are not taken, they are given." So with tears streaming down all of our faces as we parted, my heart expanded a little more to make room for my new family.