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On the Artist and Filmmaker Anu Malhotra

Anu Malhotra is one of India’s most acclaimed filmmakers, with sixteen national and two international award wins for her insightful documentaries, television programming and awareness campaigns.

Anu Malhotra with camera
Photo: Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, wikimedia commons

Over the past decade, Anu has also established herself as an artist of repute. She is represented internationally and has exhibited her paintings, from 2014 onwards, in solo shows, group shows and Art Fairs. Anu’s paintings are impressionistic abstractions. She pours paint, layer by layer, giving her canvases a physicality that is sculptural.

“We live in a time when perfection alone is valued, when a sophisticated finish becomes the desired ideal. To me, it is the raw energy of art that makes a work closest to life, where the technologies of perfection seem robotic. That is why I never try to add a deliberate finish to my work. Since my paintings are sourced from the primal, the cracks and bubbles of paint, their cut and flow, and edges, are left to remain.”

Verve by Anu Malhotra
Photo: Verve

Anu draws her inspiration from the natural world and her travels in India. Her style is spontaneous, instinctive and her canvases have a primal, three-dimensionality to them. Like most of those born to the Aries natal charts, Anu’s life, her art, her work, and she herself, emanates a child-like innocence, energy, joy and exuberance.

Anu’s art work has included collections in a spectrum of mediums and materials, paintings, film, photography, writing, installations and even light-boxes and collaging. She has built structures inspired by totem poles and brought to them a playful neo-hippie vibe for spaces and lifestyles of modernity. Her collage work leans into the ‘famous women artists throughout history’ trope in a completely new and witty take. More Aries style fun.

atavistic instincts article
Art on magazine

Of all of Anu Malhotra’s work, the one project which stands out for its intrinsic value as art, as archive, and as history, is Soul Survivors, exhibited at the National Museum in New Delhi (where it should have, ideally, remained in the permanent collection).

Soul Survivors is a profoundly valuable work of photographs, film, reportage, writings, a book of photography, fabrics, utensils, jewellery, weapons, artifacts and more. The exhibit is a documentation of a people, of the living cultures of the Apa Tani, Konyak and Nomadic Tibetan tribes of the upper North-East region states of India.

Photo: AM /

“Each journey brings with it a treasure-trove of new experiences: from tracking tigers and lions in the jungles of Kanha and Gir, scuba diving in Lakshadweep to motor-biking in the Himalayas; from smoking ceremonial opium and dancing with the Konyak head-hunters, drinking rice beer with the Apa Tani to witnessing Shamans conducting divinations and exorcisms; they have all been transformative journeys. The diversity and paradoxes I have encountered across this amazing country still never fail to amaze me. Exploring the wild and uncharted, interacting with unique cultures and experiencing our amazing living traditions, almost made me feel like I was a time traveller. It is incredible how distant eras can be preserved in local cultural memory and tradition.”

Soul Survivors article

People in Museum

“Post 2000, I focused on exploring India’s indigenous cultures in the documentary format, which allowed me to spend longer periods filming, thereby giving me a deeper insight into my quest. I began with producing a series of seven documentaries, titled “Tribal Wisdom”, of which I personally directed two. I wanted to document, for posterity, some of our own indigenous cultures. Most tribal cultures had not been filmed at the time I began this project. The weeks that I spent with the Apa Tani of Arunachal Pradesh and the Konyak of Nagaland are some of my most memorable and exciting travels and adventures so far.”

Two guys in Museum

“4IR” (the fourth industrial revolution), the continued industrialization of global society, is sweeping across the planet; or the “Solar Awakening”, about which every, single, indigenous culture around the world has a mythology story, is sweeping across the planet. Either way, we know “Something is happening..” in the words of the slain President of Tanzania, John Magufuli – we can all feel it. Amidst these sweeping transformations all around us, the diverse tribes and cultures of India’s indigenous peoples may not manage to remain in the organic state in which Anu Malhotra began her intense documentary engagement with the tribes, with the sacred geography of tribal societies and with the shamanic traditions of India.

“I feel that tribal philosophy is a way of life. We have become a totally purposeless, self-serving society which has hitched on to the bandwagon of mindless consumerism and waste. We have lost our reverence for nature and basic human values. The way forward may well be back to the future. The tribal people I met in my travels had a deep respect for nature which was reflected in their eco-centric lifestyle. They were self-sustained societies who enjoyed clean air, pure water, sunshine, physical work with earth and her [abundant bounty], connecting to the natural rhythms of the seasons, eating a wholesome diet, and inculcating moderate consumption. Even the members of the older generation were usually productively employed and living robustly until ripe old ages. As most of these village communities lived like a cohesive whole, orphans, widows, the aged and the infirm were well cared for. As we teeter on the precipice of irrevocable planetary crisis, loss of critical forest reserves and biodiversity, soil erosion and pollution of air and water it is undeniable that the dominant mode of life and livelihood – in simpler words the Western lifestyle, based on super-consumption – is destructive and unsustainable. This exploitative and dominating attitude towards nature is alien to the tribal mind. Only now, are we beginning to realize that these people provide a living expression of sustainable living, and can provide a possible alternative to our consumerist lifestyles.”

“Since the industrial revolution, nations and states have given overriding priority to maximizing production, higher economic growth, higher GDP, and personal income which go hand in hand with growth of mega cities and patterns of living that make a close-knit community virtually impossible. Studies of social change, political evolution, literary and cultural history have all observed growing sense of isolation in individuals, and the loss of a sense of belonging, of moorings, the sense of community, and togetherness. Further, religious and sectarian tensions over the past ten years have brought home to us, in no uncertain terms, that we have to look beyond political ideologies, religious faiths, and economic theories to [universal] cultural traits that bind people in communities. New ways of looking at the sources of people’s togetherness are essential. Development cannot be isolated from an individual’s craving for anchorage in groups. Here, once again the tribal socio-cultural model can help us. I find the tribal world-view to be a holistic one. Tribal communities live in smaller communes with shared lifestyle, customs and values. The individual is undoubtedly at the centre, but his relationship with the ‘other’ human beings in society, with nature and with the world of ancestors, gods and spirits is integrated into a coherent system which keeps everyone rooted, secure and happy. In The World Until Yesterday, Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Jared Diamond, argues that Western societies do not necessarily offer the best solutions and Tribal societies give us a glimpse of how we all lived until virtually yesterday, in evolutionary time. They have much to teach us about [..] childrearing, old age, conflict resolution, health, [and life]”

Women at Museum

“I strongly believe that we must look towards the tribal model of civilization which has endured for millennia to course correct and find urgent situations to avert catastrophe. I believe that my films, photographs, and this book are a part of this larger project: a project that explores, documents and preserves, in both archival and more living forms, the ways of life that are fast disappearing. Where few written and even fewer photographic/ film records exist, I have put together some. Where customs are opaque and self-contained, I have attempted a conversation, a glimpse, a point of entry. And finally, what unites the three sets of films and photographs, the three journeys, is a realisation, uncanny and serendipitous, that the people talking through my camera are perhaps the last bearers and witnesses of their respective age-old customs. The land beneath their feet is transforming rapidly and irreversibly: they are, in more ways than one, the sole survivors.”

Anu Malhotra’s documentation work in Soul Survivors is an invitation that offers the aesthetics, materials, mediums and the very spirit of her exhibit as portals – even while transcending all of them, in asking for a new depth of collective introspection. It is, at once, consoling to know that we have at least these remnants left to us – and devastating, as well, to know that Soul Survivors may well be an entire way of life rendered to no more than a museum exhibit. Do we know what we are leaving behind? And will the trade-off, for a future we are compliantly creating, be worthwhile?

Deepti Datt

Deepti Datt is a writer, director and producer working in music, television and film. Based in Goa, she has worked in Mumbai and L.A. Deepti’s work as an artist includes conceptual films and installations.

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