'My camera couldn't ignore northeast India's astonishing diversity'

New Delhi : For Assam-born photographer Shyamal Datta, the "astonishing diversity of the northeast" led him to visually document his homeland in thousands of photographs, some of which are displayed in an exhibition that opened here on Wednesday.

Titled "Fire to Fire From Dawn to Dusk", the exhibition at the India International Centre (IIC) has over 50 photographs of northeast India's culture and people.

Documenting traditional ways of the people of the region, the photographs come from Datta's urge to preserve "northeastern India's vanishing way of life".

The lensman, who had bought a one-way ticket to India in 2006, after spending 30 years in the US, told IANS that the motivation behind the photographs was the "traumatic" thought of him not doing anything for the country he was born in.

Thus began for him a new kind of engagement with the northeast.

"I wanted to spend the remaining part of my life, in photographing, researching, studying and documenting the northeast, which includes the people there.

"I smiled with them, lived with them, ate with them, and fell in love with them," said the photographer, who was brought up in Meghalaya.

Why the title "Fire to Fire From Dawn to Dusk"?

"The life of a tribal in the mountains of the northeast begins at dawn. There is a hearth in the middle of the house, which gets lit as a mark of the day's beginning.

"After a hard toil in the fields, they trudge back to their homes, and light the fire again. The neighbours come together, sing songs, and eat. This cyclic lifestyle -- from fire to fire -- is getting lost," said Datta, whose journey from a hobbyist photographer to a professional one is inspiring.

"The terrifying (astonishing) diversity of the northeast is something my camera couldn't ignore. It consumed me," he added.

Pointing to the traditional lifestyle fading in the face of modernity, Datta lamented: "There are small tribes there, and once their culture is gone, it's gone forever."

"Since the closing three decades of the last century, the centuries-old values of indigenous cultures saw a tectonic impact of western value systems on them.

"Later, in post independent India, a pan-Indian socio-cultural wave hit the tribes of the region once again. As a consequence, a constant flux of assimilation and absorption of values are emerging in their life-patterns," he writes in his introduction to the exhibition.

His only "weapon" -- the camera -- is his medium of documenting a way of life, something he has been doing rigorously since he returned in 2006.

Datta also encourages youth from northeast India to be proud of their culture and take it forward.

The exhibition will be open for public display till September 21.