Vidyadutt Sharma, 83, stands in front of his blue-tinted two storey home, looking out into a 360 panorama of the Himalayan mountains. This is Moti Bagh, Sharma’s farm in Pauri district of the Indian state of Uttarakhand.
Tall, with an aquiline nose, white hair cropped close to his scalp and rugged features, weathered by work in the farm, Sharma in kurta pyjama and vest, points to the abandoned homes and locked gates. These are the ‘ghost villages’ where inhabitants have migrated permanently.
“The mountains are dying,” says Sharma, who worked for the state government and resigned when he was 28. There is a photo of him with a fierce beard, which he grew in protest to get high school status for the village school. Now, it is an Inter College, he says proudly.
Another family photo with his wife and four children, two daughters and two sons, one who died young. His wife died in 2000. “She kept us all together and whatever status I have today is because of her,” he says.
Sharma (pictured right) ploughs his land with oxen, plants seeds, hauls his own water and chops wood. He sings while sowing seeds of monkeys and langoors who pick and destroy the crops, the wild boars, cows, parrots, jackals, porcupines. In 2019 Sharma’s record breaking 22.75 kg radish won a national award and made him famous.
Cooking a vegetable dish over a wood fire he says ‘upper’ caste people have left the villages and abandoned farming. The ‘lower’ castes do all the work. With the demise of farming, producers are now consumers, people want to work with the mind, not hands, scared of physical labour, he says.
“It’s easy to write books, but the challenge is to make a tomato seed grow,” Sharma adds.
Consolidated fragmented farms would make agriculture more productive. The farms were rainfed, and when in 1976 Sharma started rainwater harvesting the villagers laughed at him.
Pauri town is 35 kilometres from Moti Bagh and built up in concrete like most hill towns. Tribhuvan Uniyal, Sharma’s journalist son, lives here with his wife and two children. Will they farm? His daughter wants to do fashion design.
In a trip to Pauri town to meet the Regional Transport Officer (RTO), Sharma protests about the re-routing of buses in their village. The bus contractor tells the RTO on the phone that there are not enough passengers on rural routes anymore. Get the buses back on the usual routes, orders the RTO.
With locals having migrated, most farmhands here are from Nepal. Helping Sharma on his farm is Ram Singh, who came here from western Nepal 18 years ago and never left. He is happy the children got to go to school, he has savings to send back to the larger family back home.
“Locals are jealous of me,” Ram Singh says with a toothy smile. When he first came, he and his family were called names and told to go back to Nepal. Now, he says, he is accepted. “I will have to return to Nepal one day or, maybe we will be made to go back,” he says.
Director Nirmal Chander Dandriyal (pictured left) is himself from Uttarakhand and his sensitivity to his protagonists shines through the film. He was born in Chennai, but began travelling to Uttarakhand more frequently around 2011. Seeing migration as a central issue interconnected to others, he felt it could be a theme for a film. But, how to tell the story? Migration was not a new issue. But while it is seasonal in other states, in Uttarakhand it is permanent.
So, Moti Bagh became the location, a microcosm to the big picture. The story unfolds through the characters, without hectoring, lecturing, or a voice over of gloom and doom. The characters in the film are fresh and rooted in the environment.
Supported by India’s Public Broadcasting Service Trust (PBST) and Prasar Bharati, Chander was able to shoot in different seasons, various stages of cultivation, and events such as marriages and wildfires. Chander’s rhythms changed and informed the way he shot. He let it flow. The cycles and pace of life quietened him. He found peace.
Moti Bagh has been picked as an entry for the oscars and will be screened at the South Asian Documentary Film Festival in November in Kathmandu.https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lHfTKPUBY1g
Moti Bagh, 2019