Creating a spiritual successor to his previous book on India, Delhi Dilemma, in Bailey’s Naga Hills, David Bailey set out to document: “… the landscapes and personalities of the mystical and densely forested Naga Hills… home to the Naga tribes”. This area is formally known as Nagaland — a Northeast Indian state, which borders Arunachal Pradesh to the north, Burma to the east, Manipur to the south, and Assam to the west; inhabited by 16 unique tribes, each with their own distinct customs, dress and language. Inspired by Rudyard Kipling’s writing during his youth, Bailey strived to visit Nagaland but was previously denied access due to the Indian government’s sanctions as a no-go area, caused by decades of war and civil unrest; until said restrictions were lifted in 2012.
The book has a relaxed structure and a flowing narrative, as Bailey freely travels through various cities and villages, meticulously exploring and intimately documenting every dwelling and domicile, from the tribal “longhouses” — made of bamboo and timber, thatched roofs and insulation made of newspapers, magazines and other discarded ephemera — to the “morungs” (youth dormitories/barracks where the young are educated, to become contributing members of society); full of carved wooden statues, murals and totems. Few “skull houses” from the headhunting days remain, most forcibly closed or destroyed by encroaching Christian missionaries, but some survived as a defiant reminder of the Naga’s history. These communities are more isolated and divergent to the more lavish, “Westernised” homes of Dimapur and the state capital, Kohima; fully furnished, ornately decorated, but more homogenised.
This visual paradox reflects Nagaland as a country, with its rural villages (“Khel”), surrounded by sweeping mountain ranges, engulfed by its fast growing, bustling cities. The dichotomy, both literal and metaphorical, is rooted in centuries of European colonialist rule, occupying Christian monasteries to more recent industrial hyper-development by the Indian state.
Nagaland is torn between its fast-disappearing traditions and cultural heritage versus an ever-changing contemporary lifestyle, reinforced by pious, Christian beliefs; reflected in the detailed essay by travel writer, William Dalrymple, during his own visit to Nagaland:
“Longhouses, skull houses and morungs… have all been torn down, and Baptist chapels erected in their place. Where once villages competed over the number of their skulls they had collected, today they compete on the size of their churches. Most agree that this represents progress.”
Conversely, the viewer can see this juxtaposition through Bailey’s portraiture, especially the intimate, yet striking portraits shot in both digital colour and black and white film. The Angh (village chiefs), Kings, tribesman and tribal elders are intricately covered in tattoos, piercings and beads; contrasting with the more urbanised, regular-clothed Naga citizens — boxers, wrestlers, policemen, boy scouts, schoolchildren, models, musicians and politicians. Nevertheless, all are shown equally in captivating splendour.
Bailey’s Naga Hills is a complex study that highlights the various nuances and peoples of an ever-evolving culture; evoking the question of what facets of tradition and history should be remembered, continued or be left behind as society evolves.
– reviewed for Photomonitor by Paul Boyling
Below: images of Bailey’s Naga Hills, courtesy of Steidl.