The Ground Beneath Their Feet

A river island being eaten away by the Brahmaputra

01 May, 2016

ASSAM'S MAJULI is the largest river island in India. It might eventually lose that title. Ever since an earthquake changed the course of the Brahmputra in 1950, the river’s erosion of Majuli has intensified. Seasonal flooding, which has always been a problem, also contributes. Between 1917 and 2001, the island’s surface area shrank from 751 square kilometres to 422 square kilometres. The 170,000 people living on the island, which is home to dozens of Hindu monasteries, are in a constant struggle to protect their land and culture.

This community, under threat from the forces of nature, forms the subject of “Majuli,” a photo series by the French photographer Dorian François. According to François, the work is not just an act of documentation with a conservationist agenda, but also an attempt at capturing the island’s ways of life. He took these photographs during multiple trips to the island, over a span of three years.

François first travelled to Majuli in 2007, while on a tour of Asia after dropping out of university. A local journalist acted as a linguistic and cultural interpreter until François learnt Assamese. He had no computer, internet or cellphone during his stay. “Once I took the boat to Majuli, I was gone,” he said. François made many friends on the island, eating in their homes, cooking with their families and working with them in their fields.

“Actually most of the time I wasn’t taking pictures,” he said. “I walked and cycled all around the island.” His subjects often seem oblivious of the lens, a sign of the close relationships he developed with them.

When François did take photos, they were always in black and white. “Light is the most important component in a photograph,” he said, adding that colours can sometimes give viewers too much detail. “With black and white there is more space for imagination.”

He was especially taken by the harmony between different tribes resident on the island, and began studying Majuli’s history.

“The island is the home to many ancient monasteries whose traditions relate to a particular branch of Hinduism, called sattriya, which, over time, has gradually united the different tribes of Majuli,” he said. “Many tribals go to the temples, they share a number of holy days together, they have business together also. There is no social tension between the religious communities.”

This idyllic view of the island is palpable in the series, and starkly contrasts against the menace posed by erosion. He said, “As a whole, I tried to show an atmosphere of a beautiful and lively island being threatened [with] disappearance, rather than the very obvious manifestations of this fact.”