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  Life   Art  07 Jan 2017  The last headhunters

The last headhunters

Published : Jan 7, 2017, 7:20 am IST
Updated : Jan 7, 2017, 7:25 am IST

The project captures traditions that are on the verge of extinction.

The exhibition captures headhunters, who practised it not so long ago before it was banned.
 The exhibition captures headhunters, who practised it not so long ago before it was banned.

Shooting in Nagaland, photographer Fanil Pandya thought he is going to lose his camera while taking pictures of a man from the Konyak tribe. “He appeared angry at me for taking pictures of him. I got scared as he grabbed my camera. What he was actually trying to do was to show me how to shoot, even though he didn’t know how to use a camera,” says Fanil.

Fanil is doing a long-term project documenting cultures that are on the verge of becoming extinct. He has shot  in Africa, India and Southeast Asia for this project. It is natural for such confusions to arise while shooting in an unfamiliar territory, being new to the culture and the land.

Headhunting is banned now but the tribes and headhunters, who were involved in this practice, a decade or two away, are very much alive. “I know people who have brought over 30 heads back home. They used to have human heads in their houses  once but now most of these are buried and the tribes are moving away from that past,” he says.


“If you go inside any head-hunter’s house, there is going to be a massive wall full of different animal heads. So they headhunt animals too,” he adds. He did not push the tribe to show any skulls, even if there was a possibility of some existing. “I want to go about the process very naturally. Of course there must be skulls but I was more interested in documenting the people,” he explains.

He has also documented the lives of children and women in the tribe. “There were women who would tattoo the men after they came from headhunting back in the day, I photographed these women as well. Every element in these photos is linked to this tradition,” he says.

“The Konyak tribe can appear very aggressive. They are a warrior clan and even if they do a kind gesture, like offering tea, one could get intimidated. But once you get to know them, they are the kindest souls you can come across,” explains Fanil.

The project was shot over a period of two years. “I went there twice and stayed in their homes for my work. I stayed in close proximity with them, I ate with them. So I grew close to them.”


Anthropological in nature, his series requires more than just shooting. Ethics play a big role in projects like these. “Of course you need to be very sensitive and must have done enough research before doing your shoot. Most of my work happens before I take the actual photos. I try to get in touch with the people through local contacts. I have to understand a lot about the culture before I visit for a shoot. Research makes the whole process very smooth,” he says.

He tries to build a relationship before going ahead with his shoots. “In these conversations that I have before, I get to know if people are interested in the collaboration or not.”

He bonded well with the tribe and while coming back home this time, he was caught unaware in the aftermath of demonetisation. It was one of the headhunters who helped him get money so he could get back home.

Curator Amrita Varma of Egg Art Studio who is helping Fanil with his project says, “It is important to nurture artists. I don’t want to interfere with the natural way of an artist’s work but it is important to remove any clogs, critique and sharpen the artistic skills.”

The next in his series is a project on the Ramnami, a sect who lives on the border of Chhattisgarh and Odisha. The sect got every part of their bodies covered with the name of Ram after they were not allowed to enter temples under the pretext of them being from a lower caste. The practice started as an act of rebellion around 150 years ago. Hardly nine or ten of people with these body tattoos now remain, and Fanil wishes to document their lives next.

Tags: nagaland, art, konyak tribe