Moji Riba: Capturing oral history in moving images

Moji Riba has been working since 1997 to document Arunachal Pradesh's rich cultural heritage. Image courtesy Rolex Awards

Moji Riba has been working since 1997 to document Arunachal Pradesh's rich cultural heritage. Image courtesy Rolex Awards


“I like to think of our heritage as an elastic band. I want to stretch this as much into the future generations as we can – till it reaches its edge and snaps. Each day I wake up and hope that this never happens. But that is sadly a finality we have to stare at – unless of course, there is a revolution of some kind!”

That’s how Moji Riba, Indian film-maker and cultural anthropologist, sums up the raison d’etre for his work.

He has reasons to worry. He lives and works in India’s north-eastern Arunachal Pradesh, which an isolated remote and sparsely populated part of the country that is home to 26 major tribal communities,. Each one has its own distinctive dialect, lifestyle, faith, traditional practices and social mores. They live side by side with about 30 smaller communities.

Today, a combination of economic development, improved communications, the exodus of the young and the gradual renunciation of animist beliefs for mainstream religions threatens Arunachal’s colourful traditions. “It is not my place to denounce this change or to counter it,” says Moji. “But, as the older generation holds the last link to the storehouse of indigenous knowledge systems, we are at risk of losing out on an entire value system, and very soon.”

Can anyone capture culture – a dynamic, hugely variable phenomenon – and preserve it in a museum or lab? Not quite. Preserving the communities as a living reservoir of culture is the best method. In addition, modern communication technologies can be used to record the myriad practices and memories – the indigenous knowledge and oral history of a people.

This is just what Moji Riba has been doing for over a decade. He founded and heads the Centre for Cultural Research and Documentation (CCRD) in Naharlagun, Arunachal Pradesh. The non-profit centre, established in 1997, focuses on audio-visual documentation of the folklore, ritual practices and oral histories of the diverse tribes that inhabit the north-eastern states of India and how the indigenous people are adapting to the processes of rapid change.

Moji, who holds a masters degree in mass communication from the prestigious Mass Communication Research Center (MCRC), Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi, could easily have joined the exodus of talent from his state to the metropolitan centres in India. But he chosen to return to his roots with his enhanced skills and expanded worldview.

Over the past decade, he and the centre have made 35 documentaries for television stations and for government and non-governmental agencies. But the centre is more than just an archive or library: it is also a platform offering the tribal people an opportunity to voice their concerns and share experiences.

In 2004, Moji was instrumental in creating the diploma in mass communications at Itanagar’s Rajiv Gandhi University, to augment understanding of cultural values and local customs. He currently divides his time as head of the university’s communications department and running CCRD.

“CCRD has been using documentary films as a tool to document and understand the transitional tribal society and to share that experience through the medium of television,” says Moji. “In these 10 years, we have primarily produced television documentaries on linkages between issues of culture, environment and development and how one cannot be seen in isolation from the other.”

CCRD films have been showcased on Doordarshan, India’s national broadcaster, and various other national and international forums.

Riba teaches Hage Komo the basic camera skills that will allow the young Apatani to film an interview with his father and an animist priest, thus recording his tribe's oral history (Photo courtesy Rolex Awards)

Riba teaches Hage Komo the basic camera skills that will allow the young Apatani to film an interview with his father and an animist priest, thus recording his tribe's oral history (Photo courtesy Rolex Awards)

Years of hard work and quiet persistence are beginning to pay off. Moji has just been selected as an Associate Laureate of Rolex Awards for Enterprise, a prestigious global honour. He is being recognised for ‘helping to preserve and document the rich cultural heritage of India’s Arunachal Pradesh tribes’.

He is among the 10 winners of the 2008 Rolex Awards for Enterprise, which for more than 30 years have supported pioneering work in science and medicine, technology and innovation, exploration and discovery, the environment and cultural heritage.

Read the full profile on Moji and his work on Rolex Awards website

I have known Moji for half a decade, in which time my admiration for him has continued to grow. We first met during a South Asian TV training workshop TVE Asia Pacific organised in Kathmandu in October 2003. Since then, Moji worked with us as a freelance film director and producer. In 2005, he directed Deep Divide, a half-hour, three-country documentary on the state of environmental justice in South Asia. In 2006, he filmed stories for TVEAP series Digita4Change (in Bhutan) and The Greenbelt Reports (in three locations in India).

Moji’s films have drawn the attention of film festivals and reviewers. My friend Darryl D’Monte, one of the most senior journalists in India, wrote in 2006 about one film titled When the Mist is Lifted: “As an insider, he (Moji) is able to draw out the contradiction between old and new lifestyles and practices. In remarks after the screening, he spoke about the difficulties of making films in the northeast, and understandably expressed his reluctance to make another film on Arunachal, which has been his staple over the years.”

rolex-awards-logoWith support from the Rolex Award, Moji and CCRD plan to implement in 2009 the Mountain Eye Project, an unconventional and ambitious initiative that aims to create a cinematic time capsule documenting a year in the life of 15 different ethnic groups. They will select and train young people from each community to do the filming. This gives him access to enough film-makers as well as access to people with an intimate understanding of village life.

According to Moji, the Mountain eye Project is the result of the learnings that have emerged from about a decade’s work on documentation of the folklore and cultural heritage of the tribal groups in northeast India. It seeks to involve local communities in extensively documenting the disappearing cultural practices and traditional knowledge and to build an audio-visual archive of this data.

It also proposes to activate a vast network of outreach activities through museums in order to inculcate in children and youth, an appreciation of traditional heritage and creating respect for cultural diversity.

Watch this space.

Hage Komo gets video instructions from Moji Riba, who is enlisting local young people to capture the oral histories, languages and rituals of their tribes for his project. Komo films his father gathering bamboo in a grove outside Hari Village. (Photo courtesy Rolex Awards)

Hage Komo gets video instructions from Moji Riba, who is enlisting local young people to capture the oral histories, languages and rituals of their tribes for his project. Komo films his father gathering bamboo in a grove outside Hari Village. (Photo courtesy Rolex Awards)

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