Vinodh Baluchamy’s award-winning documentary film provides rare insights into the life and work of organic farming pioneer Nammalvar
Two barren landscapes that people had given up on; school drop-outs society had given up on; women farmhands who supported their families, while their husbands travelled to far off lands to find work — organic farming pioneer Nammalvar brought them all together to create forest patches that throb with life. The Ammankurai social forest and the Kolunji Ecological Farm in Pudukottai are among the many miracles with land that Nammalvar spearheaded during his time. They form the crux of Thiruvannamalai-based photographer Vinodh Baluchamy’s documentary film Nammalvar’s Permaculture. Screened recently at the tiNai Ecofilm Festival, the documentary won the ‘Best Eco Film Award’.
The film is the result of Vinodh’s travels with Nammalvar over two years. Vinodh followed the bearded, turbaned farmer around with his camera, recording conversations and documenting visuals that drew him. Nammalvar wanted a film that would teach the viewer the nuts and bolts of organic farming. “He hoped to screen it for the benefit of farmers and those looking to enter natural farming,” explains Vinodh. His 45-minute documentary, whose associate director is Mohan Alexander, does just that. Produced by Vanagam and NABARD, the 20-minute version on YouTube introduces the viewer to the subject.
The film starts off with stunning visuals in black and white — the first two minutes give a wordless glimpse into Nammalvar’s world. He squats by a forest patch to collect seeds in a carry bag, marches with a pail and a sprinkler along a mud path, laughs as he chats with visitors to his farm at Vanagam…he then narrates the story of how it all began.
“I first attended two of ayya’s camps without a camera. I started rolling the camera during my third visit,” recalls Vinodh. The 30-year-old says that it was not easy filming Nammalvar. “I felt like I was shooting a butterfly,” he smiles. He would flit about the farm long before sunrise, the chill pre-dawn air howling through the 40-acre stretch of land. “I worked with him on the farm and shot on the side,” he adds, “One wouldn’t need to do yoga or exercise to keep fit when working with ayya.”
Vinodh says he got fascinating insights into the life of Nammalvar. There were no toilets in Vanagam back then and they often had to answer Nature’s call amid the plants and trees. “Ayya picked specific plants for the purpose; he would be able to tell which ones lacked nitrogen,” he says.
In another instance, Vinodh recalls how he went to sleep one night, as Nammalvar sat reading under a mosquito net. “When I woke up the next morning, he was in the same position,” he says. Gifted story-teller that he was, Nammalvar’s voice is accompanied by the sound of birds, the wind, and the rustle of leaves in the documentary. “We didn’t see the need to decorate it with a background score,” feels Vinodh. “There is a certain vaseegaram (appeal) in his voice.”
Vinodh screened the documentary for Nammalvar before the latter’s death, on his 75th birthday. “Ayya placed his work in the forefront and not himself in the film,” he observes. “But I have enough footage to create a film to show him from my perspective.”
Vinodh hopes to put together the documentary and travel from city to city to screen it. For, he knows the moments he has captured are precious — Vinodh was perhaps the only man with a camera who followed Nammalvar in the final years of his life. He says, “It was probably over ten years since he visited his Kolunji farm. When ayya entered it for the film, there was a sudden gust of wind, as though the trees he gave life to were welcoming him.”