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October 15, 2021
An Elephant Memory
January 21, 2022 COMMENT comment
An Elephant Memory
By Purva Bhatia
No matter how well trained you are, an elephant ride is always a matter of holding on to dear life. As the sturdy giant ambles along, one senses how frail and meaningless our existence can be. If not for the difficult choices we make, dull monotony can quickly set in. That is the lesson one takes away from Prajna Chowta, one of the very few women mahouts in the world. Fighting resistant stereotypes with steely determination is not easy for anyone, least of all for a young London-educated woman who is sure she wants to spend the rest of her life in forests, with elephants.

In the beginning, the incredulous forest officers at Nagarahole National Park took their time replying to Prajna's application for a research project with mahouts. Wasting no time on doubters, she moved on to a training camp in Kerala. Equipped with some basic skills upon her return, Prajna was given an opportunity to work at the Sakrebailu Elephant Camp near Shimoga. She then carried on her research at camps in Bihar, Assam, Arunachal Pradesh and Myanmar, to find out the different practices used by mahouts. Today, she successfully runs the Aane Mane Foundation, which works for the study and conservation of the Asian Elephant and its habitat, and preservation of the knowledge and traditions connected to the animal.

Going further back in time, Prajna talks of her days as a student of anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. It was there that the description of cultures that were foreign to the Europeans unsettled Prajna. "The analysis of our culture by Western anthropologists always appeared to be an insidious attempt to capture the subject intellectually, without authentic groundwork," she shares. This sparked an urge to reconnect with her roots. "I was fascinated by the complex and intuitive relationship that binds mahouts and elephants. In India, this tradition is at least 4,000 years old. This is what I looked at first, and slowly learned the skills," she recalls.

But those early days were not easy as working with elephants was considered a man’s job. "Over time, they witnessed my passion for the animal and realised I could do the job," she says. "The conditions in forests are very basic. Sometimes, all you have is a sheet for cover; at best, a tent. I was with the mahouts and elephants all the time, eating together, living together," she adds.

Her family never really understood the fascination. They did not like what she was doing, but Prajna never let that interfere with her choices. Also, this wasn’t the only decision she took against her family's wishes. She also married a French filmmaker, Philippe Gautier.

He is equally interested in elephants and has made a number of films on the subject. They are both in fact making a documentary feature film titled Elephant Memories for the French television channel France5. Talking about the documentary, Prajna says: "It evokes the many questions I still have about my choices in life, and about the future of my daughter. It is shot over several years and is miles away from a regular wildlife documentary," she tells us. "Actually, we do not make 'wildlife documentaries', rather cultural films around elephants. Documentaries have a huge viewership abroad, sadly not much in India. Luckily, all our films have finally been aired here so I hope it will happen for this one as well," she adds.

Aane Mane, which literally means elephant's home, has land near the Mudumalai, Bandipur and Nagarahole reserves. This is where the couple now live with their daughter, and two elephants – Kalpana and Kunti. "The decision to start a family was also not easy. When you take chances as we did, you don’t want to risk bringing a little one into that. It’s only when I thought of settling down in a specific area that we thought it would be possible to have a child," she adds. Their five year- old daughter speaks five languages and adores elephants.

It is but natural to wonder that given the difficult decisions she has had to make in her life, what a typical day for Prajna is as of now. Surprisingly, it is rather simple: Caring for the elephants and her family, shopping, and following up on ongoing projects of the foundation. There’s even time for hobbies like reading and cooking. "Italian and French in the jungle, why not? And I bake my own country bread myself, every other day," she quips.

In the end, Prajna's story reminds one of the story of the elephant and the blind men, and the question they are symbolically wrestling with: After all, what does an elephant stand for? Her answer is this: "It is better not to define and say anything but just look and touch. Working as a mahout is something of an initiation. Mahouts are not intellectuals but some manage to understand what an elephant is, although they do not speak about it. They know it cannot be explained."
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