Elephant whisperer | Business Line

A documentary brings alive the everyday joys and challenges of a woman mahout — a rare breed in India

One, two, three… un, deux, trois… onji, radd, mooji… a mother teaching her daughter to count. Commonplace, except that the mother is Prajna Chowta, one of India’s very few women mahouts.

Set in the Kodagu-Mysuru forest region, this is a scene from Elephant Blues, a documentary directed by French filmmaker Philippe Gautier, who is also Chowta’s husband. Screened at the Montreal World Film Festival back in 2014, the film premièred in India early this month. Beyond just capturing the bond between Chowta and her daughter Ojas, who spent the first few years of her life in the forest with her mother, the film addresses the question of choice.

After her early education at a couple of boarding schools in Bengaluru, Ghana-born Chowta studied anthropology at the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Following her Master’s, she decided to spend a few years with tribes in different parts of India. It was then that she got to interact with the people who worked with elephants.

Come home to the jumbos

The call of the pachyderm proved so strong for Chowta (46) that she returned to the forest and her roots. Rather than analysing the human-elephant relationship from a Western academic perspective, she preferred to study and understand the more intuitive and complex bond that exists between traditional mahouts and their elephants.Chowta travelled to several places where elephants were trained, from a camp in Kerala and Sakrebail in Karnataka to Bihar, Assam, and Myanmar, among others. Once she was trained, she set up the Aane Mane Foundation in 2000-01 for the conservation and study of Asian wild elephants. “Every day has been a challenge… we didn’t even have electricity in the early days,” she recalls when we meet at the Alliance Française de Bangalore ahead of the screening of her documentary. Gautier joins us and describes how they used kerosene lamps for lighting and hired carpenters to build a hut for them in the forest. The couple met in “Bombay and not Mumbai” (as Chowta insists) in the early ’90s when Gautier — whose films include Hathi, The Old Elephant Route and Elephas Maximus — was in the city for a shoot.

Today, complete with solar panels, their camp is a fully sustainable one. A typical day starts with tea or coffee, and then the elephants take over. They are let out into the forest and, while they roam in the wild during the day, Chowta busies herself with reading, writing and other everyday tasks. Once the animals return to camp, she becomes busy feeding them, checking for any wounds and so on. Currently, with the help of tribal mahouts, Chowta is training two female elephants and their calves.

Aane Mane has collaborated with French firm Geotraceur to develop and share a tracking system for elephants. Involving the use of GPS-enabled collars, the tracking system has been deployed in…

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