Bridging gaps and branding Beautiful Bastar, Shakeel Bhai tells us the story of a land lesser known and waiting to be explored

Meet Shakeel Rizvi, also popularly called Shakeel bhai, a tourist guide and homestay owner in a small village in Bastar called Chote Kawali. Warm, hospitable, enthusiastic, knowledgeable and deeply-rooted with the culture and traditions of his homeland, Shakeel bhai is a pleasure to know. Travelling all over, gathering diverse experiences in challenging situations has made Shakeel bhai the power-packed personality that he is.

Born in 1966, in a village called Dhamtari in Chhatisgarh, he is one of six children. His father was into the business of medicines and since childhood, he was encouraged to do something on his own. This was the mindset with which he was brought up. Having completed his graduation from Kundagaon, he did his post-graduation in Sociology, and started handling his father’s business. He was then introduced to NGO Saathi that was promoting livelihood of local artists such as potters, bell metal, clay and wood artists. The NGO wanted a local youngster who understands the pulse of the local culture. Shakeel bhai was more than happy to join them as he could earn a livelihood as well as do social service, something that he had always been passionate about. He was associated with the NGO for 14 years during which he was the bridge between the local artisans and businessmen as well as students from design schools who helped them develop their designs. Unfortunately, when the focus of the NGO changed and Shakeel bhai began to see the discrepancies, he decided to part ways with them.

Upon his return to Raipur, he began working with Eureka Forbes followed by another brief stint with Godrej and some other corporates. But something just didn’t seem right. He knew his true calling was in social service and he began working with the Bhopal based NGO, Samarthan. But he itched to do work for his local people – the tribals from Chhatisgarh. Around the same time, the Danish Government and the Indian Government had a project sanctioned – DANIDA (Danish Indo Integrated Project) operational in the states of Tamil Nadu, Chhatisgarh and Odisha. They needed a subject matter expert and he joined them, and worked there for seven years.

While sharing his journey on how he began homestays, Shakeel bhai shares – “There is always a local tribal market operating at any given place in Bastar. When I was in Nandgur, I saw a lot of tour guides bringing foreigners to these local markets. Once I asked a German tourist if he would like to stay and experience the culture of this place. He was sceptical as there was no facility in the village like a hotel room. I told him that I have a separate room where I could host him. And that’s how my homestay journey began in 2006. Ever since then, I have met many tour operators from France and Italy who are promoting Bastar.”

He continues sadly, “When you google Bastar, most of the searches unravel bloodshed and Naxalites. But Bastar is not all negativity. Bastar is home to a lot of tribals, lots of art and culture which will be lost and undiscovered, if it is not brought out to civilisation. Through my homestay, I want to showcase Bastar to the guests from different parts of the world so that they experience it for themselves and then spread the good word amongst the others. I have hosted more than 40 guests.”

Shakeel bhai strongly believes that the image of Bastar needs to be improved and this would be possible if at the grass-root level, basic amenities and education were made much better. So, from whatever he earns, he gives half of the proceeds towards the welfare of these tribal areas and the betterment of their livelihoods.

“While roaming these areas, we also ensure the children’s health is good and there are no problems. In case we notice anyone needing help, we guide them to Government healthcare centers. Sadly, these centers don’t visit these interior areas and the problems of these tribals keep growing. Roads that are being made are not for the benefit of tribals but only to retrieve minerals from the heart of Chhatisgarh,” he laments.

“Bastar’s culture has a unique feature of youth group meetings called Ghutul where youngsters meet regularly to discuss the culture, traditions and various aspects. However, with the Force banning such meetings calling them breeding grounds for Naxalites, we are now left with only 3-4 such groups all around Bastar who meet in constant fear. We are trying to take this up with the local authorities and see how these groups can be allowed to flourish well.”

Bastar is home to mainly three tribes – the Dhurvas who live near medium-sized hills, Bhatras who live near the plains, and Goonth or Madiya who live in the hilly region. Traditionally, people migrated from Maharashtra, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh to form these tribes, so their dialects have a combination of all these languages. They do organic farming, agriculture, make bamboo mats and baskets. They collect seeds and such produce from deep inside the forest and then come to the markets to sell their ware. They also sell non-timber forest products. Shakeel bhai has been the link for these tribals. He has helped them market their produce, their art and handicrafts and create awareness about these products in urban markets. He also provides them training to be a good guide of Bastar, by speaking English with tourists and explaining their culture and language. Young children are also taught to conserve their culture.

Shakeel bhai shares an interesting insight, “Cultural costumes are being forgotten. We need to educate the kids the value of these cultures, customs, rituals and lifestyles. There are separate music tracks developed for Gods and Goddesses called ‘Dev Paadh’ which are now fast vanishing. Since there is no script or dialect, these have to be preserved. The new generation is sadly not taking any interest. So, we want people to come here, learn, do research, script this and preserve the culture and heritage of Bastar. Lot of people are doing this in their own way from all over India, but this should not be only an individual effort.”

Shakeel bhai has travelled across the globe on many occasions. With NGO Saathi, he has travelled to many parts of Europe with local artisans from Bastar. He has also travelled all over India and done multiple exhibitions across.

He is also a linguist and speaks Arabic, English, Hindi and is also well-versed with dialects such as Muriya, Bhatra, Dhurva, a little bit of Ghundi and Chhatisgarhia. “Unless we talk to the tribes in their local dialects, we cannot establish a relationship with them. Within a radius of 30-40 kms, the dialect changes. I keep trying to talk to them as much as possible so as to maintain my relationship with them.”

An avid photographer, a numismatist and fond of traveling, Shakeel bhai has been actively involved with the animal husbandry department through annual cattle vaccines that he has been giving across 52 villages of Bastar. “Cattle vaccination was also a big challenge because as a custom, people used to sacrifice an animal or a bird so that their produce is good for the year. They started refusing vaccinations for cattle, saying that customs don’t allow it. We slowly started educating and explaining to them the importance of vaccination. We have achieved around 60% success rate in the last 14 years. We started speaking to the local priests and telling them the advantages of these vaccinations.”

Shakeel bhai has a 1 hectare land used for cultivation of different bitter-gourd varieties. This helps him earn up to 2-lakhs per annum which is enough for his livelihood. He used to live with his girlfriend who is now planning to move to the city next year. His day begins in his fields where he looks after the crops from 6:00 -10:00 AM. Thereafter, he doesn’t have a fixed schedule through the day. “Every village has my phone number circulated so that if anyone has any problems, they can call me.” He goes for a tour of the village to address any issues they may have. Many schools have been closed by the Government, so he dedicates an hour in the day to teach these children English. “We have trained a kid to speak fluently in English. He in turn trains villagers who are interested in studying. We don’t make them financially dependent on us. They need to know how to become financially independent. The government is giving subsidies and reservations which is in a way encouraging Bastar to become backwards. We are trying to educate people about this.”

When asked about challenges, Shakeel bhai is upset that the Force or the police fail to understand why someone like him would want to do anything for free for the sake of Bastar. “They suspect that I am mixed with the Naxalites. They wonder how I would want to promote Bastar’s tourism without any hidden personal agenda. The dichotomy of the system amazes me. On the one hand we want tourists to come so that it is good for us, but then there is no government support so that is discouraging tourists to travel to such places.” Shakeel bhai further shares, “The image of government missionaries has got spoilt thanks to a few people who are not doing the work they have been deputed for, in spite of infrastructural and monetary support from the government. Unfortunately, we don’t have enough power to punish them. If the government actually begins working seriously for what they are supposed to, then there is no need for NGOs and other such people to take up social causes.”

He is quick to share his dream, “People should be rightfully given what is theirs. Rural people should get equal opportunities as the city folks. The gap between rural and urban needs to be lessened. Nowadays, no one wants to stay in the villages due to lack of facilities. The government should provide good basic facilities so as to prevent people getting addicted to drinking. Kids have no growth opportunities. They are playing with dust and insects in the evening. Their energies need to be channelised properly. The class system gap needs to be filled. Only then will we be shaping a better future for our land. The need of the hour is to change the international branding of our Bastar. Many anthropologists, sociologists, and part-time volunteers come here to do research and remove the wrong notions of Bastar amongst people.”

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