The land draped in gleaming white desires the darkness as much as the sunshine. Every time the wind tingles the bosom of the field which carries the attraction of the universe, an aurora emerges. The majestic arctic holds within itself enigmas yet to be explored by humanity but it also cradles traces of humanity which aspire to express. Last week New Delhi heard a voice from the far-flung Arctic Circle, and the language of the expression was art.

Delhi International Arts Festival is known for its distinguished illustration of multicultural performing arts. In its 10th edition, DIAF gave a platform to a group of indigenous artists who express consciousness and discernment, admiration and dissent, love and resentment through art.

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A semi-nomad Sámi Children Northern Sweden Norway late 1800 (likely from 1884, Bonaparte)

Sámi, an ethnic group from the northernmost part of Europe is claimed by some to be the aboriginal Northern European. They are recognised and protected under international conventions of indigenous people. Today the Sámi people inhabit the Arctic area of Sápmi that encompasses parts of far northern Norway, Sweden, Finland and the Kola Peninsula of Russia.

Sámi brought glimpses of a rich culture dating back to centuries. ‘Joik’, a vocal expression of the Sámis which evokes a person, place or thing was performed by various professional ‘Joik’ artists. The cultural expression was condemned during the Christianization in the region for being demonic in nature.

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‘Uaajeerneq’ by Elisabeth Heilman Blind

Sara Margrethe Oskal, Emma Elliane, Kristin Holand and Kenneth Haetta spellbound the Indian audience with traditional and contemporary Yoik performances, creating a magical fusion with Indian Tabla artist Mithilesh Kumar Jha. Stina Therese, an actress and dancer who discovered that she belongs to the Sámi ethnicity very late in life presented a poetically visual performance narrating how years of suppression and shame moulded the emotional state of present-day Sámi generation. Elisabeth Heilman Blind, an experienced artist from the Greenland performed ‘Uaajeerneq’ which is an Inuit ancient traditional mask dance that dates back to 3-4000 years, and was in the beginning used as a fertility estate ritual. Later on, it turned into a kind of entertainment. Another performer Kristin Nango questioned the humanness and animalistic instincts through physical poetry. “Physical poetry expresses the imagination as much through the body as the mind” says Kristin who holds a master’s degree in Dance Movement Therapy.

Sámi art&culture is playing a prominent role in connecting the Sami population to their roots. After years of conquests, conflicts and colonialization Samis found themselves at the bottom of the pyramid. During the period of Christianization Sámi religion which consisted of three intertwining elements: animism, shamanism and polytheism was considered sinful. Children in boarding schools were forbidden to speak their language, it was considered unintelligible and meaningless, gradually the language faded away into oblivion. Disregard and condescension conspired to insinuate a sense of shame and silence in the Sámi culture.

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Kristin Holand conveying her emotions through her performance

Sápmi region contains valuable mineral deposits particularly iron ore in Sweden, copper in Norway, nickel and apatite in Russia. The ocean floor to the north and west of Sápmi has deposits of petroleum and natural gas. The rich resources always drew the fascination of dominant industries. ‘Alta Demonstration’ which erupted series of massive protests concerning the construction of a hydroelectric power plant in the Alta River was a turning point for recognition and revival of Sámi culture. Although the Supreme Court ruled in favour of the government in early 1982, and the power plant was built, the upheaval not only helped the disparate environmental groups to unify but also the Sámi revive interest in their culture and language. Today the ethnic group is represented by Sámi parliaments consisting of elected representatives who act for the cultural autonomy and expression of the indigenous people.

“Art has been the most powerful weapon against suppression and shame. It is the artists who have kept the flame of activism alive. We dream of an integrated society but only equality can lead up to it. It is time that we celebrate our differences as much as we revere our oneness” says Ada Einmo Jürgensen, artist and Chairman of Sámi Lávdi – Sami Association of performing Arts which is an association dedicated to uniting and supporting Sámis working within theatre and performing arts. Sámi artists exemplify how art slowly but surely can make a difference. Art can draw and unite the humanness which is in you, and in me too.

  • Rachit Sharma