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The UK dancers were deeply influenced by India's 112-year-old environmentalist, saying, "She moved me."
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The UK dancers were deeply influenced by India’s 112-year-old environmentalist, saying, “She moved me.”

As an adolescent, Saalumarada Thimmakka planted her initial banyan tree on the outskirts of the secluded village of Hulikal, located in the southwestern state of Karnataka, India.

She wed at a young age, as was customary, but did not conceive. According to local legend, a childless woman who planted a banyan tree, India’s national tree, would be blessed with a child.

Despite being born into poverty and lacking any formal education or literacy skills, Saalumarada showed her passion for nurturing trees by planting a 28km avenue of banyans near her village. In total, she has planted 8,385 trees, 385 of which are banyans that she personally tended to daily.

Saalumarada has become a symbol of environmental activism for the older generation, much like how Greta Thunberg represents it for the youth. Despite the lack of records, she is believed to be an impressive 112 years old, making her one of the oldest individuals globally.

Saalumarada, considered a hero among the people of India, will have her story shared in the UK through a dance performance by a west Yorkshire company. The show, based on her life, will make its debut at the Huddersfield Literature Festival.

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The production she has supervised required perseverance and investigative efforts to locate Saalumarada, who had already left her hometown and relocated to the bustling city of Bangalore, with a population of 14 million.

Rao was familiar with Saalumarada while she was growing up. She recalls, “There were always these large corporate gatherings where people talked about the woman who planted trees and she would be present. As a child, I was never intrigued by it; it did not hold any significance for me.”

“Recently, I came across a mention of her and conducted some investigation. I discovered her story is highly applicable to the issue of climate change and carries significant value for the youth of today. This led me to decide that I wanted to create something inspired by her life.”

Rao journeyed to India in an attempt to deepen her understanding of Saalumarada. After taking three bus rides through rural areas of the state, starting from Bangalore and ending in remote Hulikal, she finally arrived at the simple dwelling where Saalumarada has resided for most of her life.

“I was moved by an incredible avenue of banyan trees located just outside the village,” says Rao. “I felt compelled to dance through them and knew I had to meet my fellow countrywoman in person to properly tell her story.”

It was not as simple as it sounded. Despite being a well-known individual in India, she was bestowed with the nation’s most esteemed civilian award, the Padma Shri, in 2019. However, she had actually planted her final tree 15 years prior, at the age of 100, and had since retired to Bangalore.

Shantha RaoView image in fullscreen

Rao asked for a potential phone number and briefly spoke with Saalumarada’s adoptive son, who informed him that she was elderly and not feeling well enough to have visitors. After some persuasion, the son allowed Rao to look at her through a window but did not provide an address and declined any further phone calls.

Rao searched the streets of Bangalore for days using the phone number to roughly locate the neighborhood. She asked passersby and visited shops and temples until she eventually located the house.

Rao caught a quick glimpse of Saalumarada through the window, but it was insufficient. After a couple of weeks, she reached out again and was finally given a short meeting. This encounter proved to be a pivotal moment for Rao.

When she recounted her experience, she expressed a deep sense of dedication upon finally meeting her. It was a feeling unlike any she had experienced in a temple before. Despite not being sentimental, tears welled up when the old woman placed her hand on hers. She felt immense joy and gratitude, feeling truly alive and in awe of the woman’s actions.

Those hands belonged to someone from the village, they were always busy with work and had never been exposed to nail polish or creams from tubes. They had never even written the alphabet. Despite being a humble peasant, I felt inferior in her presence and was amazed by her achievements in life.

Rao believes that Saalumarada may not have fully understood the significance of her actions – she continued to plant trees, possibly as a substitute for not having children.

One day, a local politician noticed that she had been doing this for many years without any recognition. Suddenly, she was praised and celebrated.

In her later years, many corporations began to show concern for climate change and the environment. They hosted large events where she was the guest of honor. However, it is uncertain if she fully understood the purpose of these events. She had a passion for planting and caring for trees, and it consumed her life.

Rao’s goal is for A Tree in Time, which recounts Saalumarada’s journey, to motivate youth to follow in her footsteps.

She suggests that even though people may not be able to dedicate their lives to planting trees like Saalumarada did, they could still plant a rose bush or an herb in a pot. In her opinion, Saalumarada’s story holds significant relevance in the present compared to any other time in her life.

A performance titled “A Tree in Time” will premiere at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield on Tuesday, April 23, as a part of the Huddersfield Literature Festival. Afterward, the Annapurna Indian Dance company will take the show to various schools in Yorkshire. Tickets for “A Tree in Time” can be purchased at: https://www.huddlitfest.org.uk/event/a-tree-in-time/

Source: theguardian.com