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Life Lessons from Remote Cultures with Sej Saraiya

Joining me for this episode (previously recorded live on Facebook & YouTube) is award-winning ethnographic and fine-art photographer and filmmaker Sej Saraiya. She has spent the last several years traveling to the deep interiors of Asia and the Americas, capturing images that tell stories of remote cultures.

Sej speaks in a variety of forums, holds workshops, and moderates or contributes to panels at universities, museums and festivals. Her photographs have been exhibited in the U.S. and India and hang in the homes of private collectors worldwide.

On this episode of the Live. Love. Engage. Podcast:

  • Sej shares why she documents these remote cultures through photos and film
  • What we can learn from the people in these remote areas
  • How one tribe of women changed their culture from a patriarchy to a matriarchy
  • What challenges Sej had to overcome in her travels
  • How Sej managed the language barrier that arose with certain tribes
  • Why it’s so important to preserve the traditions and language of remote cultures

Connect with Sej

Website: sejsaraiya.com

Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/sejsaraiya/

TRANSCRIPT

Quick Links:

Enjoying what you’re hearing on the podcast? Subscribe on Spotify, Apple or your favorite podcast platform, and click here to leave a 5 STAR Review. You can also watch the conversation on YouTube.

Live. Love. Engage. Podcast: Inspiration | Spiritual Awakening | Happiness | Success | Life

TRANSCRIPT

Gloria Grace Rand
Namaste, stay and welcome to another edition of Live Love, engage. I am Gloria Grace Rand, your host and I’m delighted to be coming to you live as we’ve been doing on Wednesdays, live on Facebook. And actually YouTube. I’m trying that out today as well. And I am delighted to have with us a wonderful young woman who you’re going to want to stick around and listen to this and or watch depending on where you are because she is an amazing photographer and filmmaker. But I’m going to tell you more about that in a second. But first off, I want to welcome Sej Saraiya to live love engage.

Sej Saraiya
Hi, Gloria, thank you for having me. It’s such an honor.

Gloria Grace Rand
Well, the honor is ours. And let me let me just tell our listeners out there and those who are watching this live today just why I’m wanting to be able to have you on our show. So Sej is an award winning ethnographic and fine art photographer and filmmaker who has spent the last several years traveling to the deep interiors of Asia and the Americas. capturing images that tell stories of remote cultures. And her photographic work has taken her where many may or may not dare to go if I can say that correctly. Where she brings back wisdom, intimate portraits of all sorts of, you know, amazing folks from from India, medicine women of British Columbia, and on and on, which I’m sure she will get into here in just a moment. So you have really had such an amazing time doing all of this wonderful work, and you’re still quite a young woman as well. So I wanted to first off, have you start off by telling telling our viewers and listeners a little bit about what, what drew you to this type of work? Why how what prompted you to do this?

Sej Saraiya
Yeah, so, you know, I, I’ve always I’ve been a photographer since I was 10 years old. And I used to take a lot of landscapes. And, you know, because America has such beautiful landscapes. And you know, I was at this photo exhibit and talk by this Canadian anthropologist and ethnobotanist by the name of Wade Davis, in Beverly Hills. This is beautiful space called the Annenberg space for photography. And he was talking about all these remote cultures that he had spent so much time with, over, like, many, many years, and when everything he talked about every story that he shared about them, to me felt very familiar. And I felt like these people, these remote cultures who have not forgotten the old ways, there was this calling, this soul calling for me to go to them, because there was the sense of familiarity. And I felt like, these were the belief systems that I followed. And so I, my journey actually started as a means of self exploration. I, you know, I, I didn’t mean to go photograph them. I just wanted to go live with them. I wanted to see the way they were living the way they were coexisting with their lands and their animals and with each other. And I just wanted to spend time with them and also see how I felt being in that environment. And so it started as a means of self exploration. And after spending that time with them, the most natural next step was to take photographs and document them and you know, about their their daily lives and stuff like that.

Gloria Grace Rand
Right. Where did you go first?

Sej Saraiya
I went to India first, okay. Yeah, as you know, I grew up in Mumbai, which is a big city. It’s very removed from all these I mean, the Vedic tradition, the ancient Vedic tradition is very much a part of every place In India, even the big cities like Mumbai, but ancient cultures, they they have their own traditions. And so which I wasn’t familiar with. And so I started off with India, and then it just went on from there.

Gloria Grace Rand
Oh, wow. So how, how long have you been doing this type of work?

Sej Saraiya
So it’s been about 10 years now, I’m in the middle of that for a period of four to five years, it was just that, so I didn’t have a home, I was only on the road and traveling. But in total, it’s been about 10 years.

Gloria Grace Rand
Wow. So what? What have you learned, I guess, along the way, in studying these remote cultures, and what and what types of lessons do you feel that we can learn and and from from them as well?

Sej Saraiya
Wow. There’s so so you know, I really believe that spending time with these ancient cultures is a spiritual experience in itself. So every single day, you’re learning something. But if I had to summarize some of the things that I learned from them, one of the most important things was coexisting, coexisting with the land around us, coexisting with our people, coexisting with the plants and the wild animals. And we may not think, like, we may not think like that, but when we spend time with them, the thinking really changes. And I’ll give you an example in a second, but in a minute, but um, so the way they they all live off their lands, and it’s just so beautiful. So there’s this, there’s this tribe of people called the apatani people which live in northeast of India, and they’re so removed from the rest of us, that the, the way they live is they have to live off their land. And they, they practice paddy cum fish agriculture, so they have rice cultivation, Paddy cum fish, and there’s no use of machinery, pesticides, animals, nothing. It’s such a, they really like the fish serve the purpose of being the pesticide, basically. And so you know, they have all these different ways of living, which is just so it’s so conducive for the environment, you know, they they are really, I feel protectors of the environment, in their own immediate lands. And so that was one of the big things I learned coexisting. Another thing I learned was a, you know, I’ve read in a lot of books about in the Tibetan culture and Indonesian cultures, even in India, there is this belief that death is a part of life. And we all say that, you know, it’s two sides of the same coin, death is a part of life. But these cultures, they, some of these cultures actually lived it. So there’s this culture in Indonesia, Tana Toraja, who basically when someone dies in their family, they call them the sleeping one. And they then they put their bodies in the, in a little home wooden home called the junkanon. And this home is visited by the, the elders of the family and the children of the family, and they sit there and they talk to the dead one, who they call the sleeping one. And so, you know, when you live in, in an environment where the dead are among the living, the fear of death, is really non existent. And of course, they have their reasons for doing that. They, you know, they, they have to wait until they have the right amount of the buffaloes and stuff, you know, they believe that the buff… the slaughtering of Buffalo is what is going to carry the soul into the afterlife. And so to buy a water buffalo in Indonesia, in that village of Tana Toraja is very expensive. So until they can gather the funds to do that, and have a proper funeral, they have to keep their dead dead, but the dead among them when the home and so there’s, there’s so many lessons, even from the women, if, you know, I spent a lot of time with the Indigenous women because they would take me in, they would feed me they would protect me. And I learned this, this unbelievable amount of femininity that they still embody. Because I feel like in the modern world, there’s this like this very thin line now where I don’t know about, especially with me and the cities that I’ve grown up in and lived in, you know, Duke in order to compete with men. And in order to survive in the society, women have had to give up their femininity. But when you go back to these indigenous lands, and you see these women and the way they show up for each other, the way they embody their femininity, it’s really powerful. So I learned all these things along the way.

Gloria Grace Rand
Wow. That’s a… it’s inspiring, you know that you that you’ve been able to do that. And and I was struck by you know, the thought that these cultures that are especially when We were talking about in Indonesia where they have to they coincide with with the dead and and I think that’s definitely something that here in the West we you know still have like a great fear of death and and yet it really is just another part of life. It’s just a transition. So there’s so much I want to ask you about you know like what other lessons but but I did want to touch on when you you brought up women because I know one of the things that you have I guess you you spent some time with there was a tribe of women who actually changed their culture from patriarchy to a matriarchy. So I was wondering if you could talk about that a little bit.

Sej Saraiya
Absolutely. I am in love with these women. So they call themselves gypsies, but they’re essentially nomadic tribe of people who live in the West, western parts of India, by the desert. And for the longest time, they have been considered untouchables, and the government didn’t consider them as people even now, mostly the government does not, you know, they don’t have land, they don’t have rights, a lot of rights. And so because their tradition was to be wandering nomads, and they lived in the jungle, because they were ostracized from society, they could not get let, they could not have too many girls in their in the plan, because then they would have to close them and they would have to feed them and take care of them. And it’s felt like a liability or like something they could not afford to do. And so they used to practice infanticide for centuries, and it’s a really sad story. They would kill their girls, children. You know, if a girl was born, they would kill them. And it was an act of desperation. And then there was this one woman who was born and you know, she, what happened is, oh, they used to be snake charmers. You know. So when you think of India, you think of quintessential snake charmer. So these are they used to be the snake charmers. And they used to travel from village to village, charming snakes and asking for money and asking for food. And the government passed the wildlife protection act in 1972, which prohibited them from catching snakes anymore, which was their only means of livelihood. And so then the women took the place of the snakes and the women started to dance. So the women would dance, the men would play the pangi and the bean, and, and they started to get money. But what happened is that one of the women was spotted, and she ended up traveling abroad, and she danced here in America, and the dance kind of took off. And the women are so clever in that in that tribe, they’re so businesslike, and they’re so powerful that they instantly caught on. A lot of the women of that tribe started to do that dance, and they started to travel abroad, and that they became the sole breadwinners of that tribe. And so now, there was no need to call kill the girl child because the girl child was bringing the money. And so what happened as a result was that they changed their matriarch the patriarchy of their culture into a matriarchy. Not only that, they put their tribe on the world map. And they their dance was on UNESCO’s list of intangible heritage recently, it was listed on the UNESCO’s list of intangible heritage. And so they’ve changed the entire structure. And now we have international women coming to them, and learning the dance. And so they not only provide income for their own families, but they also provide income for women all over the world, because the women come and dance, learn the dance, and then they perform. And then these women call the tribal women to their countries. And it’s like such a beautiful, like, a collaboration between these women. And it’s, it’s, it’s very clever, and it’s very heartwarming, and it’s a very beautiful and touching story that I’ve been documenting.

Gloria Grace Rand
I love that and and it really is. It is it’s like a lesson that we can certainly take take to heart here and being able to, you know, just from emulating what they were able to do, being able to, you know, take control of their, their well being their their welfare, in fact, by by doing this and being able to, you know, take control of their own economy. So that’s a lesson that we can learn that we don’t have to necessarily depend on the men per se but we can work with them and we can certainly find ways that we can work together with other women to be able to collaborate.

Sej Saraiya
Absolutely. And one of the you know what you’re saying but one of the biggest things I’ve learned from them is that they they’ve done this with through art, because art is look down upon in the modern society and we’re like, you know, but they held on to their art and their art saved their life, their lives even so, you know, not only that, but you know, the fact is that indigenous people around the world, they have been forced in a way to leave their traditions and let go of them so that they can survive in the modern world. But these women have held on to their tradition. And they, they’re not only surviving and thriving, but they’re like, you know, they, they’re changing a lot of things in the country. And so I think like, we don’t, we don’t need to let go of our traditions in order to survive in the modern world. That’s, that’s one of my biggest lessons from having spent time with them and watched them and just seeing following their journey.

Gloria Grace Rand
Yeah, I can understand that for sure. How, what really excites you, in particular about the work that you’ve been doing?

Sej Saraiya
Yeah, like I was saying earlier, it’s like this, it’s soul work for me to go and spend time with all these people and learn for I guess, I don’t know, maybe I’m an old soul, but just to learn about these ancient traditions, and these ancient ways of being and interacting, it’s, it really fills me up. And so I have this like, desperation to go back there over and over. And by back there, I don’t mean to India or Indonesia, or Myanmar, I mean, back to these ancient worlds, as I like to call them and, and spend time with them. Really, photography is simply a byproduct. And so that’s what drives me to go back to them is just to see, I’m so fascinated by all these tribes, and there are so many tribes, and we’re so lucky that they haven’t faded away, there’s so many tribes that are still thriving, and I just want to, I want them to thrive, I want people to realize how important it is for us to have this polychromatic world where we’re not all just modern and believing in one thing, but this beauty of this difference, and this the way, you know, to be connected to our roots, and to have this connection with this planet that we’re living on that we’ve so easily seem to have forgotten that they haven’t.

Gloria Grace Rand
Yeah, it is so important to be able to do that. Because we Yeah, it’s been. I mean, certainly here in the United States, we’ve, we’ve gotten to be so fraught with conflict, and it’s, you know, it’s me versus them. And, you know, to be able to see that there are other cultures in the world, and that they do manage to survive, not only survive, but to thrive, and they are, you know, still in continuing their traditions, and there’s so much that we can learn from them. You know, one of one thing that struck me, I started, I started thinking about it, as you were talking is that how do you manage like language differences? And when you’re when you’re visiting these different cultures? So how are you able to communicate?

Sej Saraiya
That’s such a great question. Yeah, so there are there have been tribes where I’ve had to, had to have just gestures to communicate. But what I usually do is I find one local kid in every culture that I go to who speaks English, you know, because the reality is, however removed these tribes are, everybody has access to cell phones. And so there’s always this one local kid who runs the lobby of some hotel or like not a hotel, but a guest house, or even if, when I go to tribes, where there are no hotels and guest houses, there’s still always this one kid who if he, you know, he speaks broken English. And so I always find that one kid, and I adopt him and I’m like, Okay, you’re going to be my partner in crime, and we’re going to go go on an adventure. And so that’s what I usually do.

Gloria Grace Rand
I love that. And it usually is, you know, that the youth are so quick to be able to pick up languages number one, and so that’s very smart to be able to, you know, connect with them. Yeah, cuz I’m trying to learn Hungarian at my age now, which was something that was my grandparents were from Hungary. And it’s like, I kick myself now for that try doing it when I was a kid, but I’m getting I’m getting there. What, what’s been the biggest challenge you’ve had to maybe that you might have faced or had to overcome in in doing all these projects?

Sej Saraiya
Yeah, um, you know, initially when I started, I come from a big city, and I come from Mumbai, and then I lived in LA. And so there’s this. There’s this invisible boundary between people that you know, you can do certain things with certain people, but you can’t behave in a certain way. And you can’t look there are these preconceived notions, and there are these beliefs. And so I had this boundary. And so one of the biggest challenges for me starting out was to get, let that boundary kind of just melt away, and really let myself immerse into the culture without the fear of something bad happening. Because the reality is that once I let go of the boundary, nothing bad happened to me actually knock on wood, but inherently people are very good, they’re very beautiful. And it really depends on what kind of energy we go in with. So boundary was a big thing. But another really big problem for me, especially with the kind of traveling that I do was this, this need to control because, of course, again, I come from a city and you know, I need to know how I’m going to get somewhere and what’s going to happen when I get there, and how things are going to work out. But, but the reality is, when you travel to these lands, there is no such thing as, as having control, you really have to let go and go with the flow. Because there were times when in order to get to a village, there would be no means of transportation at all. And the only way to get there would be this gigantic truck filled with turmeric on in, you know, fresh turmeric that they were going to deliver in these different villages. And I would have to be right there on top of it to get there. And so this happened a lot later. But in the beginning, I wouldn’t have even done something like that, because I’m like, No, it has to be exactly the way I want it. Off control was a big,

Gloria Grace Rand
absolutely. Yeah, yeah. I, I know about that, about wanting to be in control in it. And there is something that we do have to learn to let go of, and especially when you are in a foreign country, I’ve I’ve only had the opportunity to travel to a couple other countries in Europe. But you know, again, I didn’t know the language and and just having to rely on others to help. It’s it’s very important. But I think it’s an important lesson for us to be able to do that, to know that. We it’s important to let others help us and that we don’t have to always do everything ourselves and to be open to that. And so I’m glad that you were able to be open to these different experiences. And yeah, I can only I’m just was picturing yourself on this truck with the trailer must have been something um, I know you you said that you’re not only are you photographer, but you’re also a filmmaker. Do you have a preference between one or the other? Or? Or is it just different ways to be able to express yourself?

Sej Saraiya
I love photography, it’s, for me, it’s like, you know, it’s something I’ve been doing since I was 10. It’s something I feel like I’ve really gotten the hang of. Filmmaking for me is difficult with the big equipment, especially with the kind of traveling that I do, you know, filmmaking, if I was in LA, it would be a different situation. But with the kind of traveling I do, it’s, it’s hard to have such heavy equipment with you all the time. But you know, the thing is, what I noticed was that, for example, when I was in the land of the headhunters in northeast of India, I didn’t know what I was getting into. And I was gonna, I was photographing them. But then I was, I was sitting around the fire with them in this like, very intimate moment where they were sharing their stories. And this local boy was translating for me. And I suddenly realized that Oh, my God, this is the last generation, like, it’s true. They’re in the last 10 years, probably of their lives. And after this, none of them are gonna remain like they are the their children will, but they’re not headhunters anymore. And so while they were talking, I was listening to their voice and their language, and it was so beautiful. And that’s when it really struck me. I was like, wow, photography has its limitations when you go to lands like this, where there are cultures, and I hate to use the word fading, but the reality is, yes, languages are disappearing around the world. And so all these tribes where these beautiful languages, which you know, have words that you cannot translate to English, when those are sort of fading because the kids are not learning it. I feel like I feel this responsibility toward filmmaking. I want to preserve it in a way you know, I don’t know what I want to do with it, but I need I feel the need to record it. And so that’s why I really shifted to filmmaking but it’s it wasn’t my first choice, but I really see the power of filmmaking that photography might lack.

Gloria Grace Rand
Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. And you’re right, because I know I have heard this over and over again, that these languages are disappearing. Because for what I mean, English is gotten to be like this default language around the world, which is great to be able to communicate. And there’s something to be said for being able to preserve a culture’s language. And, and, like I said, and it’s also, you know, a good challenge to try to learn those languages, because I think it’s also it gives you a new appreciation for, for the culture and the way people speak and how they put things together. You know, something, what you just said, also, sort of, you know, talking about them, the impact of being able to, you know, film and being able to protect is, I was just wondering if there’s a broader impact that you want to be able to have on planet earth during your lifetime? What that would be,

Sej Saraiya
wow, yes, if there was a big impact that I had to have, if I could be ambitious enough to say it would be the present not only the preservation of these ancient traditions, but sort of this vast awareness of these ancient traditions, like, I think that’s what I want to spread. So through my photography, or my films, or I just want, I just want people to hear these different languages, and people to learn these different ways of living. Because what happens is, I think, we’re, we’re, yeah, we’re going toward more global civilization. But we’re also starting to become, we’re all going, like we’re funneling our tradition in not tradition. But what what I mean to say is that traditions are getting lost. And we’re not, we don’t realize it, because we’re so stuck in this modern society and things that it entails. And so what I want to bring back is this, this awareness of these traditions, and maybe people can adopt certain parts of them here and there, like coexisting with the wild animals or coexisting with the land and so that we can really experience that oneness, that so many of these ancient traditions talk about this oneness, this eternal oneness, we’re all one, you know, this universal consciousness, and so that it doesn’t just become something we talk about, or something we read in books, but something we actually adopt into our lives, by simply understanding that there’s a different way of living and being and seeing, you know, our lives and the planet that we’re living on.

Gloria Grace Rand
Yeah, absolutely, that is such a good reminder for us and, and it really is important to be able to take care of this planet that we’re living on and to, to realize that we can, we can actually learn a lot from from the land and and to be able to take care of it. So there’s a lot we can learn from other cultures, as you say, so I, I hope that we can, the work that you’re doing and work of other organizations out there that will be able to help and keep keep these different traditions alive and awaken people to the need to do that, you know that it is important. If you had say like one message that you want to be able to impart to someone who is out there, maybe they’re curious about the work that you’re doing or curious about other cultures, what what would you tell them?

Sej Saraiya
Yeah, what I would say is that let’s educate ourselves about these cultures and let’s visit them in whatever way we can so you know, if you can’t actually visit them in person, then maybe see documentaries, watch documentaries on them. What I’ve noticed in my travels, which has really broken my heart, time and again, is there a lot of tours that people pay 1000s of dollars to go visit these cultures, for example, the the ring necked women of Myanmar, or the headhunters of India, there are these gigantic buses and fancy cars are filled with tourists that come to see these people. And then I’ve had tourists I’ve seen tourists come take photographs of these people objectifying them, it’s almost like a zoo. And it really breaks my heart because when you travel so far to these cultures, there is this opportunity to see someone and understand someone who is so different from you and learn something from them, maybe give back something as well, to give back a piece of yourself. And so I think that that sort of interaction is very, very important, asking questions, and not just objectifying these different tribes, because we, we are all just one. And there’s so much we can learn from each other. And so I think what I would say is to be cognizant of that, and not, not objectify them, but rather go with the curiosity, and remember that they don’t need us, we don’t need them. And that they’re not, they’re not not like us, because they can’t, it’s just that they don’t have the need to do so. And so we can go as humble, we can go with humility, and as students to learn, and maybe give back a piece of ourselves, but we don’t need to change the world and make it into one. One thing. And so that’s what I would say,

Gloria Grace Rand
Absolutely. Yeah, we get this and again, maybe this is especially here with us in the United States but we have this idea that we’re superior. And that these other third world cultures and things like that are, that we have to fix them somehow because they’re not as up to date or technologically savvy as we are. And yet as you mentioned, even in these remote tribes they still have cell phones. So evidently they still have those, and yet they’re still able to live cooperatively with the land and with each other and so we do need to encourage them. Yeah. I saw your Facebook post where you had put about these women and they were just being, as if they were in a zoo and forgetting that we are all human beings. They are human beings just like you. They’ve got blood and flesh and created in God’s image, whatever God you believe in, but it’s still some sort of higher power we’re all connected and that we should treat each other with respect. And I love how there are now, I know that I have seen this organizations or even tour companies where they will even plan trips where you do get to take part in things in the local culture. You’re not just going to the touristy places, but you’re actually getting to maybe have a meal with a local family. And things like that. And I would personally love to do something like that because I want to be able to learn as much as I can from other people because I know I don’t know it all. And I know there are lots of people who know more. So I hope people can do that. Is there anything else that I should have asked you today that I didn’t that you’d like to talk about?

Sej Saraiya
I mean you would have to ask me a question because these five years to condense them into a 30 minute conversation, there’s just so much that I could talk about. But no I’m just. No. I think we’re good.

Gloria Grace Rand
Ok. Good. I’m glad. Well, how about this? If our listeners would like to get in touch with you, maybe see some of your work, wonderful photographs that you’ve done and the films, where is the best place for people to do that?

Sej Saraiya
Well I think I have a lot of stuff on my website. So that would be the best place to find other stuff as well. And so my best website and my instagram would be the best place to connect with me.

Gloria Grace Rand
Ok. Awesome. I’ll be sure and have all of that information in the show notes. I actually have your website going by if you’re watching right now on the video as well. It’s your name sejsaraiya dot com. But for those… we’ll spell it out for you, don’t worry. And so this has been a wonderful time to get to know you. I really appreciate you being here on the show and I just look forward to seeing more of your work. I’m glad we’ve connected and look forward to seeing what else you’ve got in the pipeline, so to speak.

Sej Saraiya
Thanks Gloria.

Gloria Grace Rand
Thank you again for being here. We really appreciate it.

Sej Saraiya
Yeah. Thank you so much. Thank you for the great questions as well.

Gloria Grace Rand
You’re welcome. And thank all of you for watching today and for listening. If you’ll be catching it on the replay. I appreciate you and make sure you tune in again to Live. Love. Engage. Make sure you’re subscribed on your favorite podcast platform and on YouTube. You can connect with me as well on Facebook at gloria grace rand. And until next time as always I encourage you to go out and live fully, love deeply, and engage authentically.

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About the Author
Known as The Insightful Copywriter, Gloria Grace Rand is also an inspirational speaker, author and host of the Live. Love. Engage. podcast. Prior to launching her SEO Copywriting business in 2009, Gloria spent nearly two decades in television, most notably as writer and producer for the award-winning PBS financial news program, “Nightly Business Report.”

Gloria turned to writing as a way to communicate, since growing up with an alcoholic father and abusive mother taught her that it was safer to be seen and not heard. But not speaking her truth caused Gloria problems such as overeating, control issues, and an inability to fully trust people. After investing in coaching & personal development programs, and studying spiritual books like “A Course in Miracles,” Gloria healed her emotional wounds. Today, she helps entrepreneurs develop clarity, confidence and connection to the truth of who you are, so you can create a business that has more impact, influence and income!

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