How ‘Trees’ as a cultural thing change over time in New Media

By Saurav Mohanty

Saalumarada Thimmakka, an environmentalist, is a well known personality of Karnataka. She has earned recognition due to her untiring efforts in planting and tending 284 banyan trees along the highway covering a distance of four kilometers. Few days ago it was the headlines in the newspapers and social sites too. But it is now in the first chapter of the std. 9 English text book. By the way, a few stories based on success and achievement, awareness and democratic values are included in this English text book. The 9th standard English Text book in Chhattisgarh is currently in the review stage. Experts from Azim Premji Foundation, Vidya Bhawan Society, ICICI foundation, Eklavya, SCERT and faculties of Bilaspur University are working on this. Once the concerned agencies approve the book, this book will be the official text book for std. 9 from the next academic year.

To understand more about the English text book, I met Prof. S. N Ali, Professor, SCERT-Chhattisgarh, one of the writers of the textbook. It was an informal interaction with her that I discussed the idea behind the Dastaan fellowship. To some extent I felt that reflection on the textbook will give some meaningful direction to my fellowship exploration. This text book says a lot about Chhattisgarhi habitats. The chapters of this book are  divided into different units like Environment, Sports, Health and Adolescence, Travel and tourism, Culture, Inspiration, Science and Technology.  I saw a portion on trees in the unit on Environment in the std.9 English textbook. My idea and notion towards nature, conservation, globalisation, forest rights got some new directions. Most of the stories that were given in the textbook about trees were from known stories or from television and movies. Interestingly, the current Chhattisgarh std. 9 textbook has a mention of  South Indian actor Rajinikanth and Bollywood star Shahrukh Khan. The textbook describes their struggle in early years of their career. A perfect example of how new media is influencing and finding space in our curriculum and textbooks.

As far as  movies are concerned,“Bollywood”describes trees in their stories in a certain way. The new media is now recognized as one of the most powerful, engaging and emotive ways to sensitize Indian audiences in many ways. Besides providing an important historical record of the planet’s endangered habitat, Bollywood movies not only illustrate the sheer beauty of the natural world but also inspire the generations to become  future conservationists across the country.

Bollywood cinema changes the way we live and  talk. It is not only a rich source of information about the changing ideas and entertainment but also speaks a lot about our culture, norms and to some extent about our fantasies too. Indians  love movies, even though most films follow a similar format called ‘Masala Bollywood’. Films are two to three hours long (and include an intermission, lot of advertisement and promotions), dozen of songs and dance and mostly  a happy ending. But  a question arises, is there any reference to trees  in these movies? In the movie ‘Lagaan‘, which is  based on a cricket match, the actress of the movie described her husband’s identity using a neem tree. Even the Oscar winning movie “Gandhi” named after Mahatma Gandhi has a mention about Neem trees.  Prayer meetings he conducted in Sabarmati Ashram were usually held under a Neem tree.

There are also very fascinating old Bollywood movies, where different explanation of trees in different contexts are given . In Ramayana, it is written that Sita was forcefully brought to Lanka by Ravana and was thrown into Ashoka Forest well-guarded by Ravana’s notorious Rakshas. The trees in the forest were Ashoka trees.It is my personal experience that if you ask any urban school child about a tree or a forest, he will explain that forest means animals home, dark, ghosts, waterfalls, no mobile network, tribal people, rich minerals resource areas and obviously the dacoits.

Actually the answers are not the problems, the problem is the source of answers. The source often is cinema and television. When in 1953 Bimal Roy’s movie based on life of “Buddha” was released, it had no mention whatsoever about the Peepal Tree  but Buddha got enlightenment under a peepal tree in Gaya, Bihar. Trees are  associated with almost every social, political and spiritual reformer in Indian society and a lot of movies were made on these personalities. Jain monk “Mahaveer” meditated under Sal Tree (shorea robusta).

Odisha’s Tulasi Munda is a noted social activist who got the Padma Shree in 2001. Tulsi Munda has done a lot of work to spread literacy among the tribal people. She started her first school under a Mahua Tree after she met Bhoodan Movement founder Vinoba Bhave. Recently many movies are being made by renowned Bollywood directors on tribal people, issues and challenges faced by them due to different development projects. But none of them even tried to show the connection of the tribals with trees. Movies like Chamku, Chakravyuh, The Naxalites(1980) are based on different Naxalite uprising stories, but as an audience I could not find a single moment where trees were portrayed in a different manner. You will find suicide scenes, murder scenes, children playing under trees, schools under trees, gram panchayat under trees, romance under trees, heroes and heroines are hiding behind a tree from a group of villains etc etc.

While I was searching for videos , I found that a lot of songs are written on trees, especially on Tulsi (not a tree), Banyan Tree, Peepal and largely on flowers. Even if you watch closely some cinematographers pictured the trees in a very different manner, like widowed women pictured as dead tree, new born baby as small plants, disaster means trees falling against a wall, trees next to temple often have red ribbons tied around the branches etc.  

Stories are the custodian of culture, history and customs. When someone says once upon a time,  we know there will be a story now. Storytelling is not a passive process, it is active. Listeners are also active participants of the storytelling process. Humans are fundamentally narrators. Stories engage us, entertain us, stimulate our memories and imagination. But movies have a commercial part associated to it, and is only one directional. Viewers have no authority to change the plots. Therefore I have no idea how movies can be pedagogical tools for transferring values from one generation to the younger one.  But I strongly believe that movies are easy to consume, because it can easily travel from one place to another without physical movement. Stories have no standard version, any day somebody can come and retell the narrative. It will be a good idea to  revisit our movie/films again and re-tell about trees and other associated stories.


Blitzer, J., Dredze, M., & Pereira, F. (2007, June). Biographies, bollywood, boom-boxes and blenders: Domain adaptation for sentiment classification. InACL (Vol. 7, pp. 440-447).

Dudrah, R. K. (2006). Bollywood: Sociology goes to the movies. Sage.