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‘She moved me’: the UK dancers inspired by India’s 112-year-old environmentalist

<span>Saalumarada Thimmakka with Shantha Rao, artistic director of Annapurna Indian Dance, based in Halifax.</span><span>Photograph: Shantha Rao</span>
Saalumarada Thimmakka with Shantha Rao, artistic director of Annapurna Indian Dance, based in Halifax.Photograph: Shantha Rao

When she was a teenage girl, Saalumarada Thimmakka planted her first banyan tree just outside the remote Indian village of Hulikal, in the southwestern state of Karnataka.

She had married young, as was the custom, but had not fallen pregnant. Local folklore said that if a childless woman planted a banyan, the national tree of India, she would be rewarded with a child.

No child was forthcoming, but Saalumarada continued to plant trees, creating a 28km avenue of banyans near her village. Born into poverty in a family of farmers, she had no formal education or literacy skills. What she did have was a gift for nurturing trees. She planted 385 banyans, walking with pots of water to nourish them every day, and then went on to plant a further 8,000 trees of many different types around the area.

Just as Greta Thunberg has become the face of youth-led environmentalism, so has Saalumarada become the poster girl for the somewhat older generation of eco-activism … although no records exist, she is thought to be an astonishing 112 years old, making her one of the oldest people in the world.

As something of a folk hero in India, Saalumarada’s story is being brought to the UK by a west Yorkshire dance company that is staging a performance based on her life, which will debut at the Huddersfield Literature Festival.

Titled A Tree in Time, the dance and storytelling session, soundtracked by tabla music, is the passion project of Shantha Rao, artistic director of the Annapurna Indian Dance, based in Halifax. Rao has been in the UK for 35 years, and worked extensively as a primary school teacher around Yorkshire, but she was born in Karnataka, the same state as Saalumarada.

The production she has overseen is the result of tenacity and detective work to track down Saalumarada, who had long since left her native village and moved to the teeming city of Bangalore, which has a population of 14 million.

Growing up, Rao had been vaguely aware of Saalumarada. She says, “There always seemed to be these big corporate events happening where people said the lady who planted trees was going to be there. When I was a child, I was never really interested, it had no resonance with me.

“But quite recently I saw a mention of her and did some research, and I realised her story was so relevant to climate change and had so much to offer young people today, so I decided I wanted to make something based on her life.”

Rao went to India to try to get more of a sense of Saalumarada. She travelled from Bangalore to remote Hulikal, a gruelling journey of three bus rides across rural areas of the state, and found the modest shack in which Saalumarada has lived most of her life.

“Just outside the village is this amazing avenue of banyan trees,” says Rao. “It moved me so much I could literally do nothing but dance through them. I knew I had to meet her, my countrywoman, face to face if I was going to do her story justice.”

Which was easier said than done. Although quite a famous figure in India – she was awarded the country’s highest civilian honour, the Padma Shri, in 2019 – she had planted her last tree about 15 years ago, when she was almost 100, and retired to Bangalore.

Rao begged a possible phone number, and had a brief conversation with Saalumarada’s adopted son, who said she was too old and unwell to receive visitors. He relented slightly and said Rao had permission to look at her through the window, but didn’t give an address and refused to answer the phone again.

After working out the rough location of the neighbourhood from the phone number, Rao pounded the streets of Bangalore for days, asking passersby and in shops and temples, until she finally found the house.

Rao did indeed get a brief glimpse of Saalumarada through the window, but it wasn’t enough. A few weeks later, she called again, and was finally granted a brief audience. For Rao, it was a life-changing experience.

“I felt such a feeling of devotion when I finally met her,” she says. “Like nothing I have ever felt in a temple. I’m not a sentimental person at all, but when she laid her withered hand on me I was crying. I was so happy. I felt properly alive, and amazed at what she had done.

“Those hands were village hands, working hands, and they had never seen nail polish, never been rubbed with creams from plastic tubes. Those hands had never written down the alphabet. She was a simple peasant but I felt like nothing in front of her, and what she had done with her life.”

Rao believes that Saalumarada never really grasped the magnitude of what she had done – she simply kept on planting trees perhaps as some kind of substitute for never having children.

Rao says, “She did this for years and years without anyone noticing, until one day a local councillor spotted her and she suddenly became lauded.

“I think much later in life a lot of corporate businesses suddenly wanted to be seen to be doing something about climate change and the environment, so they held these big events where she was guest of honour, but I’m not really sure she ever knew what was going on there. She just loved planting trees and nurturing them. It was her life.”

Rao is hoping that A Tree in Time, which tells Saalumarada’s story, will inspire young people to do the same.

“They can’t devote their lives to planting trees like she did, but perhaps they can plant a rose bush or even a herb in a pot,” she says. “I think Saalumarada’s story is more relevant now than it has been at any time in her life.”

A Tree in Time will debut at the Lawrence Batley Theatre in Huddersfield on Tuesday April 23, as part of the Huddersfield Literature Festival, and then the Annapurna Indian Dance company will tour it around schools in Yorkshire.*Tickets for A Tree in Time are available from: https://www.huddlitfest.org.uk/event/a-tree-in-time/