September 19, 2017

THE NILA AND ITS STORYTELLER

Words: Nidhi Taparia
Photography: Charles Joseph & Ajay Menon

‘The Gandhian Philosophy- If your decision benefits the underpriviliged, do it-is the mantra that drives him’

GOPINATH PARAYIL IS A FRONTRUNNER FOR RESPONSIBLE TOURISM IN INDIA

Death has a way of changing life. Nobody understands that better than Gopinath Parayil. As he decided to take a dip in his village river Nila in Kerala after his father’s death – the struggle he faced to dunk himself became the tipping point for him. “There was hardly any water in the river. And it wasn’t even the beginning of summer. The river was not polluted but had stopped flowing due to dams and sand mining,” Gopi recalls. For the 43-year-old Gopi, this one incident set his life in motion to truly live life on terms he had read about only in books or known from a distance as a normal traveler. Which is why Gopi, who’s driven autorickshaws, marketed software and also worked as a disaster management consultant, found his way back from the UK to India. He decided to keep the dying river alive with the stories around it via the non-profit Nila Foundation and brought under its fold, everybody interested in the river. “Everybody had stories about the river – be it the Pullavars who sang folk songs celebrating the river or even me when I was growing up. Concerned about the decaying state of the river, the dilution of its culture and depletion of its resources, I was certain that if no action was taken, then the Nila would soon be lost to the next generation. It is a way of life that gets eroded when a river dries out…”

Gopinath Parayil

At 250 kilometers, the Nila is the longest river passing through Kerala and originates from the Anaimalai hills in the Western Ghats in Tamil Nadu. It traverses through three administrative districts of the state before flowing into the Arabian Sea at Ponnani, in Malappuram district. Most river civilizations form fertile land for a variety of folk, nurture ritualistic and classical art forms and cradle the cultural spirit of the region. The Nila has been a perennial source of inspiration for poets and writers, nurturing a great literary tradition along its banks. That is how Gopi decided to mobilize the communities and the arts to give the river a fresh lease of life with its stories.

Reviving cultural activites and showcasing them to tourists

The stories that came out, range from the heritage of poet Ezhuthachan, of shadow puppetry, of the Kalluvazhi chitta form of Kathakali, Vallathol’s Kalamandalam and Bharatapuzha’s own percussion styles. This not only rejuvenated the dying river using all of its unsung cultural treasures but has also become part of a business model. Money has never been the driving factor for Gopi but locally driven wealth generation was the key towards sustainability.

Sustaining traditional dance forms through responsible tourism

“Personally, it is an asset and a challenge. To create wealth for society excites me more. That is where I can be a solution provider.” But the Gandhian philosophy – if your decision benefits the underprivileged, do it – is the mantra that drives him. Which is why The Blue Yonder – a ‘responsible tourism’ company was set up so as to be a financial engine to the Nila Foundation and not run after government funds or be dependent on funds from outside.

“In the last 13 years, The Blue Yonder has created alternative and supplementary jobs in villages that were never a part of the conventional tourism circuits in Kerala.” Long before the concept of responsible tourism became the buzzword amongst travelers and in mainstream India, Gopi had positioned The Blue Yonder to work towards what he believed “was our ‘responsibility’ to ‘respond’ to our surroundings”. The meaningful experience has wooed different travelers. “Most of our trips are custom-made.

We are a soft adventure company that provides active holidays where one would try out staying in rural areas, learning mat weaving or puppetry weaving, to even sampling salt water resilient rice – pokkali. So depending on what our adventurous travelers need, we design it together.” The feedback is always interesting: “‘I found myself’ from a Scandinavian single woman traveler to a 69-year-old sending us a message that says, ‘Thank you. I am treated like a princess,’—the rapport the travelers build with us is fascinating.” The Blue Yonder is also in expansion stage. From bases in Puducherry and Fort Kochi, he’s also looking to push restored heritage homes to stay along the Bharatapuzha. “I can run a 180-day-tour for travelers without repeating a story… but we need more places for the travelers to stay.” Gopi is also absolutely clear that any travel experience ought to be sensitive to the local surroundings, including the people and the environment in which they live.

“When we travel, the people there are sharing with us the place they call home and we are duty bound to respect that environment and culture.” It’s this dogged determination that has ensured the rewards and recognition are never far behind. From winning CondeNast Traveller World Saver’s Awards and also eight Great Trips that give back to communities, First Choice Responsible Tourism Awards at WTM, the prestigious TODO! 2012 awards for Socially Responsible Tourism at ITB Berlin, the Blue Yonder recently won the Das Goldene Stadttor (known as the Oscars in Tourism) for the promotional video (#ItsTheWayYouSeeIt) on river Nila in central Kerala, as well as the Best Cultural Immersion awards from Outlook Traveller/WTM London.

“The rewards and recognition are morally uplifting for us – to receive an award out of 1,200-plus nominees under 13 different categories reiterates our commitment to the cause!” says the spokesperson of responsible tourism in India. Last year, he was invited to speak at the United Nations about the scope of mainstreaming ‘responsibility’ in the travel and tourism industry. He co-founded World Responsible Tourism Networking to bring together peers in the tourism business and also on various juries, including National Geographic World Legacy awards.

This pic: Oil lamps light up a temple in Kerala. Bottom: Kathakali dancers get ready to perform

Bringing together people and man management is not easy. Gopi believes that all of his unconventional development approach comes from his extensive volunteering experience in the neighborhood network model of palliative care services in Kerala, which introduced him to the effectiveness of collaboration and crowdsourcing to achieve the desired goals. “I had to often double up as an ambulance driver at the Calicut Medical College to rush the homecare team to patients’ homes. This way of activism, which was the dream of two doctors, where the government gets involved at a later stage, taught me a lot.

I really understood resource management through this experience.” Gopi has been volunteering there for the last 23 years and has also extended his involvement in setting up Sanjeevan, a palliative care project in Pondicherry in partnership with Sri Aurobindo Society. “My role on the day to day running though is limited and a new team manages it all.” Recently, he has also set up Parasparam – with filmmaker Anjali Menon to address issues around gender sensitization. His disaster management degree propelled The Blue Yonder team to undertake the lead during the Nepal earthquake and Chennai rains to map locations as well as organize disaster relief. As for the man himself, the Nila in the rainy season is a personal favorite tour that he would do over and over again. A fitting tribute, for the river, is where it all started for the man himself.

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