Art historian, novelist, painter and film-maker, Manju Kak, has brought us a potpourri of sights, smells and experiences. Manju grew up in the hills as a school girl in Nainital, and with her marriage, returned to Uttrakhand, this time to Ranikhet. The memories that she had of long walks, ghost trails, colonial pasts and the legacy of divinity that always lay below the surface, made her write this exquisitely produced coffee table book. Readers may refer to her work on Nicholas Roerich, also published by Niyogi Books. Her photographer friends specializing in mountain photography, have contributed their finest works, free of cost to her. The book, therefore has the work of professionals such as Anup Sah, Deb Mukherjee, Vaibhav Kaul, Shalini Arora, Parikhet Pal, Harpreet Pam, Uday Kak, and Tenzing Lobsang.
Kak begins her book with the way in which the British looked to Kumaon as a ‘get away’ place from the heat of the plains. The hill station thus was increasingly important to the colonists, specially after the Revolt of 1857.
Major General Sir Henry Ramsay of Scotland was Commissioner of Kumaon for 28 years, from 1856 to 1884. He became one of the most adulated personalities in Kumaon, even deified as an incarnation of Lord Rama. He became known as Ramji Raja, because he assimilated totally with the locals, eating their food, and speaking the local dialects. He is thought to have missionary inclinations, but was so much ‘gone native’ that his sons had to forcibly take him back to Scotland after his retirement.
Other than rulers, administrators and missionaries, Kumaon was home to the wandering mystics. Even Swami Vivekananda had spent some time in Kumaon, and his followers established a math in Lohaghat. Mahatma Gandhi had an ashram at Kausani. Tagore lived at The Deodars Hotel on Almora’s main bazaar road. Well known women such as Mary Corbett, Elisabeth
and Sass Brunner also made the hills their home, and in free India, in the 1960s, poets such as Sumitranandan Pant and Mahadevi Verma saw Kumaon as feeding their artistic fervour.
Manju Kak gives us a detailed history of caste, as it represents the dominant Brahman castes who support the ritual festivities of Kumaon, which are so often viewed on TV and film. But she is essentially interested in the artisans, who are the native peoples, the subjugated castes, who nevertheless carry with them the ardour of traditional work, and the autonomy of their spirit, in spite of their poverty. She quotes Octavio Paz, ‘Craftsmen defend us from the artificial uniformity of technology and its geometrical wastelands; by preserving differences they preserve the fecundity of history’ (cited in Kak 2017: 49) She compares the colonial towns of Nainital, Mussoorie and Landsdowne, with Almora, which is older than these British towns by a thousand years and more. She looks at the nest of alleyways, in which many aspects of freedom had been hammered together by its citizens. Kumaon, with its aspect of literacy and newspaper production did not remain alienated from the Freedom Movement, particularly in terms of its rejection of begar and exploitation of the forests.
The central aspect of her book is about wood work, the tradition of carving windows, which she traces to Gujarat and Nepal. The Joshis from Gujarat, the Pants from Maharashtra and the Pandes of Uttar Pradesh, were consumers of elaborate carving traditions. Fleeing from the Maratha wars between 1774 to 1818, the immigrants brought with them the knowledge of exquisite carving for panelling, for doors and windows. Higher up the mountains, the influence of Tibetan, Nepalese and British styles can also be seen. With the passing of time, these legendary carvers are reduced to mundane work, as no one can any longer afford these complex doors, pillars and windows. The tree called tun which allows such wood carving is also banned now from felling, so carpenters do not have the basic raw material that they require for their art work. The book which Manju Kak has so lovingly given us is centrally about the lost vocabulary of legend, symbols, and religious archetypes which are placed in a frame that originally the inhabitants would have been familiar with. The stories, with their moral connotation, unfurl themselves on daily viewing.
While the art of construction in stone and masonry work found expression under the Katyuris, sophisticated carpentry flourished during the rule of the Chands, as seen in the delicate workmanship of ornate doors and windows belonging to that period. Unfortunately, the craftsmen of Kumaon today are not treated with the same respect as in the earlier days. Maybe, the decline of the craft is in part attributable to this fall in the social status of the carpenter and the wood carver (p. 71).
Kak is keen to show that rural lifestyles must be documented primarily because the mountains, rivers and landscapes must be viewed not only in terms of tourism, rituals and sacred journeys, but also in terms of existing life styles, choices and fate of its inhabitants. She has rigorously read the data in terms of the dignity of labour, the rights of women and the role they have played in the support of their culture, and the piety of the people. She is not judgemental about folk spirituality, but sees it as part of their life world, or worldview. Ghosts, predators, animistic spirits, evil souls, all coexist with the Sanskritic high Gods, and with increased politicization this Puranic mythology become lesser in significance and manifestations. Through ritual processes, these demons who become divine become so much more accessible to those fearing them! And of course, when the Gods are forgotten, they die (p. 192).
Manju Kak’s chapter on ‘Forests and Environment’ brings us wonderful photographs and takes us back to the Chipko Movement and the heroic characters, women and men who shared the task of saving the forests from the woodcutters and the State as representing ‘developmental’ or multinational interest. She juxtaposes this to the rural tradition of the ‘maiti’ where the bride brings a sapling to her husband’s home and starts a new tradition of reforestation with a small and simple symbol.
Susan Visvanathan is Professor of Sociology, Centre for Social Science Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi.