Among the 75 frames on display at the Convention Foyer at the India Habitat Centre (IHC) as part of the exhibition “Two Bodies, One Soul: Glimpses of the Alps and the Himalayas” is a portrait of 82-year-old Ana Lia from Lachen, Sikkim, dressed in a resplendent turquoise traditional attire. She is seated with her hands folded, amid the colourful ruins of her house, where rows of brass utensils line up the interiors and a garland of meat hovers mid air, lending a gateway into her food habits. She recalls, as a little girl, her family ate what they produced, relied heavily on yak meat and used to grind fine flour for bread using a tuberous crop called tho. She also reveals how the meal did not include rice as it had to be fetched from lower valleys and plains. Through many similar stories, Vaibhav Kaul outlines the beauty and might of the Himalayas and the Swiss Alps in his latest exhibition.
Supported by University of Sheffield, UK, and the Dudley Stamp Memorial Award, 25-year-old Kaul has delved into the similarities between landscapes and life in the mountainous regions in his exhibition. This is part of his research that aims at reducing disaster risk and understanding how communities are adapting to the extreme environmental changes in the Himalayan region. He says, “I study glacial lakes and disaster management in the mountains. This photo series covers entire mountain ranges from the Swiss Alps to the Himalayas. I assess risks from hazards such as glacier outbursts, and work with communities living there to understand their environment and plan strategies to reduce risks.”
In one frame, a young boy stands tall in front of a hut stationed in the picturesque green hills of north Sikkim, sporting a necklace of cubed chhoro (yak cheese), a present from his great aunt who owns several yaks. As a drowsy red panda emerges from its nest after a nap in one frame, Kaul captures the grandness of Matterhorn in another, termed as the most-photographed mountain in the world, with the iconic pyramid-shaped colossus of the mountain. There is also Shaka Cho, a proglacial lake in Kangchenyao in north Sikkim. “For nearly 30 years, people have been saying that Shaka Cho is about to burst. They are still waiting for the disaster to occur,” says Kaul. Pursuing a doctorate in geography at University of Sheffield, he showcased similar subjects in his exhibition “The Himalaya: The Timeless Quest” in 2014 and “Reverberations from the Himalayas” in 2013.
This year, in May, he travelled to Kedarnath, where he came across widows residing in Dewali Bhanigram, located a few kms from Uttarakhand’s Guptkashi town on the road to Kedarnath. That led him to find alternate professions that could supplement the income of those farming in hazard-prone high-altitude zones. “The Mandakini Mahila Bunker Samiti centre was set up in the area in 2013. It is a community-based weaving enterprise established for those who lost their husbands in the disaster. The possible options for an additional income range from ecotourism to birdwatching programmes,” says Kaul.