Tending to a 150-year-old, inherited colonial house that “nobody really wanted but had to look after” led writer-artist Manju Kak to further her exploration of the Himalayan life — this time, through the craft of woodwork in the hills of Kumaon. Her research, though not intended for book form, has culminated in one, titled In the Shadow of the Devi: Kumaon (Niyogi Books; Rs 1,995), which aims to detail the life and legacy of the people who inhabit the contours of the region.
“The Kumaon Himalayas, unlike the neighbouring mountain valleys, are more intimate and less indicative of the ‘high religion of Garhwal’. Higher up, when the snow-capped peaks become majestic, there is still the sense of being amidst a friendly landscape where traders, herders and mountain folk live in high-altitude villages,” says Kak.
Unlike the towns of Nainital and Ranikhet that still bear the stamp of their colonial past, sustained in English-castle like government houses and boarding schools, the interiors depict a culture that is peculiar to the region. One such emblem of Pahari culture is the tradition of woodcarving, known as likhai, which became the lens through which Kak explored the social structures of the region.
“The craft is executed by woodcarvers from the shilpkaar caste — a term adopted in the early 20th century. Likhai was once abundantly found on chaukhats (doorways) of village homes. It became a metaphor for understanding the people,” she says. In the preface, she writes that their rich world of myths, rituals and customs rooted in deep reverence for nature often escapes our understanding. In part, it was this sense of ignorance and neglect from the empowered political and social classes that percolated down to spur ordinary hill-folk to agitate.
The research for the book began before Uttarakhand was carved out of Uttar Pradesh (UP), giving Kak a bird’s-eye view of its struggle for statehood and the consequent changes. “There is a huge sense of regret I feel because the vision of those who actually worked for statehood got left behind. Today, the state exemplifies all the ills of UP from which it demanded release. The same illnesses plague Uttarakhand — from alcoholism to the plunder by timber mafia, illegal mining and land grabbing. Adding to this is the malaise of drug cartels,” says Kak.
The book, which also stands as a visual ethnography of Kumaon, has contributions from environmentalist Vaibhav Kaul, ex-diplomat Deb Mukharji, Parikhit Pal and award-winning photographer Anup Sah “whose photography captures his love the land”, as Kak says. Kak, who has previously authored books such as A Craftsman and his Craft: Iconography of Woodcarvings of Kumaon (1998) and N Roerich, Painter of the Himalayas — the Roerich Peace Pact & Banner of Peace (2009), and also directed the documentary They who walked Mountains: the Erstwhile Salt Routes from India to Tibet, is now hoping to turn her gaze towards the issues of Kashmiri Pandits, provided she can go to Kashmir.