Kailash-Mansarovar: A Photographic Journey is on till August 9 at the Visual Arts Gallery and Open Palm Court Gallery, India Habitat Center, Delhi
Delhi-based Milan Moudgill, an alumnus of the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad, undertook the Kailash-Manasarovar project between 2002 and 2007. He describes the project as a photographic journey in the footsteps of Sven Hedin and Swami Pranavananda that revisits how this sacred region in Tibet was brought into geographical knowledge — including the discovery of the sources of the Brahmaputra, Sutlej and the Indus. The project evolved into an exhibition that is on till August 9 at the Visual Arts Gallery and Open Palm Court Gallery, India Habitat Center, Delhi.
The photographer elaborates on the project, “Tibet of old was always off-limits to outsiders, its forbidding geography zealously guarded. This proved an irresistible challenge to the enterprising Swedish explorer Sven Hedin, who slipped into Tibet in 1906. When he emerged two years later, Hedin had discovered the sources of the Brahmaputra, Sutlej and Indus He became the ‘first white man’ to circumambulate Kailash and sail on the holy lake Manasarovar, and map its bed. Three decades after him, the Indian ascetic Swami Pranavananda arrived in the area and traveled extensively, overlapping with Hedin’s explorations. He challenged the Swede’s ‘discoveries’, especially the sources of the Brahmaputra, Sutlej and Indus. “
These two vastly different visitors and their accounts brought the geography of the sacred Kailash-Manasarovar region into modern view. Moudgill’s project follows both journeys, and through an interplay of archival material, contemporary pictures, and an in-depth examination of the debates that arose, traces the story of how our modern understanding of this area came to be. “I did not start exploring the area and then stumbled on Hedin and Pranavananda’s accounts. Rather, my entire journey has been retracing their journeys. It is through the study of their archival material and the journeys that they made that helped me recreate those steps and what they saw and experienced. My journey is not independent of theirs. It is in their footsteps, ”explains the photographer.
The photographs showcase the stark beauty of the region. Even though the Kailash-Mansarovar area is almost desolate, there is a certain vivid beauty to it. Moudgill says, “Tibet is a high-altitude desert beyond the Himalayas. The pictures were taken in August-September when the sky is much clearer there. Plus Tibet has hardly any pollution in the air. Generally, when you look at a landscape, every mountain range looks a little hazier than the other, which gives a sense of perception. Here, since there is no haze, you can look into infinity and it remains sharp. That brings forth the vivid colors, especially of the sky. “
Moudgill’s camera also captures the locals in their day-to-day lives. He says the process of photographing the ethnic groups centred on first forming a relationship with them. “Once you get close, people open up and start having conversations. When it comes to portrait photography, the relationship between the photographer and the subject is of utmost importance. The camera needs to completely recede into non-existence. The dialogue between the subject and photographer should come through in the image, ”he says.
Of the images at the exhibition, one that stands out is the rare image of the east face of Kailash. The Kailash is known for its four faces, some easily accessible, some more difficult. Talking of the same, the photographer-traveler says, “The play of light, the sky and its creation of clouds and the interplay of light on those clouds is a dynamic condition of Kailash area. The scenery keeps changing. Every face is not just a face, it is a face in a phase — a passing phase which would soon change to reveal a completely different perspective. It’s magical and mesmerising visually. The east face which is mostly hidden is, of course, very special to me. “
The project is rooted in travelogue photography, but uses archival material to juxtapose the ‘now’ against the ‘then’, bringing to life the colorful story of the history of the geography of the Kailash-Manasarovar area. It looks at the history of exploration and the emergence through that exploration of modern knowledge of the geography of southwest Tibet. Through Moudgill’s project, emerges the fascinating story of grit, courage, and fortitude of the two visitors to serve as a storyline which threads the project, placing the scholarship of their exploration in the foreground.
The project was shot exclusively on transparency film. The exhibition also boasts display boxes with never-seen-before archival material of Pranavananda’s life and journeys. The exhibition is supplemented with archival images shot by Hedin in 1907-08, and Pranavananda 1936-50. There is also a rare look at the area in winter when both the lakes completely freeze up, besides exclusive views of the rare inner sanctum of Kailash. Besides, there are exclusive pictures of the source of the Brahmaputra, Sutlej, Indus and Karnali.