Ambarin Afsar traces the decade preceding Sikkim’s annexation by India through Dr Alice Kandell’s invaluable photographs of a lost world.
“The light up there in the mountains is pure and pristine. It is magical for a photographer.”
The year 1975 saw Sikkim become the 22nd state of the Indian Union, and as time is wont to do, things changed. From governance to infrastructure, the tiny little region that is bordered by West Bengal, Nepal, Bhutan and the Tibet Autonomous Region, has changed so much that Alice Kandell’s photos seem like sunken treasure brought to the surface.
The Queen’s Friend
Alice Kandell met Hope Cooke during a trip to the Soviet Union. Cooke, an American student and debutante, would go on to marry the Prince of Sikkim. Consequently, a few years later, Alice made her first trip to Sikkim. During visits between 1965 and 1979, she received special permission to photograph a range of activities, festivals, events, traditions and tribes.
“The King showed me his treasure room, and what was in the trunks, was brocade. This was because it was a real commodity, and came all the way from China.”
The Exotic Other
In a talk, Hope Cooke says, “It was at my wedding in 1963, that hordes of foreign journalists converged on Gangtok because the peg of an American girl marrying the Prince was a made for media event. In those days, ‘media’ still pretty much meant Western media. Being photographers, and also answering to market dictates, what they wanted was the ‘exotic other’, and in this they had a field day. National Geographic grew so excited that they ran three issues on Sikkim in almost as many years. And if you know Nat Geo, they never repeat, except perhaps in a decade. We had gobsmacked them. We, of course, were very excited at the chance to try and enlarge Sikkim’s cultural shape in people’s consciousness.” And so, for the next decade, the collusion of photographers and culturemakers in Sikkim continued. But quite often, Hope and her husband, the Chogyal (the King) had to practically force photographers to shoot scenes from daily life.
“Skeleton masks are not frightening, they are not evil. Life and death are a part of the same thing, and so these masks are much revered.”
Attempting to Strike a Balance
Alice achieved a balance between photographing the quiet, daily life and the pomp and ceremony of royal customs and traditions quite beautifully. But, this didn’t always reflect in her pictures that were published in magazines. Only in her books, Mountaintop Kingdom: Sikkim and Sikkim: The Hidden Kingdom could she wield more control over content. In the years leading up to Sikkim’s annexation, this same orientalism, this same exotic otherness, which had been a selling point, became Sikkim’s death knell or at least made the country’s passing go unmourned.
To quote Hope Cooke, “Who could be sympathetic to a little feudal Shangri-La all dolled up in brocades, clueless of what really mattered? They had been living in a fool’s world.” The entire North-Eastern region of India suffers from this same ‘exotic’ tag. Besides trekking photos or photos of monks, there is little else to be seen of Sikkim in mainstream media. For a country that claims to abhor the exotic label, it sure has been reinforced through the stereotypes that we, as imagemakers, have so carefully constructed of our own regions and fellow countrymen.
The Sikkim That Vanished…
…didn’t only consist of a monarchy and coronation customs, but also a fragile balance between various indigenous and migrant tribes, a delicate ecosystem, rituals and a way of life. Today, there are over 65 dams in the Mekong Delta, the Teesta river has changed its course and dried up in places, causing fishermen to give up their occupations and made irrigation high up in North Sikkim difficult. Tibetan monks no longer undertake the ritual of banishing evil every new year, in solidarity for Tibet. There are highways built over the paths that only yak-herders knew. While the tribes, terrain and rituals that Alice Kandell explored exist in a precarious state, it becomes that much more important for her photos to be seen.
To quote Hope Cooke’s poignant closing line from her talk, “If a tree falls in the forest and there is no one to hear it, does it make a sound? If a photograph is made, and no one sees it, is it then an image?”
“The animals live in barns below the house, while their owners live above them. Animals give them not only their food, their ploughing, and their milk but are also their companions.”
Tags: alice kandell, Animals, Great Masters, Hope Cooke, Mekong Delta, mountains, North-Eastern region, Perspective, Shangri-La, Tibet Autonomous Region