It all started with a photograph. Hanging on the eastern wall of a room in a crumbling mansion, it depicted ancient hills, a sombre sky and a castle. The word, Ladakh, was imprinted on the bottom right corner in strangely shaped letters. As an eleven year old, Sugato Mukherjee, whose text and photographs make up AN ANTIQUE LAND: A VISUAL MEMOIR OF LADAKH (Alchemy, Rs 950), was fascinated by the picture, but his enquiries about the enchanting landscape yielded very little information. (Incidentally, Mukherjee would discover later that the photograph was a poorly manipulated image.) Ladakh’s lure persisted well into his adult life, compelling him to travel to the fabled region decades later, a journey that was to change Mukherjee’s understanding of that distant, mystical land.
Here image and text combine to alter popular notions associated with Ladakh. Ladakh’s desolate and austere beauty often leads one to ignore its significance as a melting pot of diverse faiths and cultures. Mukherjee reminds us that Ladakh is the site where Islam from the West meets Tibetan Buddhism of the East. The idyllic landscape of the Suru Valley, for instance, remains dotted with both mosques and chortens, giving Ladakh a distinct spiritual aura. One photograph in particular captures this contemplative spirit imaginatively: it shows a man sitting on a rocky outcrop gazing at a solitary chorten that lies in the distance.
It is equally difficult to ignore Ladakh’s bewitching landscape and Mukherjee, expectedly, succumbs to its charm. Azure skies, majestic peaks, lakes and valleys, rituals and pretty monasteries — nearly every aspect of what constitutes Ladakh’s natural and social fabric has been faithfully represented in these photographs.
In his Foreword, filmmaker Goutam Ghose lauds Mukherjee for resisting the urge to present saturated images of Ladakh. One wonders what made Ghose shower such lofty praise on the author. Admittedly, Mukherjee’s visual exploration does not remain limited to Ladakh’s topography. Slices of an older, but cloistered, way of life too have been captured deftly. But what these photographs lack is the ability to forge a newer, and deeper, engagement with a land that has been primarily viewed through the prism of beauty and mystique. However, the text keeps the reader interested. Lucid and anecdotal, it serves as a rich source of information about Ladakh.
For the tourist, the accompanying photograph — the view seen from outside an 18th century monastery — evokes a sense of wonder. But to the discerning eye, the image would inevitably induce a sense of respect for this ancient and pristine land. For much of Ladakh seems to have held out, thus far, against the spectre of tourism.