In the Shadow of the Devi: Kumaon
History, Art, Sociology
The untamed beauty of the Himalayas immediately captures our collective imagination with visions of serenity, natural splendor and mysticism. But these mountains also dictate the lives of those who live by its laws – the resilient hill dwellers, or paharis, whose work and lives are shaped by their surroundings. In the Shadow of the Nanda Devi: Kumaon details the legacy of a land, a people and a craft deeply intertwined with its environment. Manju Kak looks at this enigmatic land of Kumaon through the prism of woodcraft, unique in its aesthetic in this part of India, documenting the styles, influences and techniques used by the craftsmen of Uttarakhand, as well as Kumaoni artisans’ worldview and beliefs. In addition, this book is an important document of the life of paharis, as it also discusses communities, forest policy and the status of women, analyzing and unraveling facets of hill life that made the claim for statehood so unique. Beautifully complemented with photographs by award-winning Kumaoni photographer Anup Sah, among others, the book is also a visual delight for those who have an interest in the region. The book adds to the existing knowledge on Uttarakhand, emblematic of other Indian hill states though its focus is on Kumaon, the land that lies in the majestic mountain Nanda Devi’s shadow, as the title suggests.
This book started as a personal journey, a ‘search for a narrative’ of the Kumaon Hills where I grew up, spending eleven years at a missionary boarding school, St. Mary’s Convent, popularly known as Ramnee. Walking was a way of life then—we walked up and down, to dormitories, to playgrounds, to laboratories, to the bathrooms placed in one long corridor at one end of the school estate. There were compulsory Saturday walks at 5pm—nature walks to government grounds for the Junior and Middle Sets, while the Senior Set were escorted by our well-loved German art teacher, Sister Dominica, impeccably groomed in her white or black habit (as the season permitted), and black bejeweled net gloves, the only article of vanity she allowed herself, energetically blowing her whistle to get her ‘Ramnee Caterpillar’ to trudge down Tallital towards the Naini Flats.
Later in life, walking other footpaths, or khranchas, that crisscross the Kumaon hills, I began to look for clues to more intimately define the landscape I once thought I had known, and my search for a narrative began. I quickly realised that although I had, in a sense, walked these hills I did not know them well at all! For the real pahad wasn’t located in the confines of our pristine, anglicised school life guided by German missionaries, but in the one outside our fenced domain, in the life of the ubiquitous kali topi, kali jacket, umbrella-held-tightly-under-the-arm-pahari whom we’d encountered on our ‘outings’ but whose voices we seldom heard.
The lives of the pahari school staff, too, were a general oblivion—such were the times. Little did we know of their real names, and called them Rosy dhoban, Marie ayah or Tommy bearer. They were sturdy, hardworking school staff who dwelt in the staff lodgings at the fringe of Ramnee Park. We imagined they lacked ‘our’ sense of sophistication, and merited little discussion or scrutiny. How misinformed we were, for their rich world of myths, jagars, religious rituals and customs rooted in a deep reverence for nature, escaped 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, to seek entitlement and recognition that a style of governance inherited from colonial times had deprived them of. The result was a demand for self-rule that escalated in the 1990s.
But when I began my own journey, the new state of Uttarakhand had not yet come into being, and I was fortunate to witness its birth through bus rides, padyatras, village stays, and conversations with activists. This book is a result of years of piecing together the story of what would, on 9 November 2000, become the 27th state of the Republic of India—Uttarakhand. It is the story of a land, a people and a craft, all who flourish under the shadow of the majestic Nanda Devi range.
“The environmental consciousness rooted in their traditions is a cornerstone of all their livelihood patterns. “It becomes the ethos of hill-life. Today, disregard for these age-old traditions is what is causing many environmental disasters. It is important for those who work in sarkari governance to learn first and create policies later. I remember one story about a woman telling me about how the government had once pushed for Jersey cows little realising their weight did not allow them to tread comfortably,” Manju concludes.”
“[Manju Kak] 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.”
Damini Ralleigh, Through the Doorways, Indian Express, 18 May 2017
“Talking about the balanced hill culture, she also stresses the innate respect of the locals for the environment and their sensitivity to degradation issues because of tree-cutting methods and cycles. “The environmental consciousness rooted in their traditions is a cornerstone of all their livelihood patterns. It becomes the ethos of hill life. Today disregard for this age old traditions is what is causing many environmental disasters. It is important for those who work in governance to acquire knowledge first and create policies later.””
Angela Paljor, The Hills Have Eyes, The Daily Pioneer, 15 May 2017
See also the book excerpt in The Citizen, 3 May 2017
“With In the Shadow of the Devi: Kumaon, author Manju Kak looks at this land through the prism of woodcraft, and documents the style, influences and techniques of the craftsmen of Uttarakhand. She also looks at the Kumaoni artisans’ world view and beliefs. This book is an important document of the life of the paharis and discusses communities, forest policy, and the status of women.”
Kumaon; In the Shadow of the Devi by Manju Kak, Hindustan Times, 2 June 2017
“… not much is known about Kumaon’s legacy, its people, their crafts, traditions, folklore, songs, superstitions, people’s movements, gods and demons, and particularly the women whose everyday life is a struggle. It is in this context that Manju Kak’s new book, In the Shadow of the Devi Kumaon: Of a Land, A People, A Craft, holds great significance. It brings out these facets which have till now eluded those who visit Kumaon – the land that lies in the shadow of the majestic Nanda Devi.”
“The most detailed and carefully researched part of this book concentrates on the craft traditions of Kumaon, particularly wood carving. Kak has obviously spent a number of years delving into the aesthetics and lore of this important art form, which is gradually disappearing…”
Stephen Alter, Window to another world, The Hindu, 15 July 2017
Exploring Kumaon through its art, craftsmanship and woodwork,
The Statesman, 23 June 2017
In The Shadow Of The Devi Kumaon: An extract,
The Punch Magazine, 31 May 2017
Exploring Kumaon through its art, craftsmanship and woodwork (Book Review),
Business Standard, 23 June 2017
Book chronicles legacy of Kumaon, its people and craft,
Press Trust of India, 3 August 2017