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Himalayan Vignettes: Garwhal and Sikkim Treks

Himalayan Vignettes: Garwhal and Sikkim Treks. Kekoo Naoroji. Bombay, India: The Himalayan Club, 2003. 236 pages. Hardcover. $60.00.

Himalayan Vignettes is a large format, coffee table photo-essay of expeditions to the Garwal and Sikkim by Indian trekker-photographer Kekoo Naoroji during the 1950s. It is a work of love, primarily undertaken by his son, Rashid, and published with the support of friends and colleagues at the Himalayan Club in Bombay. Naoroji is a well-known member of the Club, and was instrumental in moving its headquarters from Calcutta to Bombay after Indian independence. He was an executive at Imperial Chemical Industries during the fifties and has a polymath’s range of tastes and interests, including Western classical music, theater, mountaineering literature, and outdoor conservation. Naoroji’s family is omnipresent in the introductory sections of the book and in the extracts from his expedition diary, which precede the photographs. Especially present and appreciated is his wife, Dosa, and her infinite patience and support of him in his quest to record visually some of the most remote areas of India. His diary entries always return to his family, and his greatest superlatives of the mountain terrain are put in the context of how he wishes his family were there to see it. It is Naoroji’s humanity that truly adds poignancy to the text. No posturing here; just an appreciation for the early explorers of the Garwal and Sikkim, and of the supreme beauty of the Indian landscape. And sometimes, it must be admitted, a bit of venting about the discomforts, aggravations, and general headaches of treks to remote regions.

But as I said, this is primarily a picture book. When I received the review copy from the AAC Library, I opened the package and started leafing through it, as one does, to get an initial impression of the photographs. My first reaction was that some of them should not have been included because of his camera’s technical limitations. (Naoroji primarily used a 35mm camera.) Several of the full-page images are quite grainy, and obviously benefit by being presented at reduced scale in the same frame as the blow-up. I assume the inclusion of these small insets means the publishers were well aware of the shortcomings of his photographic equipment. But, on subsequent perusals, remembering the message I once read in the liner notes of a vinyl record album, I softened my view. The record company advised that one should regard the recording problems (it was a “live” album) as one would “flaws in fine leather.” This is precisely how to view the photographs of Kekoo Naoroji: what is lost in the clarity of certain images is more than repaid by his composition and artistry. Having said this, I should emphasize that the majority of photographs are well printed and in crisp focus.

Working mostly in black and white, Naoroji uses the medium to wonderful dramatic effect. I was not surprised that Naoroji’s major interests in the arts were in drama and music; both are present in his images. His photographs of local people and of his porters in the pursuit of their everyday lives in the mountains not only make for a valuable ethnic document, but also great theater. For me, his starkly contrasting images of the high Himal conjure up musical themes of the great classical composers. One can almost hear Beethoven’s symphonic works when looking at Naoroji’s carefully composed photographs of Nanda Devi or Trisuli: the romantic, terrible beauty. As stated in the text, the photographs are reproduced using “the most modern of techniques,” and we experience not only a fine aesthetic treat, but also have a visual yardstick with which to measure the environmental degradation that has taken place in the Indian Himalaya since the 1950s. It is sad to think that many of these remote areas have been largely deforested and have experienced major glacial shrinkage in the years since Naoroji’s expeditions. This fact is aptly observed in the fine foreword written by British mountaineer Stephen Venables, who trekked the same areas 40 years after these photographs were taken.

Himalayan Vignettes will be appreciated by those longing for the pristine mountain world that existed in the not too distant past, when areas such as the Garwal and Sikkim were viewed as remote, strange, and dangerous. Armchair mountaineers will trace routes with their fingers, and those less ambitious will just enjoy the view. It is, simply, a fine addition to the library of any of those who love mountains.

John Owen