Family Albums From Ladakh: Nostalgia and memory converge in a rare examination of the 'Ladakhi' identity
Family Albums From Ladakh by Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation (LAMO) focuses on how representations of the region changed with the arrival of photography.
While it features prominently in debates on geopolitical rivalries, many would agree the cultural complexities of Ladakh have not been appropriately historicised, despite forming the pivot of a decades-long territorial strife. The city of Leh, for instance, has often described as a 'cosmopolitan' space in ethnographic accounts. This cosmopolitanism resulted out of the flourishing trade network spread across the Silk Road which linked Ladakh to Central Asia, South Asia, and Tibet. While those years are one fragment of the region's history, another began with Ladakh becoming part of independent India in 1948 after Partition, and later in 1974, when it was opened to the world outside. However, coupled with the advent of technology in the region, perhaps the inrush of a new wave of socio-economic change also paved the way for certain hybridities, which — although elude mainstream narratives on culture and identity — have a history of their own.
Subverting the gaze of the 'outsider', Family Albums From Ladakh by Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation (LAMO) focuses on how representations of the region changed with the arrival of photography. Put together by executive director Dr Monisha Ahmed, arts officer Tsering Motup, and research associate Stanzin Lhadol, the online exhibition prompts natives and even those with an intimate involvement with the territory, to vet the intersection of memory, origin, and identity in the face of constant reinvention. Excerpts from an interview with Ahmed, Motup and Lhadol below:
What lies behind the conceptualisation of Family Albums From Ladakh?
Ahmed: During the pandemic we needed to adapt and be flexible, and redefine ourselves as an arts organisation. We have always held exhibitions at the LAMO Centre, especially during the summer when we have visitors. We wanted to continue that practice, but of course on a different platform this time.
We then started the exhibition as we found that the pandemic and ensuing lockdown had brought people together, especially in urban and rural areas of Ladakh. This exhibition was another way they could bring out old photos, discuss them, and engage with each other. In a way, we also wanted to extend the therapeutic effect of art to other people in these times.
"When my meymaylay (grandfather) was posted as ranger in the Forest Department in Zanskar, amusement items like the radio that he is carrying were a completely new phenomenon. I remember him telling me about the one time he took his new 'muse' to Zanskar, where the villagers began screaming in awe, 'Ranger has brought cinema! Ranger has brought cinema.' Sometimes he would mischievously tune in to the frequencies broadcasting Pakistan Army's advances at the border and tell people that they could come for them any moment. The villagers would swear at him, almost stoning the radio in retaliation once," reads Angmo's note.
The exhibition allows people to examine the role of photography and performance in how Ladakh has been represented over the years. How have the two impacted perspectives on the region over the years?
Motup: Photography has definitely changed in terms of forms, functions and cultural adaptations. But representations of Ladakh has moved from tribal archival imagery to a more glamorous form of exoticisation.
Ahmed: For a vast majority, Ladakh still remains the land of red-cheeked little monks in maroon robes, or monasteries, etc… much like India is still seen as a land of snake charmers and elephants.
Ladakh is always presented as a “remote” region with little access to the outside world, that really only happened in the period from 1947 to 1974. I think some of these images show a Ladakh that varies from the generalised representations of the place, and this change can be observed among Ladakhis themselves and those who understand the realities of the place.
"My grandfather was the last Aksakal of the Central Asian trade in Ladakh. This photo of my grandparents — Tharchin Joldan and Chamnet— and my aunt Esther was taken in the garden of our house in Zangsti, Leh when photography was rare in Ladakh. The house behind them is of the Khwajas, an important trading family, who lived on the opposite side. Although I didn’t see my grandfather, as he passed away before I was born, I often conjure up romantic images of the times he lived in — with traders, missionaries, explorers, and adventurers coming from Central Asia, Tibet, mainland India and the West. Therefore, Ladakh was certainly a multicultural, multi-religious, and cosmopolitan place and this must have impacted my grandfather’s life and thoughts in many ways. He would hold storytelling sessions during the long winter months for family and friends. Moreover, these stimulating social gatherings were also a source of entertainment, education and cultural preservation for the young and old.
"The traditional dresses worn by my grandmother and aunt — the embroidered border of my aunt's nambu sulma, woollen robe, the churidar pyjama and the upturned kapsha shoes as well as the bog, cape — reveal the influence of trade and fashion in those times," recounts Jodan.
In that case, what is it that truly makes a photo memorable? And how intrinsic is 'gaze' to the series?
Lhadol: Most photos are of a time when smartphones were not ubiquitously owned. It was not so long ago when taking pictures and getting them developed was festive in itself, making them memorable. They are an anchor to our past. The transition to digital cameras and the smartphone revolution, some argue, has robbed us of this tool of memory-making of its charm. I, too, believe it to be largely true.
Motup: I think a photo becomes memorable when it is part of a story or an event, precisely why we tend to take a lot of pictures on occasions of a certain importance. We are essentially capturing that time and space in order to mark and later revisit it. Therefore, we thought it would be interesting to look back on the days when cameras have just become a part of domesticity.
"During my fieldwork in Rupshu, I lived with Nawang Tharchen and his family. I remember the first day his daughter Rinchen, then 16, sat at the loom to learn to weave. It was an exciting day for her; in some ways it also meant her taking on a new role in the family — and the end of the long hours spent herding the family’s livestock. Taking the seat her mother had just vacated, Rinchen nervously wove a few lines of the nambu, woollen cloth, as her grandmother Abi Yangzom and mother Tashi Zangmo patiently guided her. The scene depicts the manner in which traditions were upheld and passed down, over generations. Many years have passed since then. Rinchen moved out of Rupshu and now lives in Kharnakling, near Choglamsar. While she continues to weave, she has still not taught her daughter," Ahmed notes.
In what ways is memory — both individual and collective — connected to the interpretation of one’s cultural identity? And how does that link reflect in the photographs, which have been submitted by people who have lived in Ladakh or moved to another city after some years?
Ahmed: Memory is very important, so is nostalgia. Several of the entries reflect on the past with a sense of melancholy, others as a way of remembering an incident or a person. We saw the exhibition as bringing people together across generations, and places. I think even unconsciously, these photos depict a different cultural atmosphere, one that not only looks at the ‘ordinary’, everyday goings-on but also the celebrations and entry of new ideas, and with them, objects we may now take for granted.
And at a time like this, remembrance plays a large part as people want to remember a time when we lived without masks and interacted with each other without fear.
Motup: Memory can help us construct our modernity without losing our cultural identity. To understand memory better, I often turn to Vilem Flusser, who said that the term memory in itself is a severed thread in a fabric that can’t be woven further, but rather it must be woven into a new fabric.
Since we now have enough time to introspect and revisit the past, such photographs can help fill the gaps as they are also evidences of the past.
Looking back on a photograph of her maternal grandfather, mother's cousin and a member of the phaspun, Dolma writes:
"In 1984 when television was first came to Ladakh, my father (who is fond of cricket) got one for himself to watch the matches. In 1987 he married and came to my mother's house, bringing this black and white TV along."
What changes do you think such imagery can bring to the discourse around Ladakh in the current social and political climate?
Ahmed: These archives form part of an important visual documentation of the history of Ladakh that speaks of its landscape, culture and the people who inhabited it. They speak not only of the past but also of contemporary issues in Ladakh. But more than that they turn the gaze inwards, so Ladakhis start looking at themselves and how they were/are 'viewed' — and how they 'view' themselves.
Motup: There isn’t an ultimate aim for us to achieve, or we haven’t worked with that intent. But say the process has been an important milestone. We can’t say on whether it will bring about new discourses on Ladakh but projects like these can document vital information that can help researchers to connect the dots.
"When I was 15, on returning from school one day, and I saw that my mother, Tashi Dolma, had acquired a new sewing machine. I was so excited that I tried using it at once. Coincidentally, a Japanese tourist passed by our house at the same time, and I said 'hello' to him. He came in and took a picture of us. And after a year he sent us this photograph," recounts Angchuk.
— Featured image (extreme left): Sharad Gohil's grandmother with her two children. The photo was taken by her husband Lalit Gohil, who ran the first studio in Leh in the 1950s.
— All images courtesy Ladakh Arts and Media Organisation
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