Milan Moudgill’s debut captures Kailash Mansarovar’s unseen views

by Ekatmata Sharma
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In conversation with Milan Moudgill as he talks about his first solo photography exhibition “Kailash Mansarovar”.  A project that follows the journey of Sven Hedin and Swami Pranavananda, through archival material, contemporary pictures, and an in-depth examination of the debates that arose, traces the story of how our modern understanding of Kailash came to be.

From being a graphic designer to debuting with a photography exhibition, how did the transition happen?

I am a graphic designer, not a photographer at all. I have shot stills for Mira Nair movies – ‘Monsoon Wedding’, ‘Namsake’, ‘Vanity Fair’ and ‘A Suitable Boy’. Simultaneously, I was also doing travel photography for Outlook Traveller and National Geographic Traveller. I undertook the Kailash Mansarovar project from 2002 to 2007. I would go there once a year. First time I had gone there as a tourist with camera to shoot. I discovered that Sven Hedin and Swami Pranavananda had gone there. I found it fascinating. The urge was to click these beautiful pictures. Then I went to Sweden in 2005 to research for Sven. I found the maps and journals and I could retrace the steps. I started research on both of them and finally it resulted in this exhibition now.

How have you managed to bring together different aspects of Kailash Mansarovar in one exhibition?  

The project is rooted in travelogue-photography, but uses archival material of Sven and Swami, to juxtapose the ‘now’ against the ‘then’, bringing to life the colourful story of the history of geography of the Kailash-Manasarovar area. While most writing on the area examines religiosity, this project looks at the history of exploration and the emergence through that exploration of modern knowledge of the geography of south-west Tibet.

The project follows in the footsteps of Sven and Swami, visiting the areas they did, and examining how geography of this sacred region emerged through the exploration of Sven Hedin, which was later sharpened through Swami’s critical examination of the Swede’s evidence.

As part of the project, the sources of the Brahmaputra, Indus and Sutlej were visited in 2007, a full 100 years after Sven Hedin did, using his journals, written accounts and maps that were accessed from the archive of the Swedish National Library and their National Archive, as well as the Museum of Ethnography, Stockholm. 

Swami’s own choice for the source of the Brahmaputra, and the traditional source of the Karnali were visited that same year, following his accounts and maps.

Through large-format pictures, supplemented with archival images and material, and supplementary text, much of the never-seen-before aspects of the Kailash region are presented. At the same time a fascinating story of grit, courage, fortitude of the two visitors emerges, to serve as a storyline which threads the project, placing the scholarship of their exploration in the foreground.

There are many ‘firsts’ that have occurred with your debut exhibition. Please throw some light.

It is a very unique exhibition in the history of development of photography. With photography moving to digital, this exhibition may represent one of the last few solo travel exhibitions shot on film. The pictures were shot 14 years back on film camera Contax 605. The first couple of pictures were shot 35 mm film, subsequently the larger one were shot on 220mm films. The largest picture is 20ft long.

Project was shot between 2002 and 2007, and so the oldest transparencies are two decades old. Ever since, the area has gone through a drastic change such that even these ‘new’ pictures are unique. There are exclusive views of the rare Inner Parikrama – the inner sanctum of Kailash. Never-seen-before view of the East Face of Kailash – the only one of the four faces of Kailash that is completely hidden. The sources of the great rivers – Brahmaputra, Sutlej, Indus and Karnali are photographed and shown for the first time. And lastly, I may be the only person alive to have visited the sources of these rivers.

How did you manage to take pictures while you were trekking in the harsh terrain?

I have organized and led high altitude treks and have done a little bit of mountain climbing also. I have done Chadar trek at Zanskar, Ladakh in winters. Hence, I understand the altitude of these places. I have had the experience of being in the outdoors. I went into harshness of the place but with the pre-understanding of what it would entail. It’s mostly mind over matter when you are in a difficult situation. It doesn’t get to you as you have a pre –experience.

What is the fascinating aspect of the Sven and Swami’s personalities?

Both are different and both are extremely fascinating. They are 30 years apart from each other. Sven was completely driven and he dedicated his life to exploration of Central Asia. The Swedish explore slipped into Tibet in 1906 determined to unlock the plateau’s secrets. He did five major expeditions to this area. Every expedition was for two years. When he entered into India from Leh, for 79 days he dint see another human being. Of the 94 horses and mules he started from Leh only 20 survived. Every day one animal would die because of exhaustion. It was 1507, when there was nothing in these regions. Carrying a boat for two years, every day he was taking panaromas and making maps. At night he was studying planet and stars and made latitude and longitude. He was very dedicated and passionate. But, he wanted to do it for recognition. 

On the other hand Swami being a saint had written books on all subjects. He explored the region 30 years later. However, Swami’s archives were not easily available like Sven’s. Only this project on the rivers is thread that binds them together otherwise they are very different personalities.   

How did you manage to get archives of Swami Pranavananda?

Indians never record or document, as the Europeans do. As he was a Sadhu he didn’t keep much material possessions. Also because he was travelling, it was difficult to keep things with him. 

In the last 12 years of his life, Swami was researching the tantric symbol the Shri Chakra. He wrote a book on Shri Chakra which was printed after his death. Somehow I got a hold of the copy of the book through which I got to know that he had a three dimensional Maha Nehru Shri Chakra and installed it in his village temple in Andhra Pradesh. I had gone to visit the temple. There was a small room at the temple with old trunks and requested access to them. All the archival material that is displayed at the exhibition was that he carried with him.   

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