The book has taken four years to write and involved over a hundred visits to the area.

 

Life and Culture in Northeast India; By Dipti Bhalla Verma and Shiv Kunal Verma; Published by Mapin; Price: Rs 2,950

 

New Delhi: During an official visit to Mizoram in 2017, while staying with the Assam Rifles in Aizwal, I came across two books on the Northeast by the husband-wife team of Dipti Bhalla and Shiv Kunal Verma. After a fascinating day in the Lushai Hills, I had settled into my room when my gaze fell on their wonderful books on the “Assam Rifles” and another on the Dimapur-based 3 Corps titled, The Northeast Palette. Expecting to find the usual run-of-the-mill stuff that make up picture books, I was riveted from the first page, for in a complete break from the conventional approach, the two books covered both the region and the people intermixed with the Armed Forces in a fascinating manner. By far, these were arguably amongst the best “Coffee Table” books I had seen. Their latest offering published by Mapin in India and Abbeville Press in the United States, now raises the bar even further.

Despite being familiar with Dipti and Kunal’s skill with both movie and still cameras, when I picked up Life and Culture in the Northeast I was quite simply stunned by the quality of each photograph that has captured every sinew of the region in a manner seldom seen. Even in this day and age, where we are bombarded by a plethora of high class images, every photograph in the book is in a class of its own, telling a visual story that literally teleports us into distant lands, some of which even today are relatively inaccessible. I also realised, with a sense of shock, that despite having served and lived in the Northeast, there was so little that one knew about it and its people.

Most of us have a tendency to mentally club anything lying to the east of the Siliguri Corridor in West Bengal, as the “Northeast”, which is also known by the sobriquet of the “Seven Sisters”. This shortcoming is not just restricted to those outside the region, but is a malady within the Northeast as well where regional identities apart, people know little about each other. In the process, having shut our minds even before we started, we then fail to see the subtle and even the not so subtle differences within the region. At the very heart of the book, it is the stunning diversity of life and life forms that the authors have attempted successfully to bring to the fore. The “Whole” is broken down in a nuanced manner by each image and carefully weighed text, and then put together again to create a book which is almost like a rhapsody unfolding on paper before our very eyes.

Including Sikkim, which merged with India in 1975, with the Seven Sisters, and describing it as the “gateway to this region” is logical. Incidentally, 35% of its area is covered by the Khangchendzonga National Park, the mind blowing images of which set the tone for what is to follow.

During British times the Nyishi were referred to as “Dafla”. They sometimes raided the plains of Assam, which in turn lead to military expeditions into the area to “punish the tribes”. Contrary to the popular belief that the word dafla was used to denote a “savage”, it probably originated with the Assamese, who used it to describe a robust physique. For example, a good-looking Assamese girl is even today called a dafli.

The Northeast is unique in many ways; politically it is a land locked region, and yet geographically it is where the gap between the sea and the mountains is the shortest, as a result of which it is blessed with a biodiversity that is packed to the gills with a variety of flora and fauna. This narrow gap has also affected the human race, for the people who inhabit this region also come together from different ethnicities. The mix is further enriched by the fact that over 90% of the geographical boundaries are with neighboring countries that include Nepal, China, Bhutan, Myanmar and Bangladesh. The Assam Himalayas extend from Kanchenjunga, the third highest peak in the world, on the Nepal border in the west to the Lohit that enters India at Kibithu in the extreme east; the mighty Brahmaputra, one of the world’s most majestic rivers provides livelihood to millions of people, while the Barak River with its tributaries, waters southern Assam and Tripura which in turn are flanked by the Naga-Patkai that are home to the Naga, the Manipuri, the Kuki and the Mizo, while the Meghalaya Hills house the Jayantia, the Khasis and the Garo people.

Time and again Dipti and Kunal have gone the extra mile to document and bring to the table some lesser known facts. For example, till late in the 19th century, the final course of the Yarlung Tsangpo had not been charted, the river seemingly disappearing into the earth after it went around the great bend of the Namcha Barwa massif. That the Siang River, which enters India near Tuting, was indeed the Tsangpo, then made the Brahmaputra the ninth longest river on the planet. This is one of the wonders of nature. Similarly, using helicopters where necessary, even the route followed by Captains Frederick Bailey and Henry Morshead in 1913 has been illustrated with breath-taking shots of Yonggyap la and the Mishmi area, north of Anini. This expedition would form the basis for the McMahon Line that was drawn up a year later in Simla to define the border between British India and Tibet in the east.

Brought back from the brink of extinction, the red panda, almost a fantasy creature, is symbolic of this biosphere reserve. Photograph by Dhritiman Mukherjee.

Life and Culture in the Northeast had taken four years to write and involved over a hundred visits to the area, each averaging five days. What had emerged at the end of this commitment to the region was the earlier illustrated three-part Northeast Trilogy, which was by far the most comprehensive and detailed book on the entire region.

Bipin Shah’s Ahmedabad-based MAPIN Publications, known for its leading position in large size books on art and culture, then got its design team to put together this masterpiece that is destined to be a collector’s item.

The region can broadly be classified as plains; mainly in Assam, Tripura, and Central Manipur, the hills of Meghalaya, Manipur, Nagaland, Mizoram and mountains of Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh. While similarities exist, there are also differences which have been wonderfully brought out in this book.

The Nah Tagins of Taksing in celebratory mode. Taksing is a four-day walk from the road at Limking and life is very much at subsistence level but festival time brings out all the vibrancy of tribal life.

The book is laid out in ten chapters, each devoted to a state, except for Arunachal Pradesh, which has three chapters covering Western Arunachal or Kameng, Central Arunachal and Eastern Arunachal. Incidentally, no lateral movement is possible from one area to another due to the river valleys and the lie of the ranges. The starting point of each chapter is a map that helps give a better understanding and thereafter it covers the history, terrain, important places, flora and fauna and its people to include various tribes, their colourful dresses,habitat, customs, culture and beliefs. There are amazing pictures to go with the vivid descriptions, capturing a very complex region which continues to remain unknown to most of us in spite of the fact that the first rays of the sun fall in India at Kibithu, our easternmost town in Arunachal Pradesh with its mesmerizing views of the Lohit River.

Ethnicity is an aspect which is central to the 46 million inhabitants of this region. They are still clinging to their unique lifestyles in some parts. There are over 475 different ethnic groups speaking more than 400 languages. While Hindus continue to be the largest population, Nagaland, Mizoram and Meghalaya are mainly Christian, of which Mizoram is largely Presbyterian, while Nagaland is the only predominantly Baptist state in the world. Manipur has an equal mix of Meiteis, who are mainly Vaishnavite Hindus, and Nagas and Kukis who are Christians. Assam and Tripura are dominated by Hindus followed by Muslims, while Sikkim and Arunachal Pradesh both have a very high percentage of Buddhists and house the monasteries at Rumtek and Tawang, respectively. Within each state, there are various tribes, for example Nagaland has 16 major tribes, each fiercely guarding its own identity.

The history, customs, beliefs, traditions and lifestyle of these very diverse people is one of the threads that bind this narrative wonderfully. But tribal and regional identity, while needing to be protected, nurtured and preserved must also be willing to embrace a national identity, which is being resisted by some. The irony remains that most visitors to Mizoram for example need an inner line permit, whereas there is free movement allowed for a distance of up to 16 kms on our side of the International Border with Myanmar.

The images include some of the best portraits and stunning aerial photographs, thanks to generous helicopter support from the Indian Army. No corner of this region has been left out and there are no photographs sourced from third parties which make this book even more special. Even at the cost of repeating myself, I must reiterate that the photographs are a work of art and have served the primary purpose of introducing a major part of India to Indians.

A meeting of the Monpa village council in progress.

Dipti and Kunal together wear many hats. Amongst their many achievements, they have produced many documentaries that include some of the finest movies on the Indian Air Force and also on the National Defence Academy. Shiv Kunal Verma is also known for having filmed the Kargil War and is recognised to be one of the foremost military historians in the country. His book on the Sino-Indian conflict, 1962: The War That Wasn’t has won widespread critical acclaim. He had also earlier authored The Long Road to Siachen: The Question Why. His weekly series of articles on the history of Jammu and Kashmir running concurrently in The Sunday Guardian, reflects a depth of knowledge that has come from years of hard work that not only has familiarized him with the terrain, but the people and their history as well.

For many, this is a mysterious land; the book has endeavoured to lift the veil of secrecy and capture its richness and feel its pulse. The authors have filled a knowledge gap as the average person tends to associate this area with agitations, insurgency and being underdeveloped. Their skill lies in their ability to compress a great amount of material into a book, without making it very lengthy while at the same time not leaving out the essentials. Dipti and Kunal have successfully captured the essence and soul of the region with their rich prose and breathtaking imagery, and produced a book that needs to be treasured by all of us who are fortunate to belong to this wonderful subcontinent.

Maj Gen Jagatbir Singh, VSM (Retd) is an Army veteran.

The Sunday Guardian readers who wish to order the book should e-mail accounts@mapinpub.com with the code TSG2020 and they will get a 20% discount plus free shipping within India.