Portraits from a Himalayan workshop Part 1

Okay tell me, what’s the best thing for you about travel? Is it the journey itself or the food, the vibes the place gives, or, the people you meet? I almost didnt meet Sandhya Gupta & Sarit Sharma, co-creators of Sambhaavnaa, the institute cradled in the Himalayas near Palampur, where I spent five dreamy days recently at a workshop meant to mentor documentary filmmakers. At around 7 am on Day 3, two of my new friends and I had gone down for a trek close to the river Avva that flows nearby. That’s when Sandhya walked past, back from her ritual morning walk. We had the ‘participants’-look Iam sure:). She stopped, called us home for tea, pointing out to a house we could see ahead in the hills. I had to get back for the day’s session, but told her I would land up at her place next morn, pucca. Am I glad I kept my word! The house, much like the buildings of Sambhaavnaa, blends in beautifully with the hills, built using traditional mud, wood & stone. And when I called out from the cobbled stone entrance above that little gurgling stream, I heard her voice say ‘Oopar aa jao’. I did as told, and opened the mesh door to an aroma & the sight of ample crushed ginger going into boiling tea on the stove. Over adrakh chai, we two women chatted in that lovely living room of hers that’s got a chulha right behind the table. It turned out that Sandhya, a Bihari, and husband Sarit met at Jamshedpur where they worked for the Tatas together. They married and then went to the US & did their PhD in Electrical Engineering and then worked as researchers there in developing advanced technologies. Shamli, their lovely daughter, came along & life was pretty good. And then, like one hears about many NRIs, the duo too had this inner voice telling them to get back to India to do something meaningful. One fine day they apparently sat with an India map to decide where that ”do something’ should happen. Both were clear it had to be around the Himalayas, and Sarit was keen it be near ‘some university town’. “Ek maahaul rehta hai na academics ka,” he told me the next evening when I walked over to their place, this time for dinner, and some music… And so this place, Kandhbari village, Palampur, Kangra district, Himachal Pradesh, literally fell off the map for the couple. Once friends knew what they had in mind, some of them put the duo in touch with Prashant Bhushan who had some plans as well as lands for a project. To cut a story short, Sandhya became the ‘sutradhaar’ of “Sambhaavnaa: The Institute of Public Policy & Politics” & Sarit, the ”Bhatakti Aatmaa’ on this stunning campus in the foothills of Himalayas, aimed at political activism. With likeminded people, they have also created Udaan, a learning space. The last day of my stay, the two along with their daughter, were doing what they do very often: Taking their mobile science exhibition created especially for local kids, down to Dhramman and nearby villages. (Btw on a related note, do you want to join them? They looking for enthusiastic volunteers!) Their pet project – Aavishkaar – is meant to help young learners in Palampur explore & experiment with science, math and music. Shamli, our young lady all of 11, is homeschooled, speaks impeccable Hindi & is a total joy to talk to. Grounded, sensitive, beautiful child. A day before I leave for home, I have a meal with the family, my palate pampered with some amazing pickles – Buransh (rhododendron, those bright red flowers?) chutney, bamboo ka achar and fresh paneer & pasta. Some kids from the village have come over for a sleepover. Dinner done, I urge Sandhya to bring out her sitar that I had heard she plays. Music – her Hindustani with the Carnatic raga Amrutavarshini that I sing next besides other Tamil and Hindi songs – then flows quietly into the night against the snowy Dhauladhaar peaks that stand outside their home – strong, silent and ageless.

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Posted: April 28, 2014


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