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'Ear-opener' in Ladakh

Meenakshi Shedde Ladakh is such a different sensory experience — the landscapes, the architecture, the trees, the wind — it kicks the restart button for the senses. I’ve been in Ladakh since last week, starting with the 3rd Ladakh International Film Festival. Run by Melwyn Williams Chirayath and Meghna Agnihotri, it is held in Leh at 3,505 metres, one of the highest altitude film festivals in the world.

Ideally, you arrive in Leh a day earlier to acclimatise, as the air is rare at this height. I felt like I was high without the alcohol. Amol Gupte, director of Hawa Hawaii, said he felt like he was on 48 frames per second-as in a slomo movie. The first thing that often happens is that your mobile phone doesn’t work here. Internet connectivity is also erratic — so I was going around like Banquo's ghost the first day, with my laptop, desperately seeking a signal. Author Pico Iyer, arriving in Bombay, wrote — “Everything goes wrong and it's all right,” or words to that effect. Ditto here. Disconnected from the rest of the world, I soon surrendered and went with the flow. Soon I was cheerfully leaving people notes at the hotel reception, Lunchbox-style.

rivers
The great rivers and the desolate brown ranges give us a sense of the Indian subcontinent 

The festival opened with Rakeysh Om Prakash Mehra’s documentary, Bollywood-The Greatest Love Story Ever Told. It was screened at the Druk White Lotus School in Shey-better known as ‘Rancho’s school’, where they shot a bit of 3 Idiots. It was an open-air evening screening, finishing with an incredibly beautiful night strewn with stars. At that height, the stars seem almost within your grasp. The fledgling festival also showed Anurag Kashyap’s Ugly, ahead of its India release, with the director in attendance. The festival screens Indian and international features, documentaries, shorts and children’s films, on Blu-ray or DVD, at the beautiful Sindhu Sanskriti Kendra in Leh.

There are poplar and willow trees everywhere in Leh, and when you open your window, fleecy poplar flowers skedaddle in, and the wind collects them in eddies on terraces. It’s like being in a haiku. Everywhere in and around Leh, you are surrounded by the awesome Himalayan mountain ranges. The Thiksey monastery, not far from Leh, is one of the most intoxicating buildings I have ever seen. Perched at the top of a hillock, it offered a staggering view of the surrounding mountains. Not only did it have grand Buddha statues, but also a wonderfully evolved sense of architecture, design and colour. Delightful little monks-monklets? monklings? — in maroon robes, scampered about, one in cool, hipster shades, and another with an iPad.

Later we went river rafting at the Sangam, where the green Sindhu meets the tawny Zanskar. Although we were in relatively calmer waters, and topped it off with Maggi noodles in a canteen on the banks, I came away overwhelmed by these great rivers-snaking their way through desolate dark brown ranges — the fount of civilisation on the Indian
subcontinent.

One evening, the hotel next door had arranged traditional performances for its guests. Musicians, who were playing traditional Ladakhi tunes with fifes and drums, suddenly switched to a patriotic, Ae mere Watan Ke Logon, before segueing without warning into the popular aarti from— OMG — Jai Santoshi Maa! I suppose Gujarati money talks. But why not? When I was in Paris, and glided down the Seine in one of those ‘bateaux mouches’, the commentary on the city landmarks passing by first played in Japanese, and only later in English. It was a real ‘ear-opener.’

Meenakshi Shedde is India Consultant to the Berlin Film Festival, an award-winning critic, curator to festivals worldwide, and journalist. She can be reached at meenakshishedde@gmail.com.

The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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