By Anna Tingley
In the Winter of 2015, it wasn’t rare for Himanshu Kaghta to wake up in -31 degree Celsius weather, unable to squeeze his feet into his rigid boots that were frozen solid by the sub-zero temperatures of Spiti Valley.
The Indian-based photographer, who traveled to the rural Himalayan mountain tops during their coldest seasons out of sheer curiosity, said the experience wasn’t as tough as most Westerners would think, though. For him, the simple and humble lives of the Himalayan communities he met were inspiring. While he was there, he describes the absence of tap water or even electricity for more than two months at a time. But rather than complain, the villagers would smartly utilize what they had, digging trenches through the snow in early hours of the morning and burning firewood to keep warm indoors.
“It’s a very small community but their life is very happy and they know how to live in the winter without any infrastructure,” Kahgta told me. “It might look tough if you just land with no preparation but the people who live there, they’re having fun, there’s nothing else to do so there’s festivals and people are reuniting with each other and there’s village prayers.”
But it was the Himalayan women, in particular, who stood out to Kahgta the most. He explains that women in rural and isolated communities, such as those in Spiti Valley, have a very important role in society. When describing the women he met, it’s clear that they’re all jack of trades, assuming large roles in every aspect of life – putting in grueling hours to their farmwork, dedicating time to family life, and cooking abundant meals are just a few of the responsibilities given to Himalayan women.
“Life is very hard for the women in the Himalayas,” Kaghta said. “And despite all that, they are happy. That’s what is important.”
Kaghta’s documentation of Himalayan villages has been featured in a wide array of publications, including The New York Times, Conde Nast Traveller, The International Herald Tribune, and BBC, for which he recently filmed his “winter drive” to Pangi, a remote valley in India.
And most recently, his work was featured in The Kitab, South-Asia’s first ever photo-book festival, which aims to expose art to marginalized communities in rural areas. For its most recent edition, the team travelled for 14 hours by road in order to present five different exhibitions, covering three different small villages within one district. They finally reached the rural town of Almora, where its exhibit “Women in the Himalayas” was showcased from September 21st-23rd, featuring artists such as Kaghta.
“Even though women are the lifeline of the mountain villages, they face poverty, low literacy levels and unemployment,” The Kitab’s founder, Manik Katyal, told me. “With our Almora edition, we explored how photography can empower and inspire and be an important tool for social-change amongst the women in the mountain villages as it provides much needed global exposure to the community through powerful photography books.”
The Kitab’s main mission is to democratize photography, allowing art to be seen in spaces outside of pretentious galleries and museums and be taken instead to the people it’s representing. Katyal said that this is especially important in India, where the elite feel they “own” photography and the arts, and there exists a huge creative gap between classes.
“All the photography related events and exhibitions happen in five to six bigger metros in India, targeting a very selected wine-cheese audience,” Katyal said. “With The Kitab, we totally want to change that mindset. World class photography should be available for all.”
Another exhibit in their latest edition highlighted the rural women who work at “Kilmora” in Mukteshwar, where between their morning domestic chores and late afternoon family obligations, they make their way to the Kilmora workshop and create wonderful craft-based products. Past exhibits have focused on a diverse range of people, highlighting the lives of the transgender community in India, jail-inmates, and college students.
The exposure to rural life that The Kitab offers to its festival-goers in the city is what remains most important to its fans and artistic contributors.
"Kitab was an exceptional experience for the women artisans at Kilmora, not just because it was something they had never seen before but also because it opened the world to them,” one visitor, Srishti Singh, said. “Engaging with content from countries they had never even heard of and visual stories with myriad interpretations, it broke barriers for these women.”
Himanshu Kaghta makes it clear that it won’t be long before he’s back in the sub-zero temperatures of Spiti Valley, struggling to squeeze his frozen boots onto his feet every morning. But we can also be sure that after a few months of living on the Himalayan mountaintops, documenting the lives of women in isolated villages, he’ll come back with his photos to share with the world – so we can all travel to the highest and coldest peaks of the world, from the comforts of our bed.
Anna Tingley is the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of Tough to Tame, and an advocate for all things feminist, politics, or ramen-related. Her writing can be found at Teen Vogue, Billboard Magazine, Her Agenda, The Daily Bruin, and The Richmond Pulse. But for all the dirt, check her out on Instagram @annatationz and Twitter @annatingley.