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  • Writer's pictureSukrit Gupta

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A few days ago Indian-American athlete Vasu Sojitra called out the film – Himalayan Ice, sponsored by La Sportiva, through his instagram handle. The ensuing altercation among Vasu, the filmmakers (Ari Novak and Austin Schmitz), athletes and the Piti Dharr organising team was journalled by The Outdoor Journal. Which is how I found out about the ‘issue’. [/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

Vasu’s outrage laced with ‘isms’ (ideological rhetoric), reminded me of my literature classroom at the Delhi University. Dropping out of the MA programme twice, I couldn’t relate then with the hyperbolic weight of jargons. Words, which with a few letters, would sum up the passage of a hundred years, illustrious body of artistic work, and even the study of shit. Colonialism, filmography, scatology, the list goes on. I couldn’t see how the intellectual fervour of my classmates bore any effect on my life; or those of the billions that remain oblivious to and excluded from such discussions and institutions. Watching the film Himalayan Ice bridged that gap for me. And for this alone, I would like to thank the filmmaker, the sponsors and the Piti Dharr festival crew. [/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

The purpose of writing this article is not to demand an apology from the stakeholders of the film. For an apology, which is not heart-felt for, or is tendered without the understanding of the folly it tries to absolve itself of, is meaningless. Demanding it will also be, probably, an egoistic exercise, which I do not want to indulge in. Neither do I want to press upon the withdrawal of the film from various platforms. Drawing from the lives and values of our revolutionaries and freedom fighters, I would rather like to press for the protection of the filmmakers’ right to expression and free speech. Art, no matter how poor, is a mirror that reflects the society that breeds and celebrates it. [/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

My aim is, therefore, only to emphasize:

  1. The plurality of the subaltern by introducing you to one/some of the perspectives/lives/experiences that form it.

  2. To make the reader/viewer aware of how the subaltern narrative and histories are often controlled, skewed and distorted.

  3. To make you aware of the issues of orientalism and racial discrimination.

  4. And, to let you know that the subaltern can speak for themselves.

I’ve deliberately chosen to create this piece in English, for the colonialist has rarely (if never) bothered to learn our languages. And I will use the word I/We/Our/Us interchangeably throughout, only to speak for the representation that composes the voice of 4Play. [/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

Before I proceed, I’d like for you to understand two concepts that are central to this piece.

1. Orientalism– Orientalism is a world view the West adopts to ‘see’ and ‘understand’ the East. Be it politics or culture – the West depicts these societies as primitive, irrational, violent and inferior to them. It often romanticizes the said values of the Eastern civilization but without much respect. For instance, India continues to be land of yogis and snake charmers even today. This video explains it really well – Link2. Subaltern – It is the voice of the marginalised population. The term subaltern designates the colonial populations who are socially, politically, and geographically outside the hierarchy of power of a colony, and of the empire’s metropolitan homeland. Antonio Gramsci coined the term subaltern to identify the social groups excluded and displaced from the socio-economic institutions of society in order to deny their political voices. [/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

Representation & Voice

My journey in the professional world formally started at the age of 17, hawking vegetable juice, distributing flyers and taking tuitions. To afford a $80 annual college fee and a $50 a month living expense that my family struggled to provide. Riding 150 kms a day as an apparel salesperson on a 100cc ungeared two-wheeler loaded with hundreds of t-shirts, through the streets of Delhi/NCR, was when I first got introduced to the idea of mountain travel and then climbing. As my interest progressed, encouraged by a supportive family, I traded my formal education for freelance sustenance to pursue the mountains full time. Just to give you an idea of the number of factors that check such deviances to the norm – think of close knit social structures and providing for the family (in the absence of social security). Caste and gender for some. I am privileged in a lot of ways and marginalized in others. This – in full, part or addition to – is a lived reality for many. The point of stating this is not to evoke pathos or praise but to give you a more appropriate context for my work and voice.

Like most beginners in the sport, I experienced a quick progression in rock climbing grades. With an infantile experience of three months I embarked on a solo bouldering trip to Hampi, in the early months of 2013. Climbing 6a/6b highballs in the isolation of Rishimukh plateau, on a lonely evening, I was suddenly made conscious of an approaching presence by the sound of footsteps. A tall, bare chested American who had climbed in the Red River Gorge, made a humble introduction and settled down to roll a cigarette; while I grappled to get past, what was moments ago an easy jug. I floundered under the examining gaze of someone I presumed to be a better climber. Rising confidently, stepping onto a stubbed cigarette, my observer too conceded to the same crux. Had I assumed too much about the white climber?  Well, climbing videos didn’t tell me any better. I hadn’t known until then, that browns can crush hard too. As I became more invested in the space, was when I got introduced to our stars like Kumar Gaurav, Sandeep Maity, Siddhi Manerikar, Dhillan Chandramowli and Chandraprabha Aitwal to name a few. [/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”6631″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][vc_single_image image=”6641″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]

A few years later I got to work with The Outdoor Journal, while it was still publishing from India. Very briefly and as a freelancer. I was very excited for the opportunity. I found it to be the first aesthetically well packaged outdoor publication distributed in the homeland. But the excitement was short-lived. As I consumed what it had to offer, I wondered if it’d ever tell our tales in a language that we could understand. The glint of the gloss faded in my eyes as I realized that I could neither relate to it nor afford it. It was probably the first time I understood what representation or voice meant. This is not to belittle the work of the publication. Its presence definitely enabled a lot of ideas, including the one unfolding as you read this piece. Evolution is, after all, an iterative process. [/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

The Orientalist & The Native Elite

The orientalists to further their game and devices of colonization (both material and intellectual), recruited the native elite (like upper caste Hindus). Hence, the brown sahib was English schooled to tame his own people. For the white master. The brown sahib served as a tool in the colonist’s hands, narrated the master’s tale and furthered their viewpoint. The native did not have a say. While in the past scholars and academics struggled to explain this relationship, the evolution of memetic media has solved the problem. [/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”6645″ img_size=”full” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]

Observing in the context of contemporary Indian mountain literature and media, the one that is sponsored and curated by the ‘West’, I found this relationship even more pronounced and visible. The voice of India is often represented by the cafe hopping, bacon eating, globe-trotting native elite. Not that I have a problem with any of the three, but in choosing to highlight only these privileged voices, the West robs us of our plural experiences and representations. Which, mostly, are not as privileged. [/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

Manufacturing The Myth: Our Mediated Realities

When the western orientalists visit, their perception of us is mediated by the English speaking guide with a fancy ride that drives them here.  

In her article ‘Notes from the frontier’ (Alpinist, Issue 54), Maya Kimberly Prabhu (a journalist of Indo German heritage, raised mostly in southern and eastern Africa) is ‘trying’ to capture a cultural moment in Indian mountaineering that is sitting at the cusp of a change. For her plot’s purpose, she chooses the voice of Karn Kowshik (also the narrator in the film, The Himalayan Ice) – “An urban, English-speaking southerner, smoker, drinker, beard-and-topknot wearer1”. Bharat Bhushan, “the eldest son of a devout Hindu family, who climbs hills to fetch feed for the livestock2”, sits in the background as a mute spectator. Spoken about briefly, and mostly in third person. I dug into the climbers’ profiles in search for treasures of glorious summits or spectacular failures that would’ve tipped the scale in favor of one, helping Maya decide in choosing the best representative. I failed to gather anything about the factors that affected the selection process, except privilege and accessibility that a fluency in the English language affords.

My critique of Maya’s work emanates from the following points: The article could’ve been a biographical profile, but it isn’t. In choosing to showcase our cultural moments and beliefs, I wonder why Maya selects a privileged voice and overlooks the significant other, that of Bharat. In the end we are left with a brand name – ‘Himalpinists’ which fails to resonate, like an overtly salesy pitch that makes the prospects wary. What I find even more troublesome about Maya’s skewed presentation – is how it slights history that has enabled Karn or any of us, to come this far.

In hindsight, it is difficult to dispute Bharat Bhushan’s and Pranav Rawat’s pioneering work in Indian mountaineering. Like, the duo teamed with Shekhar Singh for a 45 day self-sufficient effort to open a 950 kilometres long trail through the Indian Himalayas. A bold first, in terms of vision and style. But of course, marginalised farmers, with ‘Hindi accented English’ are difficult to mould into icons. [/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”6633″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]

Maya’s prejudice against the ‘local’ climbers and her patronizing attitude fueled by the orientalist imagination came to fore again three years later when she wrote another article, for the Alpinist Mag’s On Belay segment, Uncharted Ice. The piece essays about climbing in Spiti and the Piti Dharr festival. By 2019 Bhushan’s lone rangering with multiple partners, for furtherance of ice climbing in the area, had become hard to ignore. His claim for space in Maya’s article is undisputed. In the same article however, Maya ridicules Pranav Rawat and Abhijeet Singh for merely attempting a first ascent in front of a camera crew. Something which of course, the West is completely oblivious of. In a condescending subtext she alludes to them as ‘ice neophytes, hungry for first ascents and media glare’.

What is even more surprising is the fact that Maya was drafting this article while attending the Piti Dharr Ice Climbing Fest’s inaugural edition where an American film crew was filming Karn, as he proclaimed on camera, “Climbing in Spiti is about first ascents!”. As if leaving no room for doubt, he even employs rhetoric, “How else do you get out and put yourself in the history books, other than by climbing first ascents?!”. The irony couldn’t have been more obvious. Also the prejudice in Maya’s writing.  

Watching the Himalayan Ice film a few days ago, I was jolted by the ways in which orientalists are mediating our realities for a western audience, using the privileged voices of their choosing. Not to mention the virtue signalling that goes along with. [/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

Blending: Manufactured Exoticism, White Supremacy & Virtue Signalling

The orientalist has forever ‘manufactured’ exoticism, to market the East as novel, to a western audience. The film Himalayan Ice isn’t shy of using the same formula.

Karn Kowshik, a trained and experienced journalist, also the prime narrator of the film confidently claims that Piti Dharr is the first ice climbing festival in India. I wonder if Mr. Kowshik is on talking terms with his colleagues. Since, Prerna Dangi was in attendance at the Screwed Up Ice Climbing Festival, Manali (Jan, 2018). Prerna (a featured climber in the Himalayan Ice) in another film about the Piti Dharr’s inaugural festival edition claims for it the title – ‘first international ice climbing festival in India’. Bharat Bhushan who attended the 2nd edition of the Screwed Up Fest 2019, before departing for the inaugural edition of the Piti Dharr in Spiti, was fully aware of German climber Melanie Hogg’s presence on the Screwed Up organising team. Had Ari Novak (the film’s director and an experienced TV producer) conducted a basic Google search, he would’ve known that the first ice climbing event in India was hosted in Kashmir, in 2016. Since the ‘featured climbers’ feature in the 46 minute film for a combined total of 3 minutes, I wonder if Bharat and Prerna were shown a preview copy before release. I wonder if they agreed upon the claim for the various firsts. [/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”6644″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]

In a separate incident a couple months ago, I had politely nudged Karn and Prerna on text chat, about how the former (on his instagram account) has attributed the first ascent of Spiti Serpent to Prerna and Anil Belwal, whereas it is Abhijeet Singh that Prerna partnered with for the climb. Both Prerna and Karn acknowledged my message. The post still stands unchanged, as of May 15, 2020.

Full disclosure, the communication material for the Screwed Up Fest’s 2nd edition briefly carried the title ‘first ice climbing festival in India’. Since we believed that our jenga-playing-barbecuing-festive-vibe and shared learning atmosphere was novel, and clearly distinguishable from a government steered climbing workshop open only for Kashmiri locals. However, considering that the title is disputable, we have proactively weeded it out.

Not stopping at claiming a first, the film continues to ‘create’ the exotic with a carefree superlative. The film’s tagline reads – ‘India’s most remote valley’. Even a non-native speaker will be able to tell the difference between ‘most remote’ and ‘a remote’. I am perplexed by how the filmmaker had arrived at this definitive conclusion. Is Spiti the remotest in terms of motorability? Altitude? Proximity to the international borders? Or, distance from the national capital? And I am totally at a loss now, with respect to classifying the remoteness of the valleys of Kashmir, Lahaul, Zanskar, Nubra or Rupin.

Veiled exoticism is blended with generous amounts of white supremacy and virtue signalling. The white person needs to teach the uncouth native. The native, who wears a leather jacket to the ice crag. The native that doesn’t at all know, about climbing or basic safety practices. The native that is at the white man’s mercy, for the provision of climbing gear. The crag in the film was littered with ‘personalities’ from the Indian climbing community. Bharat Bhushan ( A NOLS instructor who works in Alaska), Prerna & Karn (professional mountain guides). Even Anil Belwal, the national rock climbing coach, could be seen drilling for 2 seconds. Jacob Raab (one of the minor contributing cinematographers for the film) even placed it on record that – Mr. Belwal saved his life in a potential ground fall incident. I wonder if mentioning such an incident about an Indian hero would have altered the filmmaker’s scripted narrative of a prejudiced world view.  I wonder if sharing screen time with the Indian athletes would’ve made it less relatable and less glorified for a western audience. As unrelatable as it is for us, in its current form. Indians speak, lug gear, follow, but hardly climb/lead (if at all) in the entire film. Even the indigenous people of Spiti, who Karn claims in a social media post are the main participants of the festival, feature for a grand total of one minute in the film. In a demonstration of befuddling ignorance, the film lost a bright opportunity to provide the proof for an alternative reality that could’ve broken stereotypes. The tokenism of dropping an Indian hat on all climbs, save one, is too evidently a cover up.

At some point in the second half of the film the viewer’s attention is drawn to Ari’s gear bag. The one that arrives late. The one on which the festival was ‘dependent’. I am pressed to think how the festival endured until that point. Was the Indian Mountaineering Foundation, that the group visits in the first half of the movie, able to help?

By raising these questions, I do not imply that we do not need skill sharing or material resources. Or that gear should not be donated. I only want to point out the social inequities and the high handedness that the native and the locals regularly dealt with. I want to point out the lack of our voice, representation and equity in your narratives. Our wants and lack of resources do not imply that we are begging for them, as it is often portrayed.

Mountaineering in India has traditionally been thought of in terms of Everest or colonial expeditioneering inspired ascents – thanks to our mountaineering institutes which have colonial underpinnings. With the advent of digital media, we have some hope of moving in other directions. But films like Himalayan Ice make me doubtful. Had it been only about Ari and Karsten’s personal climbing achievements in the valley, it would’ve probably had aspirational value for me. Were it a fictional presentation, I would’ve let a lot of things slide. But for what it seemingly claims and portrays, only makes me wonder if the digital media is as democratic as it pretends to be?[/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”6642″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]

Crony Capitalism

There are 3-4 ice climbing communities in India at the moment, if not more, strewn across Himalayan states. Some of which (including us) haven’t had the means to go abroad, the opportunity to learn from a foreigner or the benefit of donated gear. Yet the individual progress of each community is almost at par if not better than the other. I remember the first time I climbed frozen water in 2017, I drilled the ice with screws sponsored by GIPFEL. A homegrown manufacturer of UIAA certified outdoor equipment. [/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”6639″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]

When the westerners claim unsubstantiated firsts, manufacture exoticism and assert their sole authority over skills & safety, it disrespects our progress, self-reliance, hardships and efforts. Selectively propping up one voice of your choosing to further our caricatured images is a power-play. What is it, if not a reminder of our colonial past? Through your mass media and capitalist devices, we are cast in a skewed marketplace that favors your muscle. Robbing us of our equal share in the sport, and the right to earn a livelihood. Consider for instance, a consumer in the ice climbing market, who after watching the film will always require the ‘skilled-white-guide’ to take them to the ‘first ice climbing festival of India’. Facilitate a ‘safe experience’ in India’s ‘most remote valley’. By manufacturing this false narrative, you’ve robbed us of our agency and made us invisible to the world. I wonder if we can ever be compensated for this injustice. For the film that has already shaped the perspectives of millions, is there ever a going back and the undoing of its capitalist violence?

In the winter of 2019, an Indian-American couple from Portland, amateur climbing enthusiasts and devout Rock and Ice readers embarked on a 60 hour journey to the Screwed Up Fest. Enticed by the Himalayan winterscapes, better value for money, and the promise of more climbing time, they traded preference with our festival over the Michigan Ice Fest. In a departing feedback session, they expressed appreciation for our on field professionalism. I wonder if they would’ve been comfortable making the same decisions, had they watched Himalayan Ice.[/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

Unabashed Racial Discrimination

If inequitable screen time or credit sharing aren’t enough, the film is literally strewn with racial discrimination. [/vc_column_text][vc_single_image image=”6640″ img_size=”full” add_caption=”yes” alignment=”center”][vc_column_text]

In early 2017, International climbing magazines carried a clip of the ‘Shivaay’ film. The joke punches down, and is in poor taste. Let me tell you how and why. The difference is in the subtext of the joke and the feelings, emotions and perceptions it intends to evoke in a specific socio-cultural context. To a white climber’s eyes, scenes from the ‘Cliffhanger, Mission Impossible or, Vertical Limit’ are exaggerated versions of reality. A reality very different from the Hollywood caricature. A reality made real by the climbing media’s glorification of contemporary western climbers as Alex Honnold or Beth Rodden, to place a counter weight. However, the same is not true in the case of Shivaay. In the absence of Indian/brown climbing heroes from the western media, the caricature becomes the white person’s version of the Indian’s reality. And soon the racist joke seeps into the mainstream media. Fast forward to 2019, the caricature alludes to the personality of an Indian climber in the Himalayan Ice film. Do I even need to explain the subtext anymore?

12 minutes into the movie Ari Novak exclaims, “It’s about a 45 hour drive to China, from here”. An insensisitive metaphor he uses for describing the journey from New Delhi to Spiti. I wonder what Ari wants to imply. Does it mean that Spiti falls in the Chinese territory, and is not a part of the Indian national territory? Or, Is Ari implying to refer to the indigenous people of Spiti as Chi***? By the way Ari, which part of Canada does Montana lie in?

The orientalist binary that the filmmaker sticks to and the stereotypes that he reinforces are not expected from an evolved and informed filmmaker. Even in its visual language the film is replete with the theme portraying East as the spiritual yet static and undeveloped part of the world; and the West as the reservoir of skill, method and rationale. Save for the untapped potential of ice to be exploited, we see or hear nothing worthwhile about the country. There are only traffic jams, unhygienic street food, beggars, unskilled locals, slums and under construction roads in a 740km drive and probably a fortnight long trip to Kaza. We surely do not live in a Star Wars movie set, like you make it out to be. Just as I am sure, that you’re not living in the alternative reality of a Black Mirror episode. I lament, for Prerna not inviting you to her beautiful house. For the setting suns over the mountain ridges that you might have missed. I lament, for the locals who withheld warm conversations. At the start of the trip, Karsten expresses, ‘culturally, I just can’t imagine I am not gonna learn a lot, going to India’. I lament that we failed to deliver more. [/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

Let me make up on my friends’ behalf, and gift a few references of world cinema, that may help you look beyond our stereotypical and caricatured outlines:

  1. A better presentation of the same edition of the Piti Dharr festival, by an Indian production house – Upslope; that filmed alongside your crew. Watch Link.

  2. Ice climbing film to raise voice for social justice. Watch Link.

  3. Docufiction in Ice climbing. Watch Link. [/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

The abstracts of our characters that this article draws upon, I am sure, are not representative of our fuller selves. My purpose to put this down is to not only make you aware of our voices, but to also aid introspection and reflection, so we become better people – more aware of our individual differences, facilitating cohesion. [/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

Pertinent Questions Continue To Haunt

  1. Why does society fails to acknowledge the work of whistleblowers, like Vasu?

  2. How is the larger community engaged and steered by the perpetrators, towards an organised witch hunt?

  3. Are corporations really mindful of their actions? Or, are they working tirelessly towards exaggerating the gaping inequities of our world?

  4. Will the stakeholders of this issue (the filmmakers, athletes and corporates) be bold enough to accept their faults and prove their real heroic, by promising actionable change? 

  5. Or, will they still continue to feebly defend their barren moats? [/vc_column_text][vc_column_text]

With these questions and the hope that this initiative sparks more conversations, I’ll take your leave.

Author

Sukrit Gupta is a Co-founder, Vision Lead and Creator at 4Play Media and Communication LLP. 4Play is a 360 degree media outfit for adventure sports, travel and outdoor culture. Sukrit also officiated as the Director of the Screwed Up Ice Climbing Festival’s 3rd edition (2019-20) and for the inaugural edition of Ultra Half 2019.

Editors:

This article couldn’t have taken form, without the critique and help of my valuable friends and teachers.

Kopal Chaube (Phd Political Science),

Krishnendu Dutta (BA, MA and LLB),

Aditya Pande (MA Film Studies)

Footnote

  1. Maya Prabhu’s verbatim description of Karn Kowshik in ‘Notes from the frontier’ published in the Alpinist’s Issue 54.

  2. Maya Prabhu’s verbatim description of Bharat Bhushan in ‘Notes from the frontier’ published in the Alpinist’s Issue 54.

References

  1. Vasu’s Instagram Story – https://www.instagram.com/stories/highlights/17895000631493696/

  2. Can the Subaltern speak? – Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak https://jan.ucc.nau.edu/~sj6/Spivak%20CanTheSubalternSpeak.pdf

  3. Maya Prabhu – http://www.maya-prabhu.com/about

  4. GIPFEL – https://www.gipfelclimbing.com/

  5. Shivay in Climbing Magazine – https://www.climbing.com/videos/insane-bollywood-ice-climbing-scene/

  6. Rock and Ice – https://rockandice.com/

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