(1928 – 2015)
Kamal Kumar Guha, Hon. Member of the Himalayan Club breathed his last on 22 November 2015 at his residence in South Kolkata. He was 87.
Guha was born in Dhaka (now Bangladesh) in 1928 – the same year the Himalayan Club was formed. Little did this baby know that it would have to subsequently share the responsibility of running this international club during the coming decades.
After schooling in Allahabad, Guha completed his graduation from Presidency College Calcutta. Thereafter he completed his LLB and MA in Modern History from the University of Calcutta. Guha joined Lloyds Bank in 1949 and later ANZ Grindlays Bank.
In 1959 Guha married Sujaya Bose, a lecturer at Sarojini Naidu College, Dum Dum. Inspired by her husband, Sujaya did her Basic and Advance Courses from the HMI, Darjeeling. To test her ability, Sujaya went to NIM, Uttarkashi, for her Advanced Course training again. She was the manager of the first All Ladies Expedition from West Bengal to Ronti peak in 1967. In August 1970, Sujaya led an All Ladies Expedition to an unnamed peak situated at the Bara Shigri glacier (christened by her as Lalana), and climbed the virgin peak (6136 m). Unfortunately she died in an accident on her return. Sujaya’s untimely death left a permanent vacuum in Guha’s life. But he was not depressed. Instead, he concentrated all his energy to promoting mountaineering.
In 1960, The Himalayan Institute was formed in Calcutta and made a successful attempt on Nanda Ghunti. The Institute was later renamed The Himalayan Association. Guha became its Secretary in 1962 and later the President. Guha organized another expedition to Nilgiri in Garhwal which was also successful.
During this period Guha came in contact with the renowned travel writer and a devotee of the Himalaya, Uma Prasad Mookerjee, one of the most senior members of the Club. Inspired by Mookerjee, Guha joined the Himalayan Club and became a Life Member in 1964. Dr. B.K. Ghosal, Dr. M.L. Biswas and Mrs. Bhakti Biswas also joined around that time.
By the end of the sixties and early seventies of the last century, most of the British members connected with the administration of the club left India permanently. The very existence of the club was at stake. Guha rose to the occasion and with the cooperation of others like Dr. K. Biswas, Soli S Mehta etc. helped the club to survive the crisis. Soli was the then Hon. Editor of the Himalayan Journal. Guha assisted Soli in proof-reading and even translating a few articles for the Journal from other languages. Soli frequently came to Guha’s residence and stayed back till late in the night discussing and finalizing articles. Soli acknowledged the same in his Editorial (HJ. Vol. XXX). J.C. Nanavati, former President and the other stalwart of this club also acknowledged Guha’s contribution when he wrote, ‘Guha assisted the administration and production of the Himalayan Journal during the difficult period of late sixties and early ‘seventies in Calcutta’. But Guha had to go overseas on work and remained absent for four long years. By that time the Principal Office of the Club had been shifted to Bombay although the Registered Office continued to be in Calcutta.
During his long association with the Himalayan Club for more than five decades, Guha served as Committee Member, Hon. Equipment Officer, Hon. Local Secretary, etc. His longest tenure as Vice President (17 years) is a record for the HC.
When the Himalayan Club celebrated its Diamond Jubilee, the Calcutta section organized a two-day seminar as well as an exhibition on Himalayan Ecology and Mountaineering Science. Guha gave a lecture on ‘Role of the HC in promoting Himalayan Mountaineering and Exploration’.
Kamal Kumar Guha’s greatest achievement was editing India’s only Mountaineering monthly, Himavanta, for 45 uninterrupted years. This monthly booklet was appreciated by readers and editors of the mountaineering world, in and outside India. H. Adams Carter, who edited the American Alpine Journal for 35 years, used to affectionately call Guha ‘KK’.
Guha trekked extensively both in Indian and Nepal Himalaya. He also trekked in the remote hill tract of Chittagong (Bangladesh), mountain trails of Elburz (Iran), Tauras mountain (north of Lebanon) and the famous Appalachian trails (USA and Canada). He participated in about two dozen expeditions of which three were led by him including the Neora valley biosphere reconnaissance (First Down the Neora) organized from Calcutta section and sponsored by the Himalayan Club, in 1982.
Guha was Life Member of HMI, NIM, JIM and other mountaineering clubs. He was the director of West Bengal and Bihar Chapters of the NAF (National Adventure Foundation) for a few years. Guha was also popular as the co-author of a few Bengali travelogues on the Himalaya under the pen-name Sonku Maharaj. He wrote an informative book in Bengali, Achena Kashmir (Unknown Kashmir). His residence became the centre of activities of many mountaineering clubs. The HC library of was housed there and get-togethers and slide shows were held regularly.
During the last few years Guha was unwell and had to be admitted to nursing homes several times.
The death of this undaunted editor and a true mountain-lover brought to an end an illustrious era. Guha led a simple life with honesty, sincerity and dedication. He struggled hard to promote mountaineering and allied subjects through literature – which was also one of the objectives of the Himalayan Club.
I will miss him. Hundreds of mountaineers and mountain lovers have lost their ‘Literary Hero’. The Himalayan Club has lost one of its pillars. May his soul rest in peace.
PRABHAT KUMAR GANGULI
Lavkumar Khachar, an associate of Dr. Sálim Ali, passed away at the age of 84. His student days were first spent in Rajkumar College, Rajkot, and then in St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, and he went on to become one of India’s most iconic naturalists. He was many things to many people, but his lasting legacy will probably be a lifetime spent fashioning naturalists out of thousands of budding young nature enthusiasts. Unconditionally straightforward, he was an unflinching defender of wild nature and while dozens of people felt the heat of his passion when they came up against him on this issue or that, I have not met any who interacted closely with him, without being impressed and inspired.
One by one the oaks are falling. I knew Lavkumar personally for most of my life as an uncompromising, infectiously good-humoured naturalist who was born to the Jasdan royal family of Gujarat, and whose heart belonged to wild nature.
Before launching Sanctuary Asia in 1981, I sat with him in the Bombay Natural History Society library and the gist of what he said to me was this: ‘Look around you at the writings of bygone days. These accounts are all personal observations by naturalists who loved being outdoors, faithfully describing what they saw, then leaving others with experience to interpret. If you are going to start a wildlife magazine, please don’t make it a dry-as-dust scientific journal to be read by just 30 colleagues. Make it a popular magazine that thousands will enjoy. Because we need larger numbers to protect our wildlife.’
He was really busy those days putting finishing touches to the epic Sixty Indian Birds, a book he co-authored with K.S. Dharmakumarsinhji, but on more than one occasion asked about when Sanctuary Asia was going to make its appearance, often adding: ‘Frankly, I doubt that you will be able to run or sustain a magazine of the kind you describe!’ Nevertheless, like Dr. Sálim Ali, R.E. Hawkins, K.S. Dharmakumarsinhji, Zafar Futehally, Kailash Sankhala, S.P. Shahi, S. Deb Roy, Fateh Singh Rathore and so many other departed conservationists, he freely invested time and energy into Sanctuary Asia. All these greats believed the magazine was vital to India’s wildlife conservation movement and not a day passes when I am not reminded of my debt of gratitude to them.
Lavkumar Khachar (Bhushan Pandya-Sanctuary Photo Library)
Lavkumar was undoubtedly one of the architects of the wildlife conservation movement in India. He conceived and launched the massive nature club movement for the World Wildlife Fund of India (WWF-India), guided the destiny of the Bombay Natural History Society (BNHS) for long decades, added his vast nature-education experience to the mission of the Centre for Environment Education (CEE) and catalyzed the birth of scores of small and vital nature conservation initiatives such as Snehal Patel’s Nature Club, Surat.
His initial focus was, predictably, the Gir forest and its surrounds, which he championed while based at his headquarters at ‘Sundarvan’ in Ahmedabad. An accomplished naturalist who revelled in being ‘out there’, he felt that a new crop of young Indians were emerging with very little connect to the natural world. He thus made it his single-minded mission to change that. The nature camps he ran through the Hingolgadh Nature Conservation and Education Programme, and up in the Himalaya in Manali were legendary in that they did not merely serve to mould large numbers of young persons, but also grew to become universities of sorts where nature educators were injected with both knowledge and conservation values.
Just how viscerally in love with and in awe of nature he was might best be judged by a passage from a 5000-word article he wrote for Sanctuary Asia in January 1983, based on a trek to Nanda Devi’s Valley of Flowers :
Harsh environments allow only very limited life forms to survive. By virtue of their adaptability however, once they find a niche, the lack of competition enables plants, insects, birds, reptiles and mammals to exist in a state of equilibrium almost indefinitely. In Nanda Devi’s basin, the web of life had remained virtually unaltered for millions of years. Each summer brought new life to the mountain as plants and insects thrived and in turn sustained the larger life forms. I was awestruck when I realized that the area I was in was possibly the last remnant of the extensive Himalayan pastures that had existed before the advent of man.
It was this infectious passion that he infused in all those who came into contact with him. The mind boggles at the thought of the sheer number of such ‘impacted individuals’ who now head nature clubs and conservation organizations across India, including Kishor Rithe of the Satpuda Foundation, who candidly credits Lavkumar as his source of his inspiration and values, not directly but through his teachers who attended Khachar’s camps and who in turn inspired Rithe.
Equally, his strongly-held, and freely expressed opinions raised hackles and often caused even those who loved and admired him to climb walls in despair. But with his signature smile and that naughty twinkle in his eye, he had the knack for winning his irate friends back. No one I know was ever able to hold a grudge too long against Lavkumar Khachar.
He was viscerally opposed to translocating lions from Gir to Kuno and fell just short of giving the Supreme Court judges a piece of his mind! Equally, he minced no words against those who opposed the Narmada Project, which he championed vociferously :
The big dams be damned, let us talk of basics. Surely each Indian must be guaranteed one hot cup of tea a day. That totals to a billion-plus cups of tea. That one cup of tea needs fuel for heating the water, milk and sugar, and diesel for transporting the tea from Assam or Kerala… naïve people must not attempt to lead social revolutions. They cause great harm.
Lavkumar was like that. Direct, often scathing about those he considered ‘anti-Gujarat’, who in his opinion were forcing large numbers of people in Gujarat to rise up against dangerous undercurrents created by so-called environmentalists in combination with irresponsible reporting by the English press. All this, without an ounce of malice and trunks-full of good humour.
In his long association with wild India, Lavkumar Khachar retained personal dignity and integrity and was never once afraid of expressing strong opinions even against those who believed he was ‘on their side’. He called me once asking how best we could fight plans to de-notify much of the Little Rann of Kutch to facilitate more salt pans. A pragmatic man, he nevertheless shared an excellent relationship with Tata Chemicals and even sought their help to protect and manage the Charakla Saltpans, and praised them for the good work they were doing by encouraging birds to thrive on lands in their control. He also readily wrote testy letters to them if and when he felt they were crossing the line between commerce and conservation.
While Lavkumar was widely admired and loved, he was probably not as appreciated and acknowledged enough in his lifetime as he rightfully deserved. He was presented with the prestigious Sálim Ali-Loke Wan Tho Lifetime Award for Excellence in Ornithology, the Venu Menon Lifetime Achievement Award and the Delhi Bird Lifetime Achievement Award. He took all these in his stride, grateful, but not overwhelmed. I doubt that India will see too many more people of the mettle of this gritty man who was a rare combination of emotion, intellect and science.
Bhushan Pandya who shared Khachar’s unshakable love for Gujarat’s wilderness areas wrote to Sanctuary about this huge loss : ‘Lavkumar Khachar, has left us with a nature conservation vacuum. He may not be with us, but the green teacher he was will continue to reside in our minds and hearts through his teachings and his on-ground conservation efforts over the last six decades.’
(Editor of Sanctuary Asia. www.sanctuaryasia.com)
Ashwin Mehta, died unsung. One of India’s most important photographers, his death was quiet, almost unnoticed, without fanfare, quite like the way the man lived. He left the city of his birth and education, Mumbai, in 1981 because he found it noisy, chaotic and busy, and settled in Tithal, Gujarat, near the coast, in the lap of nature. There, his genius flourished. A tribute in the newspaper Mint says ‘Mehta’s photography did to India what Ansel Adams, the great American photographer did to the American West. Unlike Adams, Mehta did not join the environmental movement. He once told the writer of the Mint article : ‘Since time immemorial, civilizations have been born and died. We are far too small even to dare to think that we can preserve what is permanent. It is going to outlive all of us.’
Another quote : ‘My nature photography is an attempt at his portrayal, and I succeed to the extent that I am able to capture the elements not merely as objects, but as his limbs.’ What Ashwin Mehta’s lens did was show life as it was. No action, lights, camera sort of capturing the fleeting second. If the second moved on, he clicked another, a more serene one. Whatever was clicked was real, lovely to behold and immortal. He brought a new perspective to the sea, the sky, the trees, the grass and stones, and one who saw his photographs would view nature in a different way afterwards.
He realized that the Universe would carry on without the meddling of man to try and save or destroy it.
His exhibitions revealed to viewers his spiritual side. In the 1980s, he had held an exhibition of black and white photographs of rocks. One line in Sanskrit displayed there said : Tani pashanakhandani mandanani tvanehasam, which meant, ‘Those pieces of rocks are the ornaments of time.’
It was the details that made Mehta’s work stand out. Bits of bark, a single leaf and the veins on it, the outline of a blade, the sheerness of the face of a peak or the drop to a valley, came alive in his frames.
In nature, Mehta saw a continuum, an alignment of humanity with eternity : there were enough abstractions and patterns in his photography to make us look for a meaning – mystical or real.
His photographs documented what he saw. They allowed viewers to contemplate the unseen. They were unhurried, with a definite perspective, not shutter-speed-friendly. He ‘caught’ nature as Nature is. His ‘capturing’ of Himalayan peaks and landscapes have brought the mountains to the homes of many a non-adventurous city-dweller.
He excelled in various genres and brought mountains into homes and imaginations. The collections of his photographs are in the following books : Himalaya : encounters with Eternity (Thames & Hudson, London, 1985), Coasts of India (Thames & Hudson, London, 1987), Gifts of Solitude (Mapin, Ahmedabad, 1991), Hundred Himalayan flowers (Mapin, Ahmedabad, 1992), and Happenings - Journal of Luminous Moments (Hindustan Inks, Gujarat, 2003).
Group exhibitions in which his work was displayed are : Creative Eye curated by Raghu Rai (New Delhi, 1972); Indian Photograph 1844-1984, curated by Mitter Bedi (Darmstadt, 1984); and Another Way of Seeing, curated by Circle of 24 (The Netherlands, 1992).
The collective projects in which Mehta was engaged are : A Day in the Life of India(Collins, London, 1995), and the Festivals of India in Britain (1982), Russia (1990) and Germany (1991).
He was commissioned as a destination photographer by Singapore Airlines, the Oberoi Hotels, and the India Tourism Development Corporation. He photographed Indian medicinal plants for a monograph by the Chemical Export Promotion Council (Chemexil), and spices of India for the Taj Hotels.
Mehta had first exhibited his photographs in 1966. His work has been exhibited at Jehangir Art Gallery, the Centre for Photography as an Art Form, and Gallery Chemould, Bombay; the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, and Max Mueller Bhavan, New Delhi, and the Gardner Centre for the Arts, Brighton, Britain.
In the Third Eye Exhibition, 1995, his work was an extension in colour of his b/w work in the book Gifts of Solitude. Mehta’s forte was abstraction and that nurtured by exposure to paintings of his favourite artists, Raja, Ram Kumar, Laxman Shrestha, Paramjit Singh and Akbar Padamsee.
With his passing, the mountaineering community has lost someone who brought the distant peaks into humble homes.
SHEELA JAYWANT with inputs from SALIL TRIPATHI