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From Activism, Local Entrepreneurship, To Kumaoni Food: A Festival Like No Other

A literature festival I once attended had writers and books on stage, like it should. But in its closed lounges – local artists danced for people who delicately held their wine glasses, ignored them, and networked. The background act was supposedly representative of the state the festival was being organised in, but it did little or nothing to draw attention towards the art form.

A couple of months later, I was in Kausani, a village in Uttarakhand where I saw locals perform the Chapeli and Nyoli dance for surprised and interested onlookers. The dance was received with applause and the troop moved on to perform in the next location, and then the next, to increasingly eager crowds.

In both scenarios, people had neither paid nor arrived with the intention of watching the artists. A key difference in the two – and this is not an attempt at passing a judgment – was that the act in the lounge was superfluous. It was performed to superficially give a platform to those artists. The latter, however, was designed with them in mind.

This incident helped me realise that traditional art forms need – apart from continuously evolving to stay relevant – an influencer who can shine a light upon them and help them thrive. One such influencer in small town Kausani is the former chairperson of Uttarakhand Gramin Bank, and the founder of Himalayan Study Centre and Buransh Retreat – Threesh Kapoor. At the Kausani market, it was his introduction to the rich culture and tradition of Uttarakhand that preceded the performance and compelled many people to listen and watch.

Thankfully, Kapoor has also been up to a lot more.

It helps that Kapoor lives and works in Kausani – a vantage point of a hill station with the view of the 300-km stretch of the Himalayas. I visited him for The Buransh Mahotsav, an open-to-all and free-t0-attend festival planned by the Himalayan Study Center and Buransh Retreat, to show the world how Kausani is a microcosm of Pahadi art, culture, tradition, natural beauty and even food. The festival included workshops, seminars, talks, trekking, and birdwatching and was attended by locals, school and college students from in and around Kausani.

But before that, I went to see a little bit of Kausani for myself.

When I arrived in Kausani, it was a clear day – almost as if the place was eager to exhibit its beauty. A quick climb showed me that the hill station is perched atop a ridge overlooking a range of valleys – from Someshwar to Garur and Katyuri. It’s also enveloped by the Kosi river, whose conservation, I would later find, has united villagers from each big and small village in Kausani. I was told that you can spot the tallest peaks of the Himalayas – Trisul, Nanda Devi and Panchchuli from Kausani. But the mountains were covered in mist and I couldn’t see them. Not so easily. Not yet.

As I began to walk and trek around Kausani, I took in the enormity of its beauty. There are no roads that lead you to villages, there are trails. In that moment, clouds were descending to create mist, and it felt like the tall pine and deodar trees were soldering with me. The trail took me back in time and brought me to villages with old, traditional houses. Called Bakhlis, where several families lived in separate rooms, these sloping-roof houses have multiple entrances and narrow windows. Each house is ensconced in fields growing grains and vegetables.

After a brief hike, I arrived at Kausani’s tea estate and I navigated its meandering slopes to reach the bottom of the hill. That’s where I saw the river Kosi. Each house, along the way, was neatly lined with bright purple, pink or yellow flowers such as tiger lilies that put red roses in the familiar, unexotic category.

But talking of flowers, it’s impossible to talk about Kausani or Uttarakhand and not talk about its state flower – rhododendron arboretum or the Buransh. The flower in bloom is an occasion for the state. It has been weaved in folk songs, rituals and pujas, children pluck it for an annual festival, and its sweet juice, part of local food, is bottled and shipped. Its blooming is an annual event and that’s what The Buransh Mahotsav aims to celebrate.

Kausani has seen mass migration. A lot of villages are deserted and many continue to leave in absence of work opportunities. It is then that the local initiatives exhibited at the Buransh Mahotsav such as cloth produced out of nettle grass or bamboo lamps, and especially organic products from locally grown plants hold a lot of significance.

The festival hosted entrepreneurs like Sah Pine Works who, instead of cutting trees, rely on the fallen bark of the Pine tree to create ornaments and artefacts. This local company has helped bring an additional source of income to several villagers as their products are exhibited around the country. Mr Sah told me how he added Rs 1,000 to the monthly income of a tea seller by just convincing him to find good quality, fallen pine branch or brigadeas it’s called in Hindi.

Another interesting facet of the festival was its focus on traditional Kumaoni food, supervised by Padma Shri food critic and former JNU Professor, Pushpesh Pant.

Subsidised by the government, Uttarakhand has seen a surge in the use of polyhouses, and farmers are using them to grow a variety of vegetables from cauliflower, cabbage, peas, onions, to zucchini, mint or even eggplants. The clear message to the tourism industry of the area was that delicacies from local produce such as Bichhu Ghas ka saag, Mandua roti, Kafula, Aalu ka Jhol, Aalu ke gutke, Kumaoni daal, Pumpkin soup, Pahadi Dum Lokican beat the chicken, mutton, and paneer served ubiquitously.

The hill station’s rich soil, rivers, and flora attract a variety of birds and butterflies. Rajesh Bhatt, a renowned birder and speaker at The Buransh Mahotsav, led a bird watching trail around Kausani. It was here that I saw a fleeting white bird with a long tail that looked like a bride walking down the aisle. It is called the Paradise Flycatcher. While no other bird looked as beautiful, we also spotted various magpies, babblers, and barbets. Bhatt believes that Kausani with its 250+ species of birds should become Uttarakhand’s spring bird-watching destination.

However, the most inspiring part of the festival was its key speaker, Basanti Behen who has been awarded the Nari Shakti Samman by former President Pranab Mukherjee in 2016. Basanti Behen is credited with forming women committees around Kausani and convincing women to stop foraging the forest for wood and instead, rely on dry wood. The women, under her tutelage, have also fought a long battle – often by taking out rallies, confronting government officials, to stopping restaurants from stealing water from the river – and have unitedly helped save the river Kosi. For the festival, Basanti behen led a walk around the Kosi River, to its mouth in the Pinnath range with a pitstop at the Golu temple – considered the God of justice.

Kausani is perhaps best known as the place Mahatma Gandhi stayed at and called the Switzerland of India. The place where he stayed is called the Anashakti Ashram and not far from it is Laxmi Ashram, the abode of Gandhi’s devout follower Sarla Ben. Basanti Behen has been working at the Laxmi Ashram for over three decades and is a pioneer of girl child education, employment and women empowerment in Kausani.

Few festivals expand its reach to talk about issues confronting their community. But the Buransh Mahotsav is truly representative of the hill station. It courageously dabbled in all its aspects – governance, citizen welfare, to art, culture and environment. Acknowledging that it’s important to work with the government and that change without their help is impossible, the festival concluded with a discussion on ecotourism with Director General, Chief Conservator of Forests Eco-tourism, Uttarakhand, GS Pandey, sharing his plans of starting nature camps in Kausani and developing hiking trails.

Basanti Behen’s voice and personality towered throughout as she called for solid waste management in the hill station and that Kausani, as it currently is, should not be divided into two districts – Almora and Bageshwar – but be part of one. Ravindra Singh, the Sarpanch of Kausani, requested for coordination in activities and development of tourism and adventure sports in Kausani.

For participants like me, the festival turned out to be a college course in the beauty and realities of a mountainous village. From activism, local entrepreneurship, to Kumaoni food, it would have been impossible to learn about the incomparable beauty of Kausani had I not participated in the festival. As for seeing the Himalayas, the mist cleared ever so slightly on my second-last day but dutifully covered the mountains again within an hour.

Then on my last day in Kausani, when I had set an alarm of 6 am, hoping to see the Himalayas, I was woken up at 5.45 am to a view that I can truthfully say numbed me and dried my mouth. In front of me, stretched the Himalayas in all their grandeur – crowned by both the Trisul and Nanda Parbat peaks. This time, the mountains were snow-capped and the rest of the valley was covered in mist.

I sat there for an hour looking at what’s called the world’s youngest, most unstable mountain range, wondering if I’ve ever felt as uplifted and peaceful. The instability did come soon, as it was time for my train back home.

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