Anu Malhotra’s four-part documentary series The Shamans of the Himalayas is a seminal work on the cultural practices of the Kullu Valley—one of the most beautiful places in the Indian sub-continent. A widely acclaimed and internationally renowned documentary filmmaker, Anu, in her remarkable repertoire of work is committed to showcasing unique cultures and traditions of India (The Apatani of Arunachal Pradesh, The Konyak of Nagaland, The Maharaja of Jodhpur-The Legacy Lives On…et al).
The Shamans of the Himalayas, her most recent work, takes us through the mythical and misty world of the Kullu Valley. She enters this world through the Shamans, the mystical priests of the gods of the valley who are mediators between the human and the divine worlds. The film is an exploration of a society where this interaction is constitutive of its communal, ecological and personal relationships.
The viewer is introduced to this cultural cosmology through personal curiosity, reflection and observations of the filmmaker. Her guide in the project is a local—Meru—who, through Anu’s journey, answers questions about and in the process rediscovers his own culture. As a work, the series naturally balances both the insider’s and the outsider’s perspectives.
Though extensive research is in evidence, it is important to remind ourselves how meagre celluloid documentation exists for this subject. Anu’s project is both original in terms of content and treatment. The shamanistic practices in the Kullu region are closely guarded and the filmmaker’s investigation of the subject, her access to the sources could only have been possible with persistence and empathetic persuasion. The series works at several levels. At the very obvious it shows the cultural practices of a community and dynamism of its tradition. For instance, the shamans—as priests and mediums for the divine—have a religious and a social function. They keep the faith of the community in the divine, which becomes instrumental in maintaining communal harmony and co-existence.
The film at another level is a critique of contemporary modern life—its lack of connect with or neglect of natural and social ecologies. Anu manoeuvres the modern world and the traditional through constant questions, reflections, searches and is able to arrive at an equilibrium where she need not choose between one or the other.
Her scientific temperament makes her seek out anthropologists and scholars to understand the significance of the rituals she witnesses and the deep faith she encounters.
Through her personal journey and the relationships she establishes she sees the inadequacy of limiting oneself to exclusive interpretative positions. There are things she can’t explain, like the trance possession of the Shaman of the Nag Devta where he directly addresses her. Her personal experience of being consumed by that incident cannot only be rationally explained.
Finally, the film is a celebration of cultural heterogeneity, life-affirming practices, a mindful reminder of the need to have a holistic view of the world where humanity’s existence is understood to be contingent upon survival of other life-forms.