Shepherding a hard life, literally!

Tsering,the protagonist of the documentary The Shepherdess of the Glaciers,lives alone for months in the high altitudes of Ladakh tending to her flock of sheep, writes Ranjita Biswas

She is a shepherdess living alone for months in the high altitudes of Ladakh tending to her flock of sheep. The radio is her only companion in the evenings as she cooks her meal and listens to transmissions by AIR. Yet she does not feel forlorn, she takes her hard life philosophically, looking after her flock like a loving mother and walking from one snow-laden hill to another in the High Himalayas.

She is Tsering, protagonist of the documentary The Shepherdess of the Glaciers directed by her brother, award-winning Stanzin Dorjai. The film has won numerous awards at international film festivals like, the Grand Prize, Banff International Film Festival (2016), Best Director, Mountain International Film Festival Autrans (2016), Grand Prize, Aaint Etienne, Festival Curieux Voya Geuers (2016), Best Documentary Award and Grand Prize Cinemathequemontage (2016), to name a few.

Earlier, Dorjai’s film Jungwa, the Broken Balance on the 2010 flash floods in Ladakh, quite unusual for a region called the Cold Desert, thought to be due to climate change, attracted international attention. Co-directed with Christiane Mordelet of Sweden, it was screened at the Paris Climate Summit, 2015.


Stanzin Dorjai

 

Dorjai broke into the international documentary film scenario in 2008 with Living with Change, made for the World Wildlife Fund about how global warming was affecting Ladakh. Becoming a filmmaker, however, was the furthest from his thoughts, Dorjai said at a meet after a recent screening of The Shepherdess of the Glaciers in Kolkata, as he grew up in village Gya, 70 km from Leh, near the famous saltwater lake, Tso Kar. Like others in the region, he belongs to a nomadic family whose main livelihood is tending to sheep. Gya and the other villages in the Changthang region are the main sources of Pashmina and Yak wool. “People call Pashmina a Kashmiri product but it’s Ladakh which produces this fine wool,” Dorjai rued. “When I was a child, I didn’t have many friends. All my friends were wolves, snow leopards, marmots and eagles. All the terrain my sister Tsering travels through in the film is familiar to me too as I also accompanied her in my younger days,” Dorjai recalled. Of course, to depict the life of his shepherdess sister authentically, he had to brave temperatures of -32 °C, heavy snowfall, and carry a 30 kg load of film equipment at an altitude of 16,000 feet. “Then there was the problem of battery running out. I had to load them in my special jacket held close to my body to keep them warm. Sometimes, I got up in the wee hours in the freezing cold to set up the camera and while trying to shoot, I found my sister walking to a different direction and I had to run to catch up with her,” Dorjai smiled recalling the episodes. It took more than three years to complete the film as he wanted to catch the different seasons in the region, and the activities of sheep-rearing, with the birth of kids and all. The film is a riveting account, almost like fiction, with Tsering describing how she fended off a leopard attack, how people from the community help each other, and the way indigenous knowledge comes to the fore with villagers carrying the newborns back to the valley on horseback by keeping them ensconced in pockets stitched into blankets with only their heads popping out. Reaching out to the world beyond Gya for Dorjai began with the guidance of a local scholar who enrolled him in a school in Leh. But the turning point came when he was later selected as a campus resident at the Students Educational and Cultural Movement of Ladakh (SECMOL). This alternative school is the brainchild of the legendary Sonam Wangchuk (said to be the inspiration behind the Aamir Khan character in 3 Idiots). Dorjai took to the philosophy of personal growth under Operation New Hope movement of SECMOL like the proverbial duck to the water.

 

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