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Darjeeling filmmaker Minket Lepcha in one of her story-telling sessions
Darjeeling filmmaker Minket Lepcha in one of her story-telling sessions| File image
SIKKIM

How a Darjeeling woman is giving ‘voice’ to Teesta river’s woes

From storytelling sessions to her award-winning film ‘Voices of Teesta’, Minket Lepcha has been highlighting the various issues surrounding the 315-km-long river

Pankaj Dhungel

Pankaj Dhungel

Guwahati: Every place has its own unique folklore. Residents of Sikkim have grown up listening to a love story between the two ‘river spirits’ of Rongnyu and Rangeet which, in today's times, are known as Teesta and Rangeet -- the two prominent rivers of the Himalayan state.

The 315-km Teesta river flows to the Bay of Bengal crossing Bangladesh and West Bengal after rising from the glaciers of North Sikkim. The folklore emerged over the two rivers ‘playfully’ racing to the plains and converging at what is known today as Tribeni.

Darjeeling-born Minket Lepcha has documented this love story in the form of a few short films. She has brought to light the issues emerging after the river was dammed over hydroelectric power projects. The construction on the sacred river has attracted many protests, particularly the hunger strike amounting to over 1,000 days by ‘Affected Citizens of Teesta’ in the past decade.

Yet, the project went ahead and awaits completion. The 35-year-old filmmaker collected 36 hours of footage comprising interviews with shamans, farmers, engineers working on the dams, pundits, students, young children, activists, rafters, quarry workers, fishermen and boat men along with conservation workers, anglers and pharmaceutical officials to come out with Voices of Teesta, a 41-min film that was first screened at the 4th Woodpecker International Film Festival in New Delhi in September 2016.

 Voices of Teesta, a short film by Minket Lepcha
Voices of Teesta, a short film by Minket Lepcha
Film grab

"It’s not just about the soothing choir of the river flowing, there is more to it now with the people involved. What began as the love story of two river stories is nothing shy of a heartbreak now with dams strangling the river off its flow and eventually dying out as a mere stream,” Lepcha, a former advertising professional based in Delhi, told EastMojo in an exclusive interview.

Lepcha was in Guwahati recently to conduct a story-telling session around the river, something that she has been doing across the country for a long time now.

Minket segmented her 36 hours of footage into three versions, the first being the 41-minute movie which got her the Young Green Filmmaker Award at the at the 4th Woodpecker International Film Festival in New Delhi in September 2016. Her film was among the five films that were shortlisted in the environmental category.

The other version is a 22-minute film and the same has not been screened anywhere in any of the film festival so far. The five-minute version got screened at the World Water Forum in Brazil where it bagged the 10th position among 110 films from across the world in the ‘short films’ category.

Lepcha shamans offering prayer to river Teesta
Lepcha shamans offering prayer to river Teesta
Film grab

Lepcha was drawn to the issue of the river when the Affected Citizens of Teesta (ACT) staged a Dharna in New Delhi multiple times over the years protesting against the construction of hydropower projects on the river. Her film includes live activities of the nearly 1,000 days of protest and hunger strike along with the age-old traditions followed by all communities of Sikkim with regards to Teesta river.

"Having been from an advertising background, I was into making short films, though I never learned it officially. I was intent on documenting the legends of Yeti or the abominable snowman in Sikkim upon my return to the Darjeeling hills in 2012. It was during the Yeti documentation, that I learned about a folklore where Yeti used to come down the hills to meet its sister Rongnyu (Teesta). It was a fascinating folklore and something in my growing days, I had been away from,” she said.

What the Loreto Convent, Darjeeling alumna missed out as a kid, she opted to spread the word on the original folklore of the love story between Rongnyu and Rangeet. Since the film was completed and screened, the graduate from Shri Ram College of Commerce, Delhi University, has taken up to reach out to the children across Sikkim as well as the country and to nearby Nepal to tell the folklore of Teesta along with imparting knowledge on the need to preserve rivers as a way to preserve the environment.

A storytelling session in progress in Assam
A storytelling session in progress in Assam
Minket Lepcha

It took Lepcha one-and a half year to complete the film wherein she was assisted by other filmmakers from Sikkim and Darjeeling such as Wangyal Sherpa, Anup Aadin, Hishey Bhutia and Salil Mukhia. It took her two months to shoot and seven months for post-production, to channel out 36 hours of footage.

"The folklore on Teesta has helped the children connect with the river at a much deeper level in an emotional way which our ancestors and elders used to have. The same emotion for the river has been lacking in the current generation. Through the folklore and storytelling I try to bring what it is the experience of being with the river. There is a generation that believes that water exists only in packaged bottles while there are those who believe it is a factory product. They don’t know what is Pani ko Muhan. It helps in understanding the grim picture of what a society lacks with traditional knowledge,” Lepcha explained.

Lepcha has also highlighted how people from outside the state were unaware of the river Teesta following her storytelling session in different parts of the country. Her storytelling is devoted mostly to the school-going children. Recently, she even took up the challenge of explaining the River Teesta and its folklore to students of a school for the blind in Namchi, South Sikkim. "To get the perspective from the blind children on the river and to impart them with knowledge and stories on the river has been one of the most interesting aspects for me recently,” she added.

The 35- year-old Minket Lepcha at a school for blind in Namchi, South Sikkim
The 35- year-old Minket Lepcha at a school for blind in Namchi, South Sikkim
File image

After the storytelling, the feedback that Lepcha receives has been equally rewarding with every school or village where she holds sessions in India or Nepal, the locals resounding to the emotion of their own river, thus adding to the legacy of every river. "In Sikkim, the children cannot digest the folklore, they tell me it is just a folklore. They are looking for logical explanation. They have lost the faculty of wonder. Elders have the concept of god and folklore with regards to Teesta,” she said.

No wonder Lepcha has come to be known as 'Teesta Ma’am' among her students.