Fascinated by the forest by day, fearful of its unknowability by night and nostalgic about his childhood encounters, Dileep Prakash documented the “dak bungalows” of the Raj
My photographic practice has navigated history, memory and the passage of time. My concerns revolve around some of the vexations that arise from the remnants of India’s colonial past. This project, about British “dak bungalows” or rest houses built to manage the Himalayan forests in Himachal Pradesh and Uttarakhand, has evolved from the same site of enquiry.
As a child in the 1970s I’d accompany my father, a government official, on his travels to remote dak bungalows in Uttarakhand. So, when I started photographing the bungalows, they were already a part of my memory. On one such journey, I reached a bungalow late in the evening, to see the scene illuminated by moonlight. There was something mysterious about the light and the inexplicable shadows it cast. From then on, I trailed the full moon, along the forests of these mountains, photographing at night.
My encounter with the forest has always been one of both fear and fascination. Over the years, I have spent several nights looking at the forest, which has a tendency to overwhelm me, an outsider, to whom it seemed like a dark, impregnable maze. A stifled air of foreboding would hang over its beauty. I began to make photographs of the forest from the clearing of the bungalow. It took me a while to muster up the courage to venture into the forest, to make photographs from within. The forest that I walked through by day became unassailable when swathed by the moonlit night.
Sleeping in the Forest invites others to share my experiences: through all that is built and natural in the landscape (the external), and through an experience that allowed my solitary self to reflect (the internal). The history of this external environment vis-à-vis human intervention is as old as colonialism. These dak bungalows are reminiscent of an old civilisational conflict that posits human beings simultaneously with and against nature. The forests that I experienced were part of the imperial project—not natural forests, but monoculture plantations that provide timber. Thus, a dilemma: are we destroying natural forms by way of “scientifically managing” forests? Besides its complex history rooted in the colonial agenda and symbolised by these bungalows, human presence or intrusions in these spaces take the shape of long, narrow paths and sporadic streaks of light carried by passersby at night. The underlying idea behind this work, therefore, is to problematise the relationship between humans and nature, especially when the latter forces you to pause and consider it in all its magnificence.