Bumping into Dr Yashodhar Mathpal for the first time did give me the feel of standing face to face with a 19th Century rustic, straight from the pages of some musty volume by Tolstoy, Turgenev or Chekhov. A tall robust frame, broad forehead with a receding hairline, big spatulated palms, he wore a coarse khadi dhoti-kurta and ordinary flip-flop slippers. I could make out that this was an arcane personality.

Known on both sides of the Atlantic for his original work in the field of prehistoric archaeology, especially the cave and rock art, Dr Yashodhar Mathpal is also a gifted painter. He has held several solo exhibitions in India and abroad.

A speedily degenerating environment, eco-degradation consequent upon the paradigm shift in values and traditions in the vast swaths of the Central Himalayan hills, the region he belongs to, have over the decades become a grave concern for him. At times he finds it difficult to hide his cantankerousness on this issue.

For the last few decades through his writings, spoken words, paintings and unique collection of antiques and archaeological finds, representing the eco-friendly lifestyle as it was in the days of yore, Mathpal has been trying to educate the masses, especially the youngsters, in the ethics of environment and ecological balance.

He refers to the ecological balance as “the indispensable twin requirement of quality life.” Exhausting a major part of his earnings, Mathpal has set up three huge art galleries in an area of over 17,000 square feet in his residence called Geeta Dham at Bhimtal in Uttarakhand.

He has set up museums in Central India and elsewhere, and realising his long-cherished dream of creating a personal one to represent the environment, art and ethnic-culture of the vast central Himalayan region must not have been a difficult task for him, at least technically. However, getting three huge art galleries constructed, that too without receiving any financial assistance from the government or any other source, was definitely not an easy accomplishment even for this ingenuous Gandhian.

Criss-crossed by the perception of a trained archaeologist, and the sentimentality of a spontaneous artist, the museum of Mathpal is an authentic commentary on the role of the unique environment of the central Himalayan expanse in conditioning the regional life, art and culture.

Looking at the various artefacts, implements, papers and his paintings, a visitor to the museum will understand how besides a wholesome diet, the locals met most of their requirements from indigenous resources. They would also see how all that was taken would eventually be returned to nature.

It indeed is an astounding experience to reconstruct the whole gamut of life as it was once, taking a lead from a variety of objects displayed in the museum. Astounding, because here you see centuries old hand printed garments made of locally available fibre, and they haven’t yet lost their sheen. The locally available fibre of Sisal and Grevia is hardly used now.

You will see the kiln baked bricks of considerable antiquity used by early herder settlers to make chambers for storing grains. Interestingly, brick baking hasn’t been in practice here for a couple of centuries at least.

A hoard of agricultural implements made of locally mined iron have also been unearthed from a nearby ravine, by Dr. Mathpal. It is a testimony to the hard labour put in by early agriculturists while cutting stepped fields on the mountain’s face.

An amazing collection of wooden utensils, once common household belongings in the hills, is also on display. This art was once practised by the Van Raji tribes whose population is speedily dwindling.

A land record on hand-made paper called ‘badua kagaz’ dating back to the Chanda dynasty that surfaced in this region in 6th Century AD, is also there. It has evidence to show how community assets like pastures, springs etc. were taken care of.

The lyrical watercolour paintings by Dr. Mathpal project an authentic picture of eco-friendly traditions associated with day-to-day life. These include extracting sap from the Grewia tree, used for washing hair, or filtering the potassium rich ash of cobs to be used as detergent after mixing it with rice polish. A beautiful painting captures the celebration of Harela or festival of greenery at the advent of monsoon.

The fascinating objects displayed in the museum combined with Dr. Mathpal’s explanatory monologue ushered the visitors deep into the corridor of a time when bulldozing the mountains was not a way of life.

One cannot help realising how respectful and considerate our ancestors had been in their relationship with the environment, well before the expressions like carbon footprints, eutrophication, greenhouse effect etc. were coined. One also realises how stupid it is for their inheritors to sit gratified on the gunpowder keg thinking that it is dampened for ever.

Dr. Mathpal has been conferred a Padma award, and the state govt made him the vice president of the cultural council offering him a beaconed car and other fanfare (which he did not accept). Ministers, including the Chief Ministers and other big-wigs have been visiting his museum right since the inception of the state.

Many times substantial grants have been announced for the museum by these ministers and their cohorts in public functions amidst massive cheering and clapping. The regional press reported those announcements prominently but so far no funds have been released.

In his recently released autobiography, Dr. Mathpal claimed that ‘the high-ups’ asked him to prepare a project report and quote double the required amount, so that they may pocket the inflated half in lieu of the service rendered for getting the grant released.

“No one in this callous system did ever try to understand me or sympathise with my vision. I am an octogenarian now. I never ran after money or materialistic gains throughout my life. My only concern is to make this museum self-financing so that it continues even after I am gone” Dr. Mathpal rued.

As an experienced curator and archaeologist Dr. Mathpal has set all the three galleries of the museum in a standard manner. All he wants from the government is a corpus sufficient enough to provide regular salaries to a handful of employees he wants to have to look after the museum.

“With advancing age It has now become difficult for me to put in the required physical labour for maintaining this museum, to ensure the safety of the rare and perishable displays and keep the things clean,” Dr. Mathpal said.

The nonchalance of the government and the administration is evident. Despite being praised by scholars the world over, and being located along the highway, the museum hasn’t yet been put in the tourist circuit developed by the state government.

Dr. Mathpal has requested for this several times but besides assurances nothing has been delivered. A documented comment made on Dr. Mathpal, by Prof Dr Majeed Khan Advisor, Deputy Ministry of Antiquities and Museum, Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, in the tribal art conference organised by the Asiatic Society at Kolkata in March 2005 hasn’t yet lost its edge. It reads: “I must say that I never met a person of your knowledge, a great artist, scholar, rock art specialist and a man of religion but not fanatic.

“I am surprised that your valuable contribution to both the ancient and present art, and your efforts to highlight the image of India in general and that of the traditional, tribal, social and cultural values all over the world have not been recognized officially by the Govt of India and that of your region…”

The five acres of sprawling slopes at the back of the museum in Geeta Dham, once a sear and brown landscape, are full of woody vegetation now. And 300 species have been documented by Dr. Mathpal’s son, a trained forester. Over 50 species of birds have taken permanent shelter here.

This forest has been grown by Mathpals at the altitude technically known as a ‘problem zone’ due to excessive biotic interference. The well-organised forest and land mafia of this region has been eying it for long and a case against illegal felling and extraction of wood, has been filed by Dr. Mathpal in the district court.

Today, Dr Mathpal is more like a tired soldier who finds it difficult to withdraw from the din of an on-going battle. He bids me adieu with these words putting his heavy hand on my shoulders, “My life, whatever little I could achieve and this museum are all well directed endeavours to establish that a happy, satisfied and meaningful life can be lived in complete harmony with nature, without assuming an aggressive attitude towards it…”

The childlike innocence in his eyes, I know it well, will haunt me for long.

Rajshekhar PantAJSHEK is a freelance journalist from the Uttarakhand hills. He has been conferred the CSE media fellowship four times.