Anupam Mishra — the water conservationist, environmentalist, writer, Gandhian, and a man of gentle wit, passed away at 68. Peeyush Sekhsaria recalls his first meeting with Mishra and how it left a lasting impression on him.
It was the spring of 1997. I had returned to Delhi from a backpacking trip in Rajasthan following stepwells, kunds and other water harvesting structures in and around Dausa. I had also been to Dundlod in the Shekhawati region. I didn’t have any list of places I wanted to visit during that trip; my modus operandi was that I asked people whether they knew of such structures and something would invariably come up. With a mix of bus rooftop rides, long walks, hitched tractor rides, and warm home stays, I got to see many water harvesting structures — some stunning, others quiet and forgotten. All this time, I was also shooting photographs and was drawing too.
I was undergoing professional architectural training in Delhi and this was where I showed around a few prized drawings and postcard-sized black and white prints to people. Kanwarjit Nagi, an architect friend narrated a story about Anupam Mishra after looking at those pictures. Anupam ji had written a book on the traditional water harvesting techniques in Thar desert. He had then come to Kanwarjit’s place to gift him a copy of the book and to invite him for its release. Kanwarjit suggested that I go and see him.
It was a spring afternoon. I hesitantly reached the Gandhi Peace Foundation office located close to ITO, Delhi. I had called earlier and had requested for an appointment. Those days, I was just an opportunistic student with a few prints in my bag and was overawed by the persona of Anupam Mishra who turned out to be the gentlest soul I had ever met.
With sheer grace and gentle wit, he took great interest in my pictures and discussed various techniques of filtering water.
He showed me his books, Aaj Bhi Khare Hai Yeh Talaab (Even Today These Ponds are Standing) and Rajasthan ki Rajat Boonde (Radiant Raindrops of Rajasthan), and a set of picture postcards. Not only was he a poet in prose, he was an exceptional photographer too. I remember Kanwarjit telling me how Anupam would expose a negative only when he was sure he had the right frame and in his case it often meant that the water in the harvesting structure was doing the right thing and was at the right level. I gifted him a set of my black and white prints, which he accepted with gratitude. I wanted to buy his books for my parents for which he refused to take any money, saying that with my photos and interests in water harvesting structures of Thar, I was contributing to the efforts.
I felt embarrassed but there was only sincerity and belief in what he said. I was able to convince him that he should let me pay for at least one set. He agreed and then walked with me to the cashier’ office, hand-wrote the bills and neatly packed the picture postcards along with a ‘thank you’ note.
Then he walked me to the road and said a warm goodbye. I was deeply touched. I gifted the books and postcards to my parents hoping that despite their years in cities like Kolkata and Pune, this book would reconnect them to their childhood and the time spent at the kunds and bavdis of our native town, Chirawa. We still have his books on one of the bookshelves at home.
Unfortunately, that was the only time I met him personally. Next, I saw him delivering the keynote speech at Madras Traditional Science Congress. Speaking in simple lyrical Hindi (that was translated into Tamil) and using his beautiful slides to illustrate his talk, he left the audience spellbound. My next Anupam Mishra-moment came in 2001 when I was exhibiting in a café in Ile Saint Louis, Paris, where some of the images from that backpacking trip of kund from Abaner to Dausa were on display. A French girl there told me that her Hindi professor had translated Anupam Mishra’s books into French. They became available in English much later.
After shifting base to Delhi about four years ago, the thought of dropping in at the Gandhi Peace Foundation to see Anupam Mishra crossed my mind several times, but it never happened.
In a TED talk in November 2009, he demonstrated his vast knowledge and the video has close to 800,000 views.
Himanshu Thakkar of South Asia Network on Dams Rivers and People (SANDRP) wrote on his Facebook page: “A person with such clarity of thought on water and river issues of India, such effective and simple way of communication, so affectionate and yet so humble will be difficult to find. He was the chairman of the organising committee of India Rivers Week 2016 and also a member of the Bhagirath Prayas Samman Jury since its inception in 2014 and its chairman since 2015. In spite of his poor health and weak body, he came to our organising committee meeting several times, the last one in September 2016, and also came to the inaugural session of IRW 2016 on November 28, 2016 and spoke with characteristic clarity and simplicity with effectiveness. He was completely exhausted and in pain at the end of it, but that he came in spite of that showed his dedication to the cause.”
He understood how the land, its people, and water are intricately and intimately connected.
He leaves behind a magnificent legacy and also every reason for people to continue working in the field of water conservation. As Anupam Saraph, an old friend of Mishra said, “The best way of paying tribute to Anupam would be to recognise his body of work and follow his ancient and traditional way of water conservation and rain water harvesting model, rather than blindly following modern technology.”
Anupam Mishra passed away at the age of 68 at the All India Institute for Medical Sciences (AIIMS) on December 19, 2016. He was battling prostate cancer for the last one year. Mishra had been awarded the 1996 Indira Gandhi Paryavaran Puraskar (IGPP) Award instituted by the Ministry of Environment and Forests, Government of India, Jamnalal Bajaj Award, Amar Shaheed Chandrashekhar Azad National Award and many others. His books include ‘Aaj Bhi Khare Hain Talaab’ (Lakes Are Still Standing, 1993) and ‘Rajasthan Ki Rajat Boondein (Radiant Raindrops of Rajasthan, 1995) – landmark works in the field of water conservation. He was also the editor of the bi-monthly ‘Gandhi Marg,’ published by the Gandhi Peace Foundation.
(Written by Peeyush Sekhsaria)