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When film-maker Rajkumar Hirani needed to find the right locations for his film 3 Idiots, especially for the opening song Behti hawa sa tha woh and the climax scene in which Rancho (Aamir Khan’s character) is reunited with his friends, he turned to music composer Shantanu Moitra. Moitra, a self-professed avid traveller, chose Ladakh as the setting, and the scenes featuring its spectacular landscape, especially the last scene on the banks of the Pangong Tso lake, became an iconic part of the film.

That experience, of travelling through some of the Himalaya’s starkest and most beautiful parts convinced Moitra that he needed to go back and learn more about the mountain range.

“We only know that it’s an exotic place; it has high mountains. We know Kashmir, Kargil, war. What about the people? What about the music? What do the children do?" Moitra asks.

Out of that curiosity was born the idea of a whimsical adventure: to spend 100 days in the Himalayas, beginning with Ladakh, continuing on to Lahaul-Spiti, Uttarakhand, northern West Bengal, Nepal, Tibet, Bhutan and finally reaching Arunachal Pradesh. As his travelling companion, he has chosen Dhritiman Mukherjee, arguably India’s finest nature photographer, whom Moitra describes as “an enigma as great as the Himalayas themselves". One will listen and the other will see, and at the end of the 100 days there will be a coffee-table book, 50 or so micro-documentaries, a flood of images on Instagram and an album that brings the chants, the folk songs, the horns and the gongs of the Himalayas to a world-music audience.

Moitra is back from the first schedule in Ladakh, where he completed three compositions—the tunes came “gushing and rushing", he says —and we talk about the sound of mountains. “Most of the songs sung above 12,500ft are high frequency. That is because they are sung by shepherds and their animals need to be able to hear them. High-frequency sounds travel. Here, music is not just entertainment. If the yak can’t hear them and it wanders off, it’s a huge loss for the shepherd and his family. And you begin to understand the impact music has on life in the mountains."

Speaking about translating the sparse vistas and stark moonscapes of Ladakh into music, Moitra says, “What binds the Himalayas and its isolation is the pentatonic scale. If you look at the evolution of music, there is a distinct difference between the music of places where there are few people—like mountains—and places where a population settles, like riverbanks. Mountain music is mostly five notes or less whereas riverine music has seven or even eight, 10, 12 notes. I don’t know of any sound as minimal as the Himalayan chant—it’s just two notes. Yet it has the most powerful, cleansing effect when you listen to it with your eyes closed."

These experiences and insights, Moitra says, are like “filling an empty coffer", a reference to his life in Bollywood, where he is “constantly delivering, with no time for inputting new experiences".

Moitra’s motivation to explore the Himalayas more deeply is understandable, but I was curious about what Mukherjee, who has probably spent many multiples of 100 days in the Himalayas, got out of this collaboration. He tells me that this trip came at a time of creative impasse. “When I am chasing a snow leopard or any rare species, I am focused only on that, to the exclusion of everything else. In this experience, I simply walk; the moments come to me."

Besides that unfettered perspective, there was a more photogenic inspiration too. He wanted to see the Himalayas from underwater. It is rare enough for a photographer to plunge into high-altitude underwater photography in the Himalayas, but Mukherjee’s ambitions are rarer still: He wanted to go underwater when the glacial streams and lakes had frozen over. Every year, a few dozen hardy trekkers arrive in Ladakh for the famed Chadar trek—essentially trekking the Zanskar river when it is ice. For the first time, someone has captured images from under the Chadar.

Where do the creative energies of Moitra and Mukherjee meet? “We are both very curious about each other’s work," Moitra tells me. “Dhriti is constantly asking me how songs and music come to my head. I am always wondering how we can look at the same thing and Dhriti takes a picture that I just hadn’t imagined. That curiosity about each other is where our creativity meets."

Monks at the Matho Monastery play the dungchen, a Tibetan horn.
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Monks at the Matho Monastery play the dungchen, a Tibetan horn.
The sand dunes of Hunder in Nubra Valley.
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The sand dunes of Hunder in Nubra Valley.
An Himalayan Ibex near Drass.
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An Himalayan Ibex near Drass.
Mukherjee immersed in the semi-frozen Zanskar.
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Mukherjee immersed in the semi-frozen Zanskar.
An underwater image of the frozen Zanskar.
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An underwater image of the frozen Zanskar.
The Matho Monastery.
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The Matho Monastery.
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