This illustrated book is the charming tale of Namsel, a young girl from Dolpo who exhibits an unusual artistic talent and succeeds in realising her dreams. Entirely suitable for adults but targeted at children aged seven and upwards, Clear Sky, Red Earth has all the makings of a classic fairy tale rooted in historical events such as the triumph over social obstacles, mysterious creativity and the intervention of royalty.
Born to a modest family in Dolpo, the young Namsel Wangmo is a village girl who loves horses. After a death in the family, she moves in with her Aunt Dechen and Uncle Thondrup to help out in their house. Uncle Thondrup is an accomplished painter, as well as the village lama, and lets Namsel watch him as he works on his thangka paintings. Namsel eventually becomes his apprentice and hones her skills as she travels with him to the court of neighbouring Mustang.
Clear Sky, Red Earth may also be read as an allegory of a different nature. As compelling as the story itself is, the book is also an example of the strength of collaboration between two individuals from vastly different cultures: an American woman and a Dolpo man. The writer is Sienna Craig, who has been travelling to Nepal and Tibet since 1993, and has spent several years living in remote villages of Dolpo and Mustang. She has worked a freelance writer, translator, development consultant and educator, and is currently completing her PhD in medical and cultural anthropology at Cornell University. The illustrations are by Tenzin Norbu, an artist whose work is featured in museums and private collections around the world as well as several in international publications including Caravans of the Himalaya, National Geographic, and the feature film Himalaya, which was nominated for an Academy Award in 1999.
The text is engaging and joyful, full of gentle humour and cultural insight, not to mention a small dose of feminine victory: after all, the protagonist is a young woman. The illustrations are splendid, combining fiery reds with muted and natural earthy browns. Tenzin Norbu's precision to detail, be it the saddle-bags on the horses or snow leopard's spots, makes the experience all the more immersive. His paintings are at once cartoon-like and photographic, blending impressionist pointillism with a powerful sense of perspective.
The book is rounded off with a helpful, if slightly quirky, glossary and pronunciation guide, not a standard feature of children's books but one which will satisfy the appetites of culturally-interested readers.
It is pleasing to note that a portion of the profits from the sale of Clear Sky, Red Earth will help support projects in Dolpo and Mustang, funded by DROKPA, a non-profit organisation whose mission is to partner with pastoral communities in the Himalaya and Tibet to implement grassroots development and catalyse social entrepreneurship. This socially-responsible children's tale suffers from only one drawback: its price. At Rs 950, averaging around Rs 20 a page, most Nepali families with suitably-aged children and Nepal's English medium primary schools won't be able to afford it. We can only hope for a more economical edition of this delightful tale in the years to come.
Clear Sky, Red Earth: A Himalayan Story
Text by Sienna Craig, Illustrations by Tenzin Norbu
Mera Publications, Kathmandu, 2004, Price Rs 950, pp 48, 20 colour illustrations and eight line drawings.
Mark Turin is Director of the Digital Himalaya Project at the University of Cambridge. www.digitalhimalaya.com