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Collection Sikkim Photos (Kandell Collection)

Photographer Biography

Dr. Alice S. Kandell first visited Sikkim in 1965 to attend the coronation ceremony where Hope Cooke, a close friend from Sarah Lawrence College, became the first American-born queen. The chogyal (king) Palden Thondup Namgyal asked Dr. Kandell to use photography to document the indigenous cultures of Sikkim and to show how he and Hope were improving education and local businesses. With this special access, Dr. Kandell created a visual encyclopedia of Sikkimese life as it was before India absorbed the kingdom.

Portrait of photographer Alice Kandell, standing, half-length, with camera
[Portrait of photographer Alice Kandell, standing, half-length, with camera]

Dr. Kandell returned to Sikkim many times, while also completing her doctorate degree in child psychology at Harvard University and establishing her career in New York City. Growing political struggles between India and Sikkim brought the photography project to a close in the early 1970s. During a final trip in 1979, she photographed the wedding of Princess Yangchen Dolma.

Alice Kandell with villager and horse, Sikkim
[Alice Kandell with villager and horse, Sikkim]

Her collection grew to more than 15,000 color slides and black-and-white photographs taken while traveling extensively through a country the size of Delaware. Dr. Kandell went high in the mountains to meet farmers and traders who allowed her to photograph their families and homes. She attended Buddhist religious ceremonies, captivated by the music, masks, and dances. She captured formal and informal scenes with the royal family in Gangtok as well as artisans with their crafts, children in schools, and the remarkable landscape.

Two books published in 1971 feature these photographs-- Mountaintop Kingdom: Sikkim (with text by Charlotte Salisbury) and a book for children called Sikkim: The Hidden Kingdom. Dr. Kandell also wrote and illustrated articles about Sikkim for Redbook, Holiday, Scholastic, and The Saturday Evening Post.

Drum inside royal palace temple, Gangtok, Sikkim
[Drum inside royal palace temple, Gangtok, Sikkim]

During an exhibit of Sikkim photographs at the Camera Club of New York in 1971, Dr. Kandell said, "I tried to use my camera to communicate the warmth and openness of the people of Sikkim. I wanted to capture the beauty that is everywhere." A second exhibition was held at the Asia Society in New York, sponsored by the International Center of Photography, in 1975.

Inspired by her experience in Sikkim, Dr. Kandell went on to assemble a major collection of Budhhist art and religious objects. This Tibetan shrine with original paintings, sculpture, and furniture is now at the Smithsonian Institution. She also retained her connections to the Sikkimese people. In 2010, Hope Cooke joined Dr. Kandell at the Library of Congress to describe their work in Sikkim. The webcast from this program, "A Tour of the Lost Kingdom: Sikkim," can be viewed online.