“Smoogy, what is the biggest illusion in this world?”
“You tell me,” he flipped the question back.
“Some say the biggest illusion is innocence. I believe it is unconditional love.”
He withheld his opinion for a few seconds. The ideas appealed to him, but he had a different take.
“Both arguments are sound but the biggest illusion in this world is death.”
“How? I believe death is the ultimate reality.”
“Death is a deception. It has no duration, yet appears permanent. It is thus the biggest illusion of all.”
‘The Disobedient Darkness’
The deepest memory I have of my father is when he kissed my four year old cheeks. The prickle of his stubble is as vivid in my mind as the last moments of his life when he gently tried to hold my forearm in his frail hands at the time of dying. Nothing that I’ve felt of him is blurred. Everything is sharp and real.
Fortunately, ‘The Disobedient Darkness’ came to me two years ago and it changed me. My memories of him do not plunge me in misery and discontentment; they remind me of the nature of this world. I see the flashes of our life lived as an experience; nothing more nothing less. It had changed him too. He became a different person after reading the story. His attachments loosened and he kept telling me that this ‘cycle’ is coming to an end, so stop fretting with your supplements and efforts to mend my heart. I did not listen to him, for I did not believe that his end was so near. However, ‘The Disobedient Darkness’ had led to our distancing ourselves from each other in a strange way, making us accept a lifetime coming to its conclusion— treating it simply as a process.
No one can claim to have all the answers to questions of life and death. In the end it ends up being a matter of belief. But the visible catches a different shade when one loses someone dear. The world offers support to console a grieving heart. People say the kindest and the rightest of things. The most common phrase one hears is, ‘May the departed soul rest in peace.’
There is no rest. There is no peace. Rest and peace are elements of the physical realm. The soul, if we consider it as the principal energy driving the body, has to manifest itself in some form or the other. This is a scientifically established principle of the Universe (law of conservation). My father wanted to be born as a girl in his next life. I’m sure he is a she, kicking her mama’s tummy and sucking her thumb at the moment.
‘This is where I find my mother at each beginning and end, and we sing together until the next ray of light separates us again.’
Salman–The Disobedient Darkness
I don’t believe in Moksha either. Rather, I reject the concept as cowardly. To experience hunger, pain, disease, heat, cold is as much a blessing as eating sweet mangoes in summer or having satisfying sex. I know, I am fortunate and not riddled with debilitating circumstances or going through each day in penance, expecting next life to be a better one. There are millions trapped by disease, penury, crime and war and they would be justified in asking, “What have I done wrong to be deserving a life like this?” I cannot say why anyone should be born in such hopelessness, even if the environment of their condition is mostly man-made. Philosophies would attribute it to Karma. It could be possible that the circumstances for these souls is for a purpose; to learn something from it. But the crux of it is that their suffering is physical in nature. On the other hand, a life lived in peace and comforts is not without its lessons and has its purpose too. Search for an existence out of this interesting theatre confounds me. The vast blue sky, roll of the majestic ocean, fluttering butterflies, a bright winter morning, flowers, seasons, sunsets on mountain peaks, music of a nifty brook and so much more in this beautiful world cannot be cast side as ephemeral or lacking in value. Even if for a moment, I concede that there is Moksha, I would not want it and bet that every Moksha seeker will readily accept a world full of only pleasures if it were possible. In any case they seek eternal bliss. How boring is that?!
So what are we here for? Is everything meaningless? What are we leaving behind; would a big house be more useful to this world than a bunch of unsold paintings? Maybe, maybe not. One thing I do understand truly and without a doubt—’I am the sensations of this Universe and purpose of my life is to feel’.
So the Universe has given me opportunities to hug my father, have beers with him, see Van Gogh’s ‘Irises’ together, take long drives, receive his reprimands and sermons, enjoy his sense of humour and participate in his triumphs and disappointments. On the other hand, the Universe has given me, through him, a suffering of heart disease and an intimate, physical experience of death.
I don’t remember exactly when he ‘appeared’ in my life. I had no active role in it. He was there, as my father, that’s it. A natural phenomenon. Now, he is physically absent. When I miss him dearly, I remind myself that it is ‘normal’ to have someone participating in your journey, enriching it, fulfilling it, and then it is ‘normal’ to see him go…
And I wish my father’s soul, adventure and learning in the lifetimes to come…
Goin’ home, late last night
Suddenly I got a fright
Yeah I looked through a window and surprised what I saw
A fairy with boots and dancin’ with a dwarf,
All right now!
Yeah, fairies wear boots and you gotta believe me
Yeah I saw it, I saw it, I tell you no lies
Yeah Fairies wear boots and you gotta believe me
I saw it, I saw it with my own two eyes,
Oh all right now!
Black Sabbath 1971
Yes, there are fairies and they often dance with dwarves. I saw it on the 17th of July 2017. And No, I’ve never tripped on dope. Ever.
This is a world of deliberate disconnections; after all, our favourite chicken brochette has a very brutal beginning and that is an indisputable fact. However hard we might try to justify our polished existence or the inheritance of a superior universe, but the aesthetics of aesthetics is not a particularly easy thing to swallow. The best we can do is to see the funny side of it.
I was invited by my good friend Suneet to take pictures of a video shoot that he had commissioned as a part of an ad-campaign. It was in a studio, famous for its generous space. So there I went, with my three bags full of stands, lights and two cameras, thinking of being over-equipped for the occasion, only to be humbled by the sight of the material welcoming me there. It looked like a factory that makes aeroplanes: its rafters dripping with steel, wires and lights. A crowd of dwarves was busy adding to the snaggle, optimistically finding space for its purpose; laying it on the floor or making it stand; clipping, twisting, raising, waiting, releasing; all without making a racket. That wasn’t all. Then they put wood wedges under the rails, corrected the white-balance, set up the trolly, upped and dimmed the lights, added a cutter here, tilted a light there, fought with shadows and flares in a well rehearsed manner to finally achieve their idea of perfection.
I nudged my two lights into the spray and stick, with some help from the invaders, realising that it wasn’t a scene of oppression at all. A senior member of their team helped me put my large Rotalux together. I would’ve taken the whole day to do it without his help.
The shoot started thereafter. A small Sony α7 mated to humongous Carl Zeiss cine-lenses was being employed for the purpose. Everything was strapped on to a bulky rig. Two men operated the camera; one peering over the articulated screen and the other pulling focus. Others then busied themselves with this and that, including pushing the trolly smoothly over the rails whenever the cameraman cried ‘Joom’.
Our models, the three fairies, looked ethereal in Suneet’s wonderfully designed clothes.
This is where the story gets turned on the fire, simmering just like that chicken brochette.
Initially the setup amused me, often making me laugh with its innocuous flowing. The fairies roused into a titillating disposition at the call of ‘Action’ or ‘Rolling’, sashayed to an imaginary celebration, and the machine-dwarf, ignoring the seductress in front, went about his work like a cog. The drama would continue for a minute or so until the director said ‘Cut’. The command does not stop the dwarf. He keeps whirring; checking re-checking, fussing over something relentlessly. The fairy meanwhile, suddenly dropped out of consideration, has nowhere to go, except into her garden of dreams.
Then the action begins again.
In a different outfit.
Its not easy being a fairy. You have to be beautiful, tall, dignified and professional. Now, this word is ambiguous. Professional means responsible, but here, also implies being able to unplug and then be ready to plug into the action when called. There’s no time to waste.
Then a dwarf would hold two screaming taped-up blowers, ( Suneet thought they were more melodious than Brian Johnson of AC/DC. Blasphemy!) and in that din, the fairy twirled her locks, believing that the copious breeze is carrying her lover’s kisses and the most tender poem his heart might have bled. Oh this world! You can make dew drops out of bum-sweat.
But this is life. Isn’t it? Everything has a side.
It may be as beautiful as Sonalika (above) , or the loneliness of being an also-ran, the way quite a lot of us are.
And suddenly, providentially, we find ourselves in the company of a fairy, as lonely, biding time, waiting for some action. We live in subsets of a complicated world, sometimes in joy, sometimes in a jam, imprisoned by fear or liberated by attention.
The cameraman (who Suneet so sweetly called Camera-Wale-Bhaiyya), was asked by the director to go up-and-down Sonalika, to catch the details of embroidery of her sari. And Sonalika ever so graciously obliged with a smile, enduring the lens as it roved the length of her in a humdrum.
The process gave occasional respite: when the lens was being changed or the trolly wobbled to the dissatisfaction of the cameraman. Then the moments of contemplation crept in, giving a measure of how we usually deal with things that don’t fit us that well.
But the narrative is about the interaction of two very different worlds, and the irony of it. The fairies are beautiful. They are aware of it, they use it and work to look that way for as long as they can. On the other hand are the dwarves: nondescript, potbellied, who have never flung a limb in their lives to look beyond the ordinary, and yet, both have to dance together in this drama of life.
But the dwarves are not that bland. They have aspirations too. So what if one has an enormous belly; he still has the style to flaunt a ‘DARE’ on his T shirt.
Or has spent hours in a friend’s beauty parlour just to get a few wisps of hair bleached.
In the end, to make a fairy look her best, what matters is how well he can dance.
So the next time you see a fairy looking besotted by the bubbles of a sandal-wood soap or lost in euphoric sensations of a creamy moisturiser, remember, she is actually dancing with the dwarves.
I’ll wrap it up by quoting a typical Smoogykuk repartee from the Disobedient Darkness:
” What you have is not important, it’s what you lose to get it is.”
One of most difficult questions I’ve been asked is ‘Where are you from?’. I’m from nowhere. Never had a chance to crawl in a particular soil for too long. My tentacles couldn’t absorb nutrients of a culture. I don’t recollect a festival being ‘celebrated’ at home. Diwali was for crackers and holi was fun with classmates. I got married to a Bengali and discovered Durga Puja.
‘If you look into her eyes for a while, she’ll descend into you’
I’ll not go in the details of the rituals ,for the simple reason, I know nothing about them. Whatever I’ve learnt, is from my wife and the internet. There is a lot of information, stories, history available online. My journey is as an ‘Outsider’, whose involvement is perhaps as intense as Camu’s Meursault; a little perplexed, drifty and continuously astonished .
During the Puja our household transforms. A distinct feminine air pervades. This time of the year is when I help install safety pins on my wife’s sari pallu. She converts from a working woman to a dazzling lady. A rustle of Dhakais, Jamdanis and Balucharis bring a crispy joy. Later at the pandal one sees more. Brocades, jacquards and georgettes beam in beautiful colours .
Our’s is the Greater Kailash 2 Durga puja. It is on the periphery of a dense affair which happens at the core of C.R. Park. Despite being on the outskirts, it is well attended, thanks to the tireless work of our Puja committee members.
At the end of the day, it is the fervour and a belief in the supremacy of a mysterious power which makes this festival so special. It is a celebration of existence and its radiance.
People throng and reach out to the divine, not in fear but as its children.
One intriguing ritual is when the Goddess is given some privacy while she’s having her food. I was not allowed to take pictures of the event, but sneaked some when they were drawing the curtains.
Perhaps every entity ( including you and I) is moulded of earth. So is the Goddess.
Then fashioned by the Gods, she cascades as a bright plasma of colour and sparkles, riding her lion, towering to slay the evil which tries to change from one form to another.
Our triumph is in celebration of the Mother and we do it with panache.
Samrat is our star performer. His very being is soaked in the nectar of Durga Puja. The priests in his presence are acolytes as he leads the way with his devotion. My son is already participating and giving him company.
Prithvi is five. His electrons spin in the direction of Puja. He waits for the event eagerly and cannot miss any moment of it. We have to take regular excursions to where a lot of idols are made, well before the Puja begins.
This is how the festival makes him levitate. I am happy there is a culture which flows inside him, something which I have missed in my life.
At the heart of Durga Puja is the Dhunochi dance. A lovely display of sound and steps in a hazed out atmosphere. I found it very challenging to photograph. Smoke, light and silhouettes have created ample drama to surprise me every time I have taken pictures of the event.
And how can Prithvi be left behind?
Some more pictures of the Dhunochi.
At the end there are two very intriguing rituals. Its the ‘Shidur Khela’ and ‘Kumari Puja’. I cannot elaborate on either significance or meaning of the two, but both are a delight to photograph.
In Shidur Khela women smear vermillion on each other. For Kumari Puja a young girl is worshipped.
After these two rituals, prayers and festivities are wrapped up and the Goddess is taken to a river and consigned to its water. From what I understand, it is a symbolic reunion of the Goddess with lord Shiva.
Despite being an outsider, I have found this event heart rending. One day we have to let go which is dear.
But even the sombre turns into a carnival and mundane appears absurd at the Visarjan. The fervour is mind numbing. This is India.
I missed it last year. This time I was shocked to see cranes pressed into service. It might be convenient, but for a photographer, it was disastrous.
If this is how we continue to strap mother nature , then one day she will rise in her splendour to wipe us out.
And all our shows of reverence will be futile.
My comment is not on the Puja celebration and its ecological impact, but our general attitude towards nature.
I thank and congratulate those who have kept this tradition alive. I am happy my son is a part of it.
And as usual, I’ll be blinking from the other side, happy as an outsider.
The independence day of my country has been a slow moving lump of time for me, for as long as I care to remember. But every year, I don’t fail to notice tacky posters of our leaders, congratulating me on my freedom from a rule and rulers I only know of from books, movies and the great architecture that they have left behind. On the other hand, I have suffered many a squabble about who was our greatest freedom fighter, finding most of the experts huffing about this should’ve been, or that should’ve happened. To them I say; of course! The nation is waiting for you to change it, so go ahead and use your freedom instead of fighting with your husband or your wife, or posting selfies on Facebook.
One fine 14th August morning, I was told to draw a moustache on my five year old son, as he was going to school dressed as Chandrasekhar Azad. My research on Azad’s outcrop led me to Wikipedia and I was surprised to learn that Pundit Moti lal Nehru funded his activities regularly. That silly amateurish squiggle of kohl on the upper lip was worth this interesting piece of trivia. However, more important things occupied my mind. I was eager to take my newly acquired 35mm lens for a test drive and have an experience of kite flying at the Jama Masjid area of Old Delhi.
It turned out to be a wrong choice of a lens on a great day.
As I turned right from the Red Fort parking towards Chandni Chowk, I could barely see a kite in the sky. It was past four pm in the afternoon and a huge mass of cloud hung ominously in the west, but there were no little squabs of bright colour floating in its foreground. So I limped towards the new parking lot in disappointment, thinking that in these changing times I should not keep my hopes high.
However, nearing Jama Masjid lifted my spirits. The sky was water blue in the north, and the hidden sun miraculously lit tufts of moisture rolling high up in the atmosphere in bright gold. And in between was a world alive with a myriad of colours whizzing about, many in our tricolour. I sought a vantage point, finding a co-operative fireman who let me go to the roof of his station after warning me to keep away from the monkeys. The sight was good, but still too far for my lens to capture properly. Soon, I was at the roof of the Meena Bazaar machine tool market, in the company of disinterested lambs and their droppings, happily taking pictures of boys brandishing the brashness of youth in their language and energy. A trendily bespectacled boy, struggled to get his kite up in the air. He reminded me of my own effort to hoist one in the morning: a few feet from the ground it had rotated on the axis of its tether vigorously and plunged to ground immediately–breaking all its bones, leaving us disconsolate. The boy’s kite did not commit suicide like mine, but refused to take flight nevertheless.
Action was still afar. It was happening from the roof tops of the butchers and the dhabas lining the road. I had to get on top somehow. A few polite inquiries led me to Imran Bhai: a cold-drink shop owner in one of the narrow arteries flowing inside the Muslim neighborhood of old Delhi. He summoned Irfan and instructed him to take me to Osama. Four flights of shoulder width rectangular dark tunnels later, I emerged to a sight that will remain with me for the rest of my life. It was a roof little larger than my bathroom, being put to good use by Osama, a boy of about ten, flying his kite.
Facing west, on my right was the Jama Masjid and on my left was a sprawling Lego-land of history, adapted to the present in its unique fashion. All its roofs were occupied by people flying kites.
Soon we were joined by others. They brought tea, cold drinks, a music system and more kites. Ours was perhaps the highest rooftop, so I could see a layer of flying paper on the horizon.
It was a party which was beyond my expectations; the world buzzed with celebration, Punjabi songs blared from the music systems and animated conversations on the skill of flying, filled the placid breeze. In no time the little roof was hosting four flyers and their thread reels–and a bigger pile of kites.
Azaan called the devout, but no one paused. They were transfixed on the motions of their marionettes dancing above. A little later, from an indistinguishable roof top, a Bhangra drum exploded in action. Boys on our roof responded with a shake of their chest and a roar. This was a 15th August like no other I had ever experienced.
This gentleman got bored of pulling strings and took to fishing. He had plucked quite a few at the time when I was there.
There are hardly any kite makers left in Old Delhi. Most kites come from Barielly. So does the thread. Chinese thread is banned but is easily available. It is strong, so when it hangs from electric wires, becomes dangerous for birds and men alike. Indian thread is still laced with ground glass, but is made of cotton. People come to fly kites from a lot of places; from Moradabad, Allahabad and Benares. It is no competition on the 15th, though the endeavour remains the same, bringing the other’s kite down. People do talk about a few champions of the sport. One of them is Rafiq Bhai, who doesn’t fly anymore, but sells kites in the area. I couldn’t meet him this time but I’m sure he’ll have a lot of interesting stories to tell when I do get to chat with him eventually.
As the evening descended, the environment rippled deeper with festivities. Women joined the men on the rooftop. Resplendent in gold and party wear they added a different colour to the atmosphere.
Later, nearing dusk, fireworks began. Apparently it is a competition between the Hindu and Muslim communities that happens on the independence day. Unfortunately, I had to leave before I could see this celebration. Next year I’m not going to miss it.
I was told that 15th of August is the major kite flying day of Old Delhi. So it must surely be an independence day thing. How this tradition came into being, is for you to guess. Whether those boys cared for the independence day, I can’t say. I don’t, but I don’t have so much fun either.
Scanning the large landscape painted on the wall, I marvelled at its symmetry and detail painted by the artist. It required discipline and patience besides a love for the act of painting. There was no ceremony of preparing the surface with lime and plaster. No special paint or brushes provided, yet the artist painted. It was not an original scene but copied from a picture of a far away land, most likely cradled in the alps. A picture of peace, beauty and hope. I admired the painting, took its photograph and appreciated the effort loudly to the ones standing next to me. They pushed a diminutive , soft spoken man from the shadows and introduced him as the artist. He looked like an artist. I held his hand. It was one of the gentlest hand I had ever held. Indeed it was the hand of an artist. In dismay I wondered, what else have these hands done for him to land up at a place like this.
It wasn’t the only painting on the wall. There is a labyrinth of walls, spotlessly clean and adorning scenes of joy, tranquility and a love for nature.
Lakes span their width,trees fill their spaces, birds chirp, ducks roam and in a few Buddha has overcome evil of this world. In one we have captured a peak at Kargil and the tricolour flies proudly.
Mother India in a pink silk sari rides a ferocious lion and a huge tiger emerges from within a deep forest in yet another. They are paintings by different artists, but each executed meticulously with perfect proportions and lovely compositions. I was not in a crafts museum, or a model village, I was on a brief visit to south east Asia’s largest prison, the Tihar Jail.
An NGO had organised a havan for the inmates of jail no 4 to bring a perspective to their lives. The jail is overcrowded. Sixty inmates share one toilet. Seventy seven percent being first time offenders, have to deal with a situation which they never anticipated before committing the crime. It is stressful. It is a Jail.
My first impression of the inmates reminded me of my school days. If you have ever attended a lecture in a school or college you will remember the noisy buzz before the event. However it was quite the opposite here. Shy eyes, many in shame, tried to understand my motive as I roamed at the periphery of their existence with a camera in hand. Sitting tight, shoulder to shoulder, hardly whispering , well behaved, they waited patiently in that hot afternoon for the function to start. I was upset. Many were young men, probably in their twenties and besides three, none looked like criminals. What is their innocent faces hiding? What was the misdeed, what was that moment of madness? Was it compulsion or an accident? Do they have friends? What is time to them? Is there hope in their lives? How long will they be here?
None of the police was armed. Just two bored constables with sticks looked about from a corner in shade. Higher officers mingled easily with those inmates who were a part of the organizational effort. These were the guides, ushers, water bearers, sound system operators. Some managed the direction of fans and air coolers. Apparently none is forced to do anything at the Tihar. All volunteer.
During the ritual itself, the participation was staggeringly innocent. Eyes closed they repeated the mantras and hailed Ganesha and Shiva when summoned to do so. They perspired, creaked in cramps, wavered to life which was better and then came back to the reality of their existence.When asked to anoint each others forehead with a sandal paste ’tilak’, they did so enthusiastically. Then like little children, tied the holy thread on each others wrists.
It was stunning. Children in school and colleges are nowhere near well behaved as these men were.
Later, at the end, the director general of the prison Ms Vimla Mehra graced the occasion. Everyone clapped as she entered. I saw genuine respect and reverence for her.
The function was held at a basketball court which doubled as an auditorium. For the occasion it was covered with an orange tarpaulin which lent a warm red glow to all who sat underneath. For a photographer it was a white balance nightmare. Fiddling with the camera, I realised, it was better to shoot the circumstance as it was than create some image out of it. I was a bit scared to go closer to them. I did not know whether the police would object or if they would either, but still, they gave me good pictures.
Later we were invited for lunch. One can easily take the sylvan surroundings for some tropical paradise. Cassias, Banyans, Neems and Saptparnis were in abundance. So was the lush grass. Amidst the clatter of cutlery, jail No 4s ‘own’ musical group, the ‘Music Nest’ played Spanish instrumental on electric guitars and drums. Young men, whom you would expect to play in a concert or at a high bar strummed quietly for our pleasure. Most of the musicians were of foreign origin. Lead guitarist, I was told, is from Canada. Drummer appeared to be from Africa, another guitarist looked like a West Indian and yet another from either Nepal or could be from the far east. Mind you, I have not cross checked. Other than the man from Canada, I do not know the origins of any other. What the hell were they doing here? It is a greater crime to play for those who were only interested in the sourness of their yogurt or the crispness of their poppadoms. It was frustrating to see talent go a waste like this. I hope their sentences are short and they have learned their lesson.
A bigger picture emerged here. Kiran Bedi transformed the prison into an Ashram. Reformation is the philosophy. Here the individual is not shunned. Society reaches out to his mind and heart through various means. Camps, events and classes are held to remind the inmates that they are not forgotten. It is easy to get judgemental and assume that murderers, rapists, child killers or terrorists don’t deserve any better. When I read the news, I feel the same. But they are a product of the same society. They were us, before their actions caught up with them. Maybe some cannot be reformed. They are broken, but those, whom a moment of madness overcame, do deserve to look out a window which opens to a different existence. And those, who are heinous might, it is hoped, get wet with some sprinkle of kindness or introspection. After all even Kasab’s last words were that,”I swear to God, I’ll never do it again.”
The prison is overcrowded. With a capacity of around 6250, it houses over 12000. But then this is India. Nothing here is underpopulated. People are used to stacked platforms, railways coaches or cricket stadiums. I’m sure the Tihar is no different. The difference being, unlike most other overcrowded areas, this one appears to be managed better. It is clean and its insistence of being an ashram, has given it a lot of greenery and open spaces. An officer claimed that the kitchen is cleaner than most kitchens one has ever seen. He offered to show us , but since we were in a hurry to leave, had to give the tour a pass. Food served for our lunch was simple, vegetarian and reasonably tasty. All cooked and served by inmates. Again, we were told that the food is same for everyone. These are the days of Ramadan, so the kitchen works from three in the morning for those who observe the fast.
The jail bid us adieu with a gift of their products. It was a hand bag neatly packed with biscuits and namkeen. I tell you, it matches in taste with a popular brand which one gets in the market.The ‘nan khatai’ is especially delicious.
All around us are walls. When we cross the invisible walls of the law, we might just land up behind a visible one. However painted, a wall is a wall. One cannot extend one’s freedom beyond the limits of tolerance.So after visiting the jail, I realised, it is absolutely important for me to overcome any feeling of madness to prove a point, or to overcome a fool. If I don’t, I’ll have a lot of time feeling foolish behind the walls of a jail. And mind you, not all jails are like Tihar.
At a temple I was asked a question whose answer I had no clue to. The revered Punditji, sitting amongst his disciples and sycophants mocked,’ you do not know whether you are a Sanatan Dharmi or an Arya Samaji and you call yourself a Hindu?’ . I do not care for such trivial matters. Nor do I care whether I am a Hindu or not, but that day the conversation ventured into philosophy of figuring out who one is in this Universe. We sparred on topics of Karma and afterlife besides the purpose of this one. Not surprisingly the Pundit ended up more bruised ( and irritated), as he had not asked enough questions to himself and hence could not argue convincingly without taking help of dogmas which any religion or belief relies upon for its survival.
I wanted to know more about Sanatan Dharma but I forgot about it till three years ago. It poked me for a journey into its realm as I was looking for solutions to take fewer pictures. You see, it was my endeavour to be less wasteful while doing photography. Because I have a 16 gb card, did not justify my being trigger happy and then finding luck in editing. Quite often in my walks, I resolved to capture not more than twenty frames, yet still came back with close to two hundred. It irritated me, that even after clicking so many, there weren’t more than five or six worth taking seriously and even one keeping in my portfolio. Then I accidentally read about Sanatan Dharma and my perception changed.
What is Sanatan Dharma?
Sanatan literally means eternal. No need to explain what eternal is.
Dharma, in this context, is the ‘Law’. The reason I use ‘in this context’ is that there are various interpretations of Dharma. This is my hybrid version and it suits me.
What is this ‘Law’? It is simply the Law of cause and effect. Action and reaction.
Now dear reader I’ll hold your hand and take you into another space. It is where the laws of Quantum Physics apply. Many of you science students will remember Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. For those who don’t know , I’ll elaborate. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle states that it is impossible to measure the speed and position of a subatomic particle at the same time. You can do either, but not both because the moment you try to do it, the other quantity changes . This is a simplistic yet adequate explanation as the position of a subatomic particle is usually a mathematical probability anyways. Basically whenever one tries to see something, that ‘something’ has already changed because of the observer’s presence. It applies to a photographer too and we will broach it later.
So keeping the Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle at the back of our mind let us analyse this ‘Law’. The Law was never created by God, or the Universe. It is created by you. You are the reason, the cause and the effect of this Law. Surprised? Actually most of the basic principles of Hinduism rely on this philosophy, especially that of Yoga.
Delving still deeper, since you are the creator of the Law,the Universe is because of your presence. You may say the Universe was always there, what difference does it make whether you are , or not. Not according to the Law.The Universe is, because You are. Since it will end up as a debate in perceptions, let’s move on.
Big deal, I am the law, the master of my existence. Nothing new. I wasn’t even in control when I came into this world, nor will I be when I die. So why bother?
I ask you, when did ‘You’ come into this world? When You were born? when You lost your virginity? After Your first drink? When You realised the meaning of Life and Death?
Who is You? Are you a Son, a Daughter? A Father, Brother, Sister, Mother, Grand mother, Husband, lover . All or nothing? When are You?
The next step is to figure out your relationship with the Universe. This is an essential part of Sanatan Dharma and most other aspects of Hinduism. The entire premise of Yoga is based on this.
Unless You know who You are, the Universe will not know whom to react to. If you act in an arbitrary manner, the Universe will react in an arbitrary manner too.
Which means, to exist meaningfully ( for our own sake ) one’s journey is to first figure out who one really is, then our actions will result in specific and desirable reactions from the Universe.Our roles are described by the society for its functioning, but they do not help in self discovery.
Now when I take my camera out , I take it with an intention of discovering myself. This is a vicarious process. I capture what I see and I see what I can see. But the moment I poke my nose as a photographer, I find that the world has changed already,( remember the uncertainty principle?).Whether it is for a picture of a pebble, or a picture of my son. It then transforms itself into dimensions of a frame,composition, light, lines, expression and purpose.
A fashion photographer’s purpose is different from a street photographer’s to a bird or wildlife photographer’s, or is it?
To see beyond this cobweb, I refer to ‘Rolling Stones 500 greatest songs’. The number one on the list is Bob Dylan’s ‘Like a Rolling Stone’.”I wrote it. I didn’t fail. It was straight” is all he had to say about this song when he wrote it at the age of 24. But every song of Dylan is not ‘Like a rolling stone’.
The purpose of our journey is to figure out who we are and when we know that, the moment is not forever. It reflects briefly through our actions. When I take pictures on the street, I know that the perfect moment, the one I was looking for has come and this picture will work. It settles something within. It quenches that agitation and justifies the wastefulness of the hundred photos taken before. I simply feel happy. That’s it. I am no Cartier Bresson or Salgado. I am me and that’s what matters.It is my ‘ Like a Rolling Stone’.
So my Dharma is to see the world, the way I wish to see it. I see it through a perfect exposure, straight lines, colour, forms and a feeling which goes beyond all this. I am out to capture the world struggling to know what it is there for. I know I feel happy to complete my story, my understanding of the subject in one frame, so perhaps will always struggle to create a ‘body of work’ ( and hence will not get selected for the Delhi Photo Festival). But that’s me and it is futile to try and change myself.
But there is something called evolution. Referring to the ‘law’ and the uncertainty principle, one must never forget that we are a part of the Universe and therefore cannot treat ourselves as a rigid separate entity. Thus we evolve. Evolution is about adaptability ( unless you are a Karl Marx). If right now I cannot produce a quality ‘Body of work’, I must not assume that I can never do , or I must not try. Who knows, I might evolve into a photographer who can create a body of work at will. If I am observing the outside, the outside is observing me too. If I act, I am being acted upon. If the outside has changed by my action, I am getting changed too by its reaction. Letting that happen, being vulnerable ,is evolution.
So where does it leave us. Only you as a photographer knows why you are taking pictures and not some Bakchod ( word fucker) like Susan Santog or Calvino( simply because they were not photographers). If you don’t know, then take more pictures till you do. If you still cannot, forget it, just keep taking pictures. One day you will. The less you think about it the better it will be.Remember, even the Universe has evolved to this day by experimenting with so many life forms and species.
Now, I don’t give a shit whether I take 600 frames to reach my moment of ecstasy. I just go out and take pictures. This is my Santana Dharma. But whenever I am asked ‘Why are you taking these pictures?’ by a policeman at Mayapuri or someplace else, I fumble to give a reasonable answer. I still don’t know what to say to him, but to you I will say, “It makes me happy”.
“Baba! What do you do? ” I asked the Naga Sadhu sitting quietly in his tent.
The Sadhu must have blinked a bit behind his unusually large red sunglasses and then said, ” Nothing. What is there to do?”
“I mean what is the job of a Sadhu?”
“We are here to protect Sanatan Dharma.”
“Tell me about Sanatan Dharma.”
“I don’t know anything about Sanatan Dharma. These are the questions appropriate for Mahamandaleshwars.”
Then he added a profound couplet to re-enforce his suggestion.
“Hamara kaam hai, Lund ghumana aur Rasgulla Khana.”
In English, the rough translation goes like this,
‘I Jiggle my dick, for the sweets I lick’
Conversation with the muscular Baba was a little more sensible.
“Baba! What is progress?”
“There is nothing called progress. All of you caught in the trap of illusions call something a success or failure. Life is merely a series of experiences.”
“Then what is it we are working towards?”
“You are working to justify your beliefs ; we live life as it comes.”
“So there is no direction to life?”
“It depends on the purpose of your life.”
“And the purpose of life is?”
“To keep ones’ promises, not to harm anyone and respecting the creation of God.”
Then the sadhu took a drag from the little earthen pipe and handed it to a man wrapped in a white Toga. He appeared to be of foreign origin. There was another one, sitting next to him. Both were quite and statuesque. A closer look revealed some reactory response to the pungent smoke from the wood fire, which occasionally swung their way.
“What is your name?”
“Where are you from?”
“From Israel.” He replied in a very heavy accent.
“How did you find him?” I pointed towards the Sadhu.
“We didn’t find him, he found us.”
For a few seconds I stared at him in disbelief. Assaf took the opportunity to smile at me in return. His teeth were yellow. His waxen demeanor prompted me ask,
“How do you spend your time?”
“Minute by minute.”
Humanity rolled in as waves, smashing repeatedly on the shores of the Sangam. For a few seconds of rendezvous with the holy water, people endured collisions and danger, then they were hustled with piercing whistles, sticks and shoves from the security. It was an upheaval akin to a loaded net full of sardines.
They came out with little droplets of the sacred water clinging on their shivering skin. Which they proceeded to wipe quickly. Meanwhile the Naga sadhus busied themselves with an anointment of a powder which turned their bodies ashen. It also made them smell of a sweet soap.
They were happy going to the river. They held hands, carried each other on shoulders, rode horses and beat drums in their procession. They danced with abandon and showed their wares to the photographers.
They are proud of their lifestyle. Sometimes ironic, sometimes specious but they bring grand drama to the event.
Quite a few looked comical and lost in the milieu.
It seems that most are actors for the great spectacle . One can doubt them, but the truth is, without these exaggerated characters, the Kumbh will be a poorer place.
The river flows in those who come to her. And they unfold to each other in many ways.
But such moments could be achieved outside the frenzy ;which was a little bit away from the main event of Mauni Amavasya.
Faith in the power of holy water is staggering. There is no question in any one’s mind that she will not excoriate the accumulated sins from their soul.
The man from Gaya educated me on this issue.
“Why do you sin?”
He reached out for my jacket collar and felt it in his thumb and forefinger.
“Our clothes get dirty. Don’t they? The same way our souls become dirty over a period of time.”
“But why let it get dirty to begin with?” I asked stubbornly.
“I till fields. God knows how many innocent beings get killed by my plough. I walk on earth, even bare feet, there could be thousands of insects and small creatures crushed under.”
“And you believe the river will wash away these sins?”
There was hardly an argument left in me after that.
Living in India exposes one to a large number of people, but what I witnessed on the 10th of February was unusual. The Kumbh gave what it promised; numbers. I think the best comparison would be with an overactive beehive. The buzz of people, their footsteps ,and the many loudspeakers discharging devotional songs, sermons, instructions and calling unusual names to the lost-and-found charged the atmosphere with an unimaginable amount of energy. I was swayed, and cruised in their torrent happily. Purpose and breath filled my sail from head to clew and tack. Bulging in enthusiasm from luff to leach, I raced with them towards the purification of my soul. I loved them and thanked them for being there with me.
Their journey was long. Even in groups, they seemed lost .
Some came to live their lives more profitably, placing hope in the number of hearts passing by.
Many were there to take care of others. They did a good job of it.
The vast gray sandy beach was full of color. Light was generous and there were many moments for a photographer to indulge.
I don’t know which category of design, the sari belongs to. The closest would be kitsch. But the yellow and blue polka dots amidst the black space of yellow grass is too sophisticated for what is usually labeled crass.
I thought I saw only happy families at the Kumbh. I might be wrong. But whatever I saw, made me glad. They were in it together, whatever the hardship and shared the work which included cooking and taking care of children.Men participated in equal measure to keep the earth of their family intact and secure.
They have come from Bengal. Their music has a haunting note, which quickly filled the space left by a hot afternoon sun. Most were spell bound. Devotional songs and dance is their source of livelihood. They don’t ask, they receive, according to the impression their piety makes on others.
The Nagas have quickly realized the importance of being naked. Often they demand ‘dakshina’ for a picture or two. This one looks like a hoodlum. Here he is giving me change for a hundred rupees. Whether you need clothes or not, you certainly do need money to survive.
The Kumbh initially confused me. People who allegedly have retracted from the trappings of the world exhibited the greatest pomp and show, while the commoner went about his business in a quiet dignified manner. I cannot say that all the sadhus are charlatans. Who am I to comment on their life? I got some good tips and honest opinions on life from them. But some serious conversation with a Norwegian revealed what complete surrender to a line of thinking is.
“So why are you here?” I asked him. His deep blue eyes reflected a sense of nervousness at the audacity of my question.
“It is my spiritual quest.”
“Taking a bath at the Kumbh is your spiritual quest?”
“This is but a station in my journey.”
“What is your journey?”
“To achieve spiritual bliss and enlightenment.”
“Won’t that be boring?”
“Why would it be boring?”
“Anything which goes on and on is so boring.”
“Boredom is a state of mind. We are working to transcend the mind.”
“Because mind leads you astray and then you cannot connect to the eternal truth.”
“And what is this connection with the eternal truth?”
“It is when you realize the nature of the universe. Then you are in supreme bliss.”
Before I could ask him more of my silly questions, he was whisked away by his colleagues. As a parting shot, he advised me to visit his Guru Swamy Nityananda’s site. He said I’ll find answers to all my questions. I thought it to be an unimaginative advise.
I recollect a few lines from Neil Young’s Ever- after,
The world is full of questions
Some are answered, some are not
The only faith you’re keeping’
Is the faith that you still got
The world is full of answers
Some are right,some are wrong
The one that I believe in
Is a wish in a song.
Adieu Kumbh, till we experience each other again in Nasik.