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 lazy slow moving lump of time as far as I can remember. A day pocked with tacky posters of our leaders, who smile and congratulate me on my freedom from a rule and rulers of which I have had no experience . So I don’t recollect when was it that I paid attention to any comparisons, rhetoric and eulogies of the many freedom fighters which colour the canvas of our nation on this day. Oh! yes, I had to look closely at Chandrashekhar Azad’s mustache since my son was going to school masquerading as him on the 14th and my job was to draw on his face with my wife’s kohl pencil. My research on Azad’s outgrowth led me to Wikipedia and was surprised to know that Pundit Moti lal Nehru funded his activities regularly. Beyond this interesting crumb of information a predictable interaction with the day was in the offing. But at the back of my mind was a possible experience of kite flying at the Jama Masjid area of Old Delhi and fulfill the ruse to take my new 35mm lens for a test drive. 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 any kite in a sky lit from sunlight spreading dazzlingly from the west. It was four pm and despite a huge mass of cloud hanging ominously in that direction, shafts of bright light had broken through spaces unguarded by that grey sentinel. Maybe my hopes were high and hence disappointed, I limped towards the new parking lot.
Walking towards Jama Masjid lifted my spirits. Even though I was at a fair distance, I could see hundreds of little patches whizzing about in the sky. From here, facing north, the sky was water blue. Light was illuminating tufts of moisture rolling high up in the atmosphere in bright gold, while its plinth was deep cobalt. And in between was a world alive with a myriad of colours, many painted in our tricolour. I ventured for a vantage point quickly and found a co-operative fireman who let me go to the roof of his fire station after warning me to keep away from monkeys. The roof was good but still too far from action and soon I found myself at the roof of the Meena Bazaar machine tool market. Amidst lambs and their droppings, I took some pictures of boys brandishing the brashness of youth in their language and energy. One, 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 and leaving us disconsolate. His did not commit suicide like mine, but refused to take flight nevertheless.
Action was still afar. It was transpiring 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 towards the body of 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 I will always cherish for the rest of my life. It was a roof little larger than my bathroom and a substantial part of it was assigned to the welfare of pet pigeons while the rest was being put to good use by Osama, a boy of about ten who was flying his kite.
Facing west, on my right was the Jama Masjid and on my left, was sprawling Lego land of history which had adapted to present time in its unique fashion. All its roofs were occupied by people flying kites.
Soon we were joined by others, who brought tea, cold drinks, a music system and more kites. Ours was perhaps the highest roof top, so I could see a layer of flying paper at the horizon.
It was a party which was beyond my expectation. Air was buzzing with celebration, Punjabi songs blared from the music system and animated conversations on the skill of flying traveled amidst kite flyers. In no time the little roof was hosting four flyers, their thread reels and a bigger pile of kites.
Azaan reverberated in space, but no one paused. They were transfixed on the motions of their marionettes traversing the sky. A little later, from a 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 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 very few kite makers 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 in Old Delhi from a lot of places including Moradabad, Allahabad and Benares. It is no competition on the 15th, though the endeavor is to cut each others kites. There are a few experts in 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 will have a lot of interesting stories to tell.
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 colour to the atmosphere.
Later at dusk, fireworks began. Apparently there is a competition between the Hindu and Muslim communities on this day. I had to leave before I could see this part of the independence day celebrations. 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 independence day thing. How this tradition came into being, I have no idea.I don’t know how much those boys cared for the independence day. I don’t, but I don’t have so much fun either. At least, the people of Old Delhi are having a great time.
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.
Many years ago, my friend Suneet asked me about his father, ” Where did he go? Mr. Dubs. Where did he go?”. Suneet’s father had passed away.”He’s gone where he’d come from,”I replied weakly.
The question haunts me all the time. I have no idea where I have come from and where will I go. Long walks or hours staring at the ceiling has not given me much of a clue, but a niggle tells me that I’ve been here before and will come back again.
Life has a way to remind. It tells you not to take anything for granted. Those whom you sink into will vanish someday. Use the time. Feel without complaining.
I did not cry for the last seven years and when Newton, my Labrador passed away , I wondered whether I have any emotion left. Him and I were joined at the hip. My siestas were incomplete if I did not use his fat tummy as a pillow, yet I could not shed a drop of tear .
A few days ago our Saint Bernard, Beethoven died after a brief illness. It was an exhausting ten days of suffering for all of us. Drips inserted, needles of antibiotics jabbed, ultrasound, X-Rays, blood tests were done to cure him off his suffering. We inflicted more than he was going through. The worst part was that we did not understand the real malady and treated him erroneously. We blamed ourselves. We trusted one doctor without taking a second opinion. Personally, I realised that I have no intuition and did not intervene.
We asked a lot of questions and found very few answers. And those discovered are hardly convincing.
I took such a beautiful body, flowing in lovely whites,tans and blacks; a forehead so wide that while kissing it, I could see nothing, to the crematorium and returned with colourless grey ashes in an earthen pot.
Finally I could weep. I longed for Beethoven. No longer I wanted to accept the circle of life.
Where are you Beethoven? I cried.
Beethoven was very young when my family was in the jaws of very difficult times. We were in mourning. His playful indifference helped us sail many a difficult memory and we slowly wriggled back to normalcy. My pony tail was especially singled out for tug-of-wars and coatings of copious saliva. We played very physical, almost rugby like snatch and pulls. Often my hand would find itself in his mouth. He was strong and before he could relieve the pressure, I experienced the magnitude of his clasping power. Sometimes the games got personal and he would get angry but never did he hurt me.
He rapidly grew to a size which evoked awe in the spectators. Even then, we could pull the over sixty kilos of that mass by its tail. Mind you no dog likes to be pulled by its tail and often retaliates, but not gentle Beethoven. I remember once walking in the park when we ran into a few policemen. They were managing the Eid get-together at the local dargah. Beethoven drew their attention by his size. One of them remarked that his village will lay bare if ever this creature would walk through it. An old gentleman we often met had only one thing to say, “this one can fight a lion.” And I would walk back wondering how deceptive looks are. A beat of a drum outside, a wedding procession, a clap of thunder was enough to drive Beethoven under the bed. Hours of cajoling had no effect on him and invariably ended up being fed there. Then it was a huge task to pull him out for nature calls.
Newton’s loss left him heartbroken. We quickly filled our home with a little beagle; Frodo. Beethoven never really accepted him as a companion; he had grown up with Newton.
To resolve his depression we took him out to drives. I don’t know whether Rashtrapati Bhawan had any influence on his weather, but we did what we could. Slowly he limped back to normal but only for a while. Then back he went into his frosty world.
I am convinced that a soul is never without a physical form. The instance Beethoven left this lovely body, he had found another one. I hope he has a great next life.
Where are you? What are you doing? Don’t save on the hours in the parlour, look good, do well and love; this is all that matters. Then one day you and I are going to turn into a pail of earth or ash.
After swinging my axe for many years, I’ve come to one conclusion; purpose of life is fulfilment. There’s an ocean of things which could have been or should have been, yet I’ve experienced so many moments when I thought this is it, this is life. Having a great time consummates my relationship with this world. It doesn’t matter whether I’m listening to Buddha Bar with my four year old son , having my face licked by my beagle, or sipping champagne on a cold sunny afternoon.
Let me tell you about how I enjoyed the daylight of 20th January.
After a few moments of misty indecision, its morning opened into a shining crystal. I was invited by the generous Sam Shahani to photograph an event which involved vintage cars.It was co hosted by him and his dear friend Puneet Kocchar . Sam exports heavy machinery and earth moving equipment, but he and his father are big time vintage car lovers. Puneet has a mens fashion business called Studio one. The event was held at the Blue Frog restaurant. It is famous for promoting contemporary music and launching young musicians. Blue Frog is at the Kila complex opposite the Qutub Minar. It is a pretty large area with an ample forecourt and a beautiful Peepul tree in its inner cloister. So the theater was set for a great occasion.
I reached there well on time to see cars roll in elegantly. A red Mustang, maroon Plymouth, a 1932 Ford, Chevrolet, Jaguar, Mercedes,and a green Triumph soon found themselves in each others company. I will not hazard the details of these beauties as I was not jotting what their owners were proudly piping about .
I have photographed a few vintage car gatherings. It is so easy to be overwhelmed by their form and grace. When the light is good, colours so vibrant, it is natural for a photographer to miss the most important point of it all and get caught in angles. You see, it is not just about cars. It is about changing times. It is about priorities, aesthetics and the verve of existence. Focus of most products now is functional reliability and thus lack a spirit. I saw Bentleys, Audis, Porches drop people off ; none of these super cars looked as appealing as the ones which were 50 years older. I am talking looks here, not technology. Sure we have evolved and made objects which are more comfortable and predictable in every way, but have in our doing, compromised on design.
I concentrated on relationships. A moment of quiet reflection peeled to the real fruit. Tree trunks and their shadows. Shoes, legs, clothes, handbags, a shawl ,a watch, hats, eyes and eyebrows, leaves, tiles on the ground, foliage at the background, bouncers , children, ladies, glass, stickers and the building; all conversed with the cars. It was as chirpy as an evening tree full of sparrows. The cars were no less.Their bright paint, voluptuous bosoms and extrovert nature interacted freely with the great gathering.
Can you imagine a tree look so good on a Honda City or a Santro?
Nature of cars have changed. They appeal to insulation, alienation rather than participation. All the vintage cars at this gathering though in a wide variety of shapes and sizes, were at peace with their surroundings.
It was a courtyard of joy and I’m sure the Qutub Minar must be peering over and eavesdropping to dip in to the atmosphere. Fortunately I had a camera which excelled in taking macro shots. So there I was, almost kissing metal, and found so many details which I had missed before; design of the font and its spacing, dimensions and cuts of talismans on their bonnets and bows, shapes of their sterns, tail lights and much more.
You see the cars demand attention. One cannot cursorily ‘go through’ them.They are an exhibition of love and craftsmanship. Years have made many organs brittle, especially rubber and beads, but metal and chrome has stood up to time with resilience.
I was touched by scotch tape plaster on one of the ante brachial part of a Ford’s greyhound. It is so small that perhaps even the most delicate of argon welds can spoil the show. The Ford will not be same without its leaping greyhound or its forearm.
Even the most weathered of accessories looked cool. Designs elements are organic, faunal , combined with architectural . It is as if each piece is in an odeon created by Rafael. Just that the elements are not that grotesque.
The main issue is how we interact with the world.Whatever we create reflects our attitude towards our surroundings. Looking at the Jaguar on the road, it is not just a machine; it is flair and style gliding in an urban jungle. Even in an environment alien to its specie, she is radiating dignity. Look around her, you see everything completed in a hurry and she, like the Merovingian, is relishing olives with Château Haut-Brion 1959 and wiping her lips with pink satin at leisure.
And the little triumph is slightly more substantial than a pekinese in a living room but it has lit up a sullen road lined with pre-stressed concrete and screaming property dealers.
The Buick seems to lack lower lip, but her grill exudes fearsome appearance of a tiger-fish. Or some might comment it looks like Darth Vader.
Where are we heading? How will things be designed in the future. Is it evolution? Can not cars be made which go beyond perfecting function?
What will the purpose of life be ten years from now? Overcoming competition or enjoying great sensations? Where will Bacchus be banished?
A short drive followed when the gathering had conversed, ogled, admired in the vicinity. At the risk of being repetitive, in any party, if children are happy their mothers are happy and only then can the men be happy. I’ve stated this eternal truth so often to my wife and my friend’s wives. Women! please believe that we don’t wish to rile you. Our lives are much sweeter when you are happy. Unfortunately they find it hard to believe.
Here is Sam driving his 1932 ford. His expression and the joyous children reflect the mood of the event.
I hopped in the back seat of Rajeev’s red Chevy. This car was used extensively to follow horses in a race. It was a great rig for me to take photos of other cars . On the road people stared and admired these glorious chariots.
Growing up I often saw the Chevy Impala in Hindi movies and lived amongst Premier Padminis and Ambassadors. Maruti brought minimalistic and functional forms which excited me for a while. Now it looks so boring. The flair of the past is way behind us. Who has the time to make such vehicles anymore? It is the spirit of collectors who appreciate value of good design which educates and titillates people like me.
I don’t know the name of this car but apparently it is a replica of a classic. It is made in Malaysia and sports a modern engine and drive train. I am perfectly fine with such concepts. At least the form is graceful and engulfs its owner in style. With a modern fuel injected motor, appropriate suspension, gearbox, brakes and safety features, why can’t a beauty like this be produced in larger numbers?
After I drank on the cars, I sat down with food and champagne to reflect. Co-incidentally I did not see a child busy on a cell phone. Most ran about, enjoying the milieu, unmindful of the steps and other circumstances.
Live and piped music filled spaces spared by laughter and conversations. I wondered whether this is what we live for? After two glasses of champagne, I was less confused and more convinced that fulfillment of the self is the purpose of life.Fulfillment is not only about pleasurable activities and good times. It is about realization that one is alive. This is how I felt after relishing great food, champagne in the company of lovely hosts and their wonderful vintage cars.
My heart beat like a psychedelic frog…with snowflakes, doilies , hobby horses tattooed in white.
Dear reader, here I digress and take you on a different journey to visit a bunch of crazy people. They have come to India from Australia to build a boat. Yes! a boat to sail in the Ganges at Allahabad during the Kumbh.
I stumbled into them at the Kanchan Villa lodge at Allahabad. Meet Andrew Connor and his family from Comboyne. Comboyne is a village of around 800 inhabitants in Australia. It is some 400 km from Sydney. I was looking at some images of the place and wondered what madness befell Andrew and his family to fly so far into a place where there are more than 800 people in a school! I guess it is human nature to seek what it hasn’t experienced. During the Kumbh, a place which is about 32 square km will host a population of more than that of Australia.
Andrew, his wife Virginia,ten year old twins Jenna and Elle, sons Rye and Finn along with a friend Dylan landed in Mumbai on Oct 4th. There one day they found Jeff from Houston, America, standing at their doorstep. He had heard from someone that this team intends to build a boat at Allahabad, so wanted to tag along.” You are welcome”, they said and since then has worked with them to saw, shave, bend and punch wood into a boat.
The first question I asked Andrew was “Why??????”
Andrew has been to the Kumbh at Allahabad twice before, so thirty six years later he wanted to share the event with his family. This time he wanted to contribute something in return. What will be a better gift than to donate the people of Allahabad a boat?
Crazy Andrew and his boat.
Elder son Rye
Friend Jeff. Jeff is a national skateboarding champion from Houston Texas.
I asked Virginia how and why did she support her husband on this off-the-rails venture. She told me that she wants to educate her children by traveling and exposing them to the real world. She doesn’t send them to school and teaches at home, but the real learning would come by visiting different places and countries. I sighed. Yes! it is true, how I wish I could do that.
My hosts, the wonderful Ivan and Purnima Lamech narrated me their experience with the family. With virtually no help, no understanding of the language they sourced the wood, tools and everything else on their own. Everyone wants to wash their meal plates and do not create a fuss about anything. They embarrass all by their courtesy. The only thing they brought from Australia is ten kilos of copper nails. Some tricks they learned here, for example the paste local boat-builders use to waterproof the spaces in the joints. A mixture of cow dung and akutra.
Wood for the boat is Malaysian Saku. It is available in Allahabad. For the ribs they have used white oak, which they bend in a steaming contraption.
They started building the boat on Nov 7 in the garage of Kanchan Villa. The hosts are very welcoming of the venture. They provided all the help they could so the family was not inconvenienced at any time. So often they remarked how these people are a source of inspiration for them. Difficulties are surmounted with dogged calmness. Eye for detail and cleanliness is exemplary and never was there any doubt in their mind that this could not be done.
Wood is bent and installed in a particular manner. It is called lap shake. Nails are not just hammered into the wood; a fine hole is drilled then it is punched through to be split into a rivet at the pointy end . All nails are copper. Some nuts and bolts used are in stainless steel.
This is how the boat is going to be when finished with a sail. Oh yes! the sail material is from Australia. The boat is called a ‘ Double Ender’. It is eighteen feet long.
Andrew is primarily a home builder. His son Rye makes guitars. They have a blog called sustainabletimberframes.com.
Their journey and endeavor is inspirational. I hope to catch up with them at the Kumbh. They are here in India till the 7th of March.
This brings us back in the loop of purpose of life. Andrew and his family has spent its time and money on a project which will perhaps make them no profit. The boat is already donated to an organization in Allahabad. There is honesty in their temperament and purity in purpose. They resolved to do something which fulfilled them.
This blog entry might appear to cover two different purposes of existence, but a little contemplation shall reveal,it is essentially the same. To restore and maintain a vintage car is time and money consuming. Having a party as a ruse to show off the cars is a moment of celebration, much like the moment which Andrew and his family will have when they weigh anchor at the Ganges.
Cheers to all who chose to live…..