Photography and other experiences.

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You don’t get what you don’t see.

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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.

Instagram shoot 054This is where the story gets turned on the fire, simmering just like that chicken brochette.

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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.

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Then the action begins again.

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In a different outfit.

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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.

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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.

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But this is life. Isn’t it? Everything has a side.

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It may be as beautiful as Sonalika (above) , or the loneliness of being an also-ran, the way quite a lot of us are.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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Or has spent hours in a friend’s beauty parlour just to get a few wisps of hair bleached.

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In the end, to make a fairy look her best, what matters is how well he can dance.

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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.

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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.”

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The Outsider

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.

Durga Puja at GK 2

‘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 .

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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.

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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.

Durga Puja at GK 2

People throng and reach out to the  divine, not in fear but as its children.

Durga Puja at GK 2

Durga Puja at GK 2

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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.

Durga Puja at GK 2

Durga Puja at GK 2

Perhaps every entity ( including you and I) is moulded of earth. So is the Goddess.

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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.

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Our triumph is in  celebration of  the Mother  and we do it with panache.

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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.

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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.

Durga Puja at GK 2

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.

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Durga Puja at GK 2

And how can Prithvi be left behind?

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Some more pictures of the Dhunochi.

Durga Puja at GK 2

Durga Puja at GK 2

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.

Durga Puja at GK 2

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Durgotsav 2012In Shidur Khela women smear vermillion on each other. For Kumari Puja a young girl is worshipped.

Durga Puja at GK 2

Durga Puja at GK 2

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.

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Despite being an outsider, I have found this event heart rending. One day  we have to let go which is dear.

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But even the sombre  turns into a carnival and mundane appears absurd at the Visarjan. The fervour is mind numbing. This is India.

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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.

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If this is how we continue to strap mother nature , then one day she will rise in her splendour to wipe us  out.

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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.

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And as usual, I’ll be blinking from the other side, happy as an outsider.


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Sanatan Dharma of Photographers ( and for everyone else)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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A fashion photographer’s purpose is different from a street photographer’s to a bird or wildlife photographer’s, or is it?

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

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The sense of Faith

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“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’

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The Jiggler

Conversation with the muscular Baba was a little more sensible.

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“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?”

“Assaf”

“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.

Kumbh 2013

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.

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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.

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They are proud of their lifestyle. Sometimes ironic, sometimes specious but they bring grand drama to the event.

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Quite a few looked comical and lost in the milieu.

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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.

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But such moments could be achieved outside the frenzy ;which was a little bit away from the main event of Mauni Amavasya.

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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?”

“Yes!”

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 .

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Some came to live their lives more profitably, placing hope in the number of hearts passing by.

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Many were there to take care of others. They did a good job of it.

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The vast gray sandy beach was full of color. Light was generous and there were many moments for a photographer to indulge.

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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.

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 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

“Why?”

“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.

Kumbh 2013

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.