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.
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.