Archive for December, 2008

Lazing Around in Goa

December 28, 2008

goa-cowWe’re in Goa, in Arambol to be exact. The beach is nice and the rock formations at the North end are striking. People come here from all over the world for a dream holiday, many stay for weeks, months even. Tanya and I are getting a little bored after two days. Maybe the adventures and unpredictability of our travels make everything seem bland by comparison. Maybe we simply don’t feel right in places like this. There is a mixture of dreads locks, piercings and tattoos in all imaginable places, local fashion adapted in Western ways and some wacky individuals that simply defy any descriptions. It all makes for a great people watching experience, but after a while; how much splashing in the sea and people watching of this sort can one take? Maybe we’re spoilt by the beaches of Australia or maybe you need to be on something to get ‘stuck’ here for long. Some places in Goa are well known for drugs, I’m not into them and feel uneasy when people right in the middle of the street offer me hash and cocaine. This happened when we stopped to check out Anjuna (the place famous for the Wednesday flea market) offers started pouring from every direction as soon as we got off the motorbike. I’m kinda glad we are staying in a place where the stuff doesn’t seem to be the dominant topic.
Yesterday we visited Panjim, a town much more to my taste. Full of atmosphere, Portuguese architecture, bright colors and very importantly, unlike the beach villages, where everything revolves around tourism, Panjim has a life of its own. That’s what I look for as a photographer and Panjim is the place where I’d like to stay for a few days, only problem is the price hikes for accommodation at this time of the year in even the most basic places. We’ll see whether we’ll find something suitable in the coming days. In any case we want to gradually make our way down South and continue on to Kerala, with stops at places we find interesting. For now I guess I’ll have to be satisfied with lazing around on the beach. We did just have one of the more pleasant evenings in recent memory; watching a group of musicians randomly get together on the beach and listening to them play the tabla and the didgeridoo to the setting sun.

Christmas and Mud Wrestling

December 25, 2008

Pinned DownIt’s Christmas and boy am I glad to be away from all the commotion. We have spent the last nine days in Kolhapur – a city in the South of India, not too far from Goa, here not many people are aware of the ‘Festive Season’. There are no signs advertising Christmas specials, no Santa Clauses, none of the cheesiness associated with this holiday, which has long ago lost its meaning for most. Yes, I confess – I really don’t like Christmas and everything associated with it. My time as Santa Clause photographer during university holidays years back probably has something to do with it. That really showed me the ugly side of Christmas. Obsessive mothers shouting at their terrified children to stop crying while they sit on the lap of a stranger in a costume, the manager telling you to “Smile, it’s Christmas”. Yeah, sure! I even managed to have an argument with Santa Clause, who was far from a nice guy, the whole experience was like one of those Ben Stiller movies, where he plays the innocent goofball and everything bad happens to him. I don’t hate Christmas, I just don’t like it, but to all those who do – Merry Christmas.
Enough of that. I have just about completed shooting my first little photo project on Kusti – an ancient form of wrestling, in mud. The sight of men dressed in nothing but tiny underpants, covered in mud, sweating and grunting as they try to physically overwhelm each other and bring the opponent down is well…very strange, but also very photogenic. To an outsider this whole Kusti thing might seem like a cross between one of the most barbaric things in the world and just a couple of friends playing in the sand box. In one of the ‘Thalims’ (wrestling schools) some of the younger wrestlers don’t even wrestle, they simply come into the pit and cover themselves with sand, head to toe, later they exercise and that’s it, training over. Tanya jokes that I play with my little friends in the sandbox every time I go photographing and get into the mud pit. I also end up getting dirty, although not voluntarily, as I sit, lie down and lean against walls to photograph the action. Almost all of the wrestlers are great guys. Really, truly great. Hospitable, kind and friendly. Even the meanest looking badass is a teddy bear inside. It will even be a little sad to depart, since we’ve come to know almost everyone in the Motibagh Thalim – the place where I’ve photographed most. There is a lot to Kusti, but I will not go into it in too much detail for now. Instead I am posting a few images. As you can see the light was rather surreal in some of them, no need for anything additional.Portrait of a WrestlerWrestlingChild WrestlersFatiguePain

Back on the Road, Serenity at Maheshwar and Sadhus

December 18, 2008

sadhu-narmadaThe last ten or so days have been intense. We have covered over 1000km of road, sometimes extremely bad road, pot-holed, narrow and full of half-competent drivers. But riding on these kinds of roads often brings unexpected amusement. Close to the Madhya Pradesh/Rajasthan border we came across a ‘holy man’. He had obviously been walking along the road for a long time, but he was being followed by an entourage – people with sun-blocking umbrellas and cars with large signs promoting his pilgrimage. Not so unusual for India, except for the fact that the man was completely naked.
Less than one hundred kilometers later we were treated to a sighting of an almost literal clash of two worlds – the ancient and the modern. A caravan of bejeweled tribal women with camels and children (most of them on top of the camels) crossed the road as cars and trucks moving at insane speeds somehow managed to slow down in time not to run anyone over.
Our first stop was Ujjain – a place of pilgrimage that holds a great significance for Hindus around India. Every twelve years it hosts what is possibly the largest gathering of humans on earth – the Kubh Mela. The next mela is eight years away, so the city was rather subdued when we visited. Ujjain offers a glimpse of the exotic Hindu India that we often see on TV and in picture books. Every morning devotees bathe in the holy waters of the Shipra river, they wash away their sins and make offerings. The Brahmins (priests) at the riverside temples perform various religious ceremonies, the way their ancestors have for hundreds of years, the only difference now seems to be the priests’ short attention span, evident from their constant checking of the mobile phone right in the middle of the ceremonies.
Our next stop at the small town of Maheshwar by the Narmada river, was meant to last for a day and a morning, but once we felt the peaceful rhythm of life here and the warmth of the locals, we got ‘sucked’ in and stayed three days. Maheshwar is also a place for religious pilgrimage, but it is much, much lower scale. It is what I imagine India was like a long time ago, before the whole modernization and population explosion occurred. There is definitely magic in the air, perhaps because it hasn’t yet been killed by the blaring sounds from stereo systems and the large rubbish throwing crowds, so common around similar places. A walk along the riverside in Maheshwar is one of the most serene experiences one is likely to have in India and a swim in the Narmada river here at sunset is like nothing else (yes, I braved it and went in, but Narmada is not as polluted as India’s other rivers). Floating in the water and seeing the huge fort and the numerous temples towering above, while the setting sun’s rays painted everything gold felt absolutely surreal.
We would have liked to stay longer in Maheshwar, but at this stage time is not a luxury we possess. Our stop at Nasik (another Kumbh Mela destination) was brief, but the next one at Pune was longer than expected. Not that I am complaining, since Pune turned out to be quite fascinating for a place where I didn’t even think about photographing, but more of that in the next post.
I am posting some images from Maheshwar. The first two (one at the top one below) are of a Sadhu we met at a small, isolated temple on a hill overlooking the Narmada. Sadhus are also known as holy men, ascetics and saints in India. In reality they are often very far from anything holy or spiritual. Most that I had come across were simply wanderers, beggars and in worst cases scam artists, in fact I am always cautious when a Sadhu asks me to come over and speak with him. Usually any conversation simply leads to how I should give him money, but there are also plenty of stories of naive travelers being drugged, robbed and having other not so nice things happen to them. If I am in famous pilgrimage places full of tourists I will not even waste my time, but here I was in Maheshwar (which only seems to get a trickle of visitors) and this Sadhu gestured with his hand from his temple for me and my wife to come up. While the isolated location seemed like an ideal place for something bad to happen we decided to go, we simply wouldn’t drink or eat anything offered to us, paranoid maybe, but safe. The Sadhu spoke less English than I spoke Hindi and that is about 20 words. Our conversation revealed which pilgrimage places he had been to (very many). He had many children and whether they were biological or spiritual was not easy to understand, but they did live all over the world. Suddenly he got me to right down an address, which turned into a collection of random names and places in different countries. His children maybe? Finally I managed to communicate that I wanted to photograph him by the window of his room, he agreed, I asked if he could smoke his chillum (the pipe used to smoke opium) he did. There wasn’t quite enough light in the room to photograph without setting the shutter speed too low, so again Tanya helped with the flash from the window side, used in a softbox at 1/64 of the power. The next image was taken outside of the Sadhu’s temple. The sun was setting and the location seemed perfect, with the Narmada in the background. After the little photo session the Sadhu invited us to follow him somewhere, just for five minutes. We got a bit worried, as that’s how those horror stories usually started, but again decided to take the risk. At this stage the Sadhu’s nature seemed quite friendly, even if a little mad. We followed along a narrow path surrounded by vegetation and ended up at what seemed like another temple and a small room. There were houses with people nearby and one young man spoke some English. I asked him whether the Sadhu wanted us to come with him for some particular reason. – No, he just wanted to offer you food and milk, just ‘time pass’. It really didn’t seem like the Sadhu had too much to offer, so we politely declined and instead took down the address of his temple, to send him the photographs.
chillum-smokingThe rest of the photos are just grabs of everyday life by the Narmada river.drinking-from-narmadafruit-seller-narmadapriest-doorwaywomen-and-palace

New Begginings

December 6, 2008

view-of-bundiIt is time for another good-bye. This time to Bundi – a great little town and possibly my favorite area in all of India. Now we are probably somewhere on the way (this is getting posted automatically) to Ujjain – a Hindu pilgrimage town in Madhya Pradesh, over 400km south of Bundi. It is also time for me to start focusing again on my photography, to start seeking out subjects and stories. The plan is to go all the way to the far south, over 2000km, to the state of Kerala, known as “God’s Country” for its amazing natural beauty. On the way to “God’s Country” I want to stop at a few places – Nasik, Pune, Kolhapur and towns on the coast of Maharashtra. I’m curious in seeing and possibly photographing some of the things I have heard about in the area. Kolhapur is famous for Kusti, (ancient type of wrestling) I am aware of the ritualistic art form of Theyyam in Kerala and the buffalo races in Karnataka. This sort of stuff potentially makes for interesting photography. If any of the readers live somewhere on the way, are passionate about their area and eager to see some of the better or lesser-known stories told through photos in a positive way, then feel free to contact me with any info or meet me for lunch or chai in your city/town. Not looking for guides, just people with similar interests.

Desert Adventures and Good-Byes

December 5, 2008

cameleer-and-his-camelTanya and I are back in Bundi (for a very brief moment), where we began the workshop. In the last couple of days we have seen off Kym and Hardik. I’m used to saying goodbyes, but there is still an element of sadness. We never know how life will play out and when or if we will ever meet again with the people who become our friends, while we are on the road.
The workshop went very nicely. I really like having one participant; it means that he or she can have a very personal, enriching and genuine experience. I wanted the whole thing to be as close as possible to how I work, minus the research/scouting of locations. Nothing was set up, no special performances, just real life and a chance to interact with the people in the photos. At times Kym felt a little overwhelmed by the sheer amount of people and excitement our presence generated (see below), but that’s how it is in rural India, no way around it. I cannot imagine how larger tour groups go on village visits. I suppose when managed the right way things may work out well, but I can also see everything getting out of hand. As far as photography goes, I for sure would not want to be one of eight or more photographers shooting the same person, ending up with a similar image from a different angle. I guess I’ll stand by my views until I am proven otherwise.

Curious children look at the screen of Kym's camera.

Curious children look at the screen of Kym's camera.

The “Thar Desert” (well, a small part of it) was the last destination of our workshop. Everything was great in terms of photo opportunities and the ‘realness’ of the villages we came across, they were full of regular, but very colorful and photogenic people who were generally surprised to see us. However, by the end of our little trip I was left feeling disappointed, on a personal level. I’ve concluded that perhaps it’s not possible to get out into the desert on a camel in Rajasthan without seeing the not so nice side (to put it lightly) of people involved in the camel business, without feeling as a source of money first and a person second. I understand the whole financial disparity thing, but throughout my journeys I have come across countless individuals who were very poor, yet extremely dignified, they never begged, never cheated, never tried to take advantage and in short that is not what I saw from the camel folks we were involved with. I guess I might skip the camel riding next time. Perhaps I was naïve to have thought that this time it would be perfect, or maybe I am too idealistic and spoilt by my amazing experiences around India, in any case there is no point in always anticipating the worst in people, so I’ll keep doing the opposite.

Tanya looks on as Hardik (black top) pretends that he is pushing the car out of the sand.

Tanya looks on as Hardik (black top) pretends that he is pushing the car out of the sand.

Our trip was not without its share of magic – tea by the fire under the starry sky, waking up to the golden light in a farm settlement on the outskirts of the desert, not hearing anything apart from the singing of the birds and later the beating of plates, used to scare the birds from eating the crops, the swaying of the camels as they navigated terrain that no vehicle could get through, the next morning’s photo shoot in the sand dunes – all beautiful moments that make this area of Rajasthan so special. A small adventure occurred, as we were ready to head back. The driver that was meant to pick us up took the wrong way and got stuck in the sand – a big payday for the local folk, but at least I got to ride a tractor through the desert terrain as we came to the rescue. Perhaps moments like these, the beautiful ones and those which would seem absurd in the ‘West’ are part of the reason why I still love this region of India – there is a sense that a surprise is just around the corner, something that will stimulate your senses or overwhelm you with beauty – a reason to stay alert, to feel alive, to be totally present in the moment.

Back from the Desert and some Street Photography

December 2, 2008

Fluff Lady PortAmidst the madness surrounding the Mumbai bombings it is hard to imagine that there could be a place where people wouldn’t be aware about the tragedy that took place. Well, we have just come back from what is probably just one of many places like that, right in India, about 210 km from Jodhpur, but more like the middle of nowhere. We went on a little camel ride with the old cameleer we met at the Kolayat fair. People in his village are quite oblivious to anything outside their area, no TVs or computers there yet. I was curious whether the cameleers that accompanied us had heard the news, so I asked Hardik to find out. – “We watch, the news…on TV…sometimes” was their answer. The journey itself had its share of madness and adventure, but more on that in the next post.

Before we went off into the desert I did some shooting in the streets of Jodhpur, not much really, however in Jodhpur you can’t help but come across at least something or someone photogenic in a day’s shoot. The old city is full of people who go on about their everyday work in the most photogenic of environments, surrounded by wonderfully textured, stained walls, rusty tea-pots and pans or some strange medieval looking machines. I wanted to capture some of these individuals doing what they do and went out on a little search.fluff-ladyThe lady at the top of the page (and above) was taking the stuffing out of mattresses; she would put it into the machine which turned the stuffing into what seemed like huge snowflakes. My guess is that this is some sort of cotton recycling; the ‘snowflakes’ would be collected into a bag, weighed in another room and shipped off somewhere. It was a little challenging to photograph in this particular environment, the floating flakes/stuffing goes directly into the nose, eyes and wherever else. I covered my nose with the top of my shirt and shot for a few minutes. By the time I got out I looked like I had a furry hat and Santa Claus eyebrows. For the first shot Tanya helped me with an off-camera flash in a portable soft-box to accentuate the natural light and to give a bit more depth/shape to the face. In the second image natural light is penetrating the woman’s ‘office’.chai-wallahSuraj is a tea maker at a tea-stall just by the first gate (from the outside) to Sadar Bazar. He has worked at the stall for 25 years, while the business has actually existed for 50. Suraj had an almost royal quality about him, the way he went about his work gave the impression that he wasn’t simply making chai, he was running the business, filling up hundreds, maybe even thousands of tea-cups every day and doing it with tremendous dexterity. Again an off-camera flash in a soft-box to accentuate the natural light and sculpt the face.mithai-wallahI couldn’t resist taking a few shots of this man making traditional sweets. He would boil the oil with some strange gadget and then unload the content onto the large metal plate. I was attracted to the textures of the scene, but it was getting dark, so once again comes out the flash. Same as in the images above. I find the flash increasingly useful these days, of course I would probably not use it at all if I had to have it camera mounted. I thank God that my wife isn’t sick of carrying it, sometimes in a soft-box around the streets. Surprisingly it hasn’t drawn much attention. When she instinctively put the soft-box on her head in a crowded area some local women had a bit of a laugh.