Archive for January, 2009

The Spirit of Travel, Cool in the Hills and Tibetan Monks

January 26, 2009

monks-rushing-out-after-morning-poojaIf I do not see another Theyyam performance for the rest of my life I will not be devastated. Don’t get me wrong, watching these was amazing, surreal, but maybe this is the case of too much of a good thing being not that great. “Theyyam Overload”, perhaps. The highlight of our little endeavor into the world of Theyyam must have been the second time we met up with Vipin – the Theyyam artist I mentioned in the previous post. That day, in many ways embodied what travel is all about. It started horribly, we were ‘evicted’ from possibly the most amazing hotel I’ve stayed at. Our room’s balcony had a view of the Arabian sea. Every morning we watched dolphins splash around within 50 meters from the shore.
Long and strange story about the eviction – in short, the hotel was meant for government employees only, but somehow we managed to stay for five days, then some genius finally decided it was enough. The main point is – once you’ve tasted the good life, it really, really sucks getting back to mediocrity. Getting told to ‘vacate’ our perfect room and to exchange sea views for views of a sea of traffic on one of the towns busiest and noisiest roads set up what could have been the most disappointing day of our journey, yes the place was that good (and cost about as much as a McDonald’s value meal). But that wasn’t the end of our bad luck. First we couldn’t find any half decent hotel to move to and then my meeting with a professor at the Folklore Academy, the man who had promised to hook me up with some Theyyam artists was cancelled due to an unexpected meeting that could not be put off. I wanted to see him to get reliable information on where I could see more Theyyams. Having been given the wrong information the day before we traveled a couple of hours along a dreadful, traffic filled road for nothing. Now I had to face the fact; I had come to the region to photograph something that I couldn’t even find, I really wasn’t getting anywhere.
worker-at-ronalds-coffee-estate Ready to cry like a child who’s been told he’s not getting a bicycle after all, I decided instead to go to Vipin’s village and give him the Theyyam photos I shot on the night I met him. Vipin was happy to see me and to receive the photos, I couldn’t quite match his enthusiasm. But that all changed when he told us that there was a Theyyam performance in his very village. In fact there were two performances that night. These weren’t Theyyams aimed at mass audiences, media and tourists, instead I witnessed what was probably as close to Theyyam as it had been hundreds of years ago – raw, sometimes brutal and always full of energy. By late night we had seen a Theyyam performer, possessed by the divine spirit behead four roosters…with his bear teeth, another performer walk through fire and yet another, dance around frantically to some of the most incredible drumming I’ve heard. We called it a night close to 11pm – real late for rural Kerala. Vipin had been called home a couple of hours before and we were left in the dark, in the middle of nowhere, dependent on our memory to get back. After almost getting lost in the narrow, dark village roads we somehow made it to the main highway that led to Kannur. As we rode the motorcycle back to town, we reflected on the day that pretty much summed up the realities of this life on the road. We were reminded once again that even in the face of the biggest disappointments something amazing could be just around the corner. Knowing that Tanya – my wife was sitting behind me on the bike, ready to face all the obstacles with me also made me realise just how lucky I am.
morning-along-the-road-in-coorg The Theyyam stuff, the heat of coastal Kerala and continuous, hectic rides to the surrounding villages again left us feeling a little drained. We had been contemplating going to Coorg – a hilly region with a cool climate, to refresh for a couple of days, then we’d head back down the coast to Thrissur – one of Kerala’s cultural centers. On the map Coorg isn’t far from Kannur – 113km. But as always, in India – expect the unexpected. A relatively small patch of the road, known locally as the forest road, was how shall I say – damaged. The damage was so bad that the road looked like it had been bombed continuously for 16 km. I figured that I had traveled on similar roads before, so I didn’t make that much of it. BIG mistake! Almost 10km through we started hearing all sorts of noises from our beloved motorcycle. We stopped, I lifted the bike seat and there it was, my worst fear had come true – the motorcycle frame/chasis was broken, snapped right in the middle. To avoid messing things up even more we couldn’t continue traveling with all that load and Tanya on the back, and so my poor wife had to walk 6km up a winding, hilly forest road, while I slowly and carefully navigated my way around giant pot holes towards a better road.
elephant-washing-at-dubare-reserve We decided to stop for the night at Madikeri – Coorg’s biggest town. Our chances of fixing the chasis in this remote region were slim, but Madikeri was our best bet. Again we were facing a very unpleasant situation, but as has happened countless times in India, a stranger came to the rescue. After failed attempts to explain what I need and a few rejections from mechanics and welders who understood, we unexpectedly came across Joe – a catholic Indian man from the coastal city of Cochin. Joe was looking to buy a motor to use for a crop-sorting machine on his spice estate. He came to the same place where we were trying to find out whether our problem can be fixed. After hearing our predicament Joe took it upon himself to help out the guests in his country. The next day his two equally helpful nephews Jeremy and Ronald were involved and although the task became a job of epic proportions (Madikeri is a relatively small town) it was done by the end of the afternoon. It was a little late to head to our next destination and we decided we’d stay another night in Madikeri, that was until Ronald, Joe’s nephew called. Ronald found out that I was interested in checking out some tea or coffee plantations/estates and so he invited us over to his estate for the night. We couldn’t resist. Another potentially horrible situation had turned in our favor. The next morning we woke up in a mini forest of coffee and pepper bush, as well as some very tall (and apparently expensive) trees. The golden light played it’s role in making everything magic. Tanya and I wondered around, appreciated the surroundings and shot a few frames. We expressed our gratitude to our new friends, who saved us and turned a potential disaster into one of the most memorable moments of our journey. Then it was time to move on. Next stop – Bylakuppe – a Tibetan refugee settlement. That’s where we are as I type.
monks-at-sera-jey-temple Bylakuppe is a peaceful place, full of maroon robed monks and monasteries. It ain’t Himalaya, but there’s still something special about it. Monasteries and monks are always photogenic, so we’ve already spent a few days photographing here. Tomorrow we head off on a little detour, to avoid the dreadful ‘Forest Road’. We’ll probably end up in Mysore for a few days, then it’s on to Wayanad. This cool climate and nature stuff has inspired me to spend some more time up in the hills, in India’s forested areas.
Now to the photos. From top to bottom: Monks rushing out after the Morning Prayer, Sera Jey Temple, Bylakuppe. Coffee berry picker at Ronald’s estate, Coorg. Morning along the road in Coorg, Kushalnagar region. A mahout washing his elephant at the Dubare Forest Reserve (Forgot to mention we went there. Shot this while standing knee high in water filled with elephant urine and crap ) Bottom: Inside of Sera Jey Temple, Bylakuppe.

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Impressions of Kerala and Theyyam

January 14, 2009

Theyyam ArtistHaving been in Kerala for a few days now (albeit only one very small part) I guess I have some impressions. The Kannur region, where I am staying is very different from anywhere I’ve been in India. The thing that has really struck me and Tanya is the amount of huge mansions (that put to shame some of the grandest Sydney sea-side houses) we’ve seen in all of the villages we’ve visited. This is not a poor man’s region and not seeing at least a few mud houses, or at least small houses in a village, it feels almost un-Indian. There is a lot of development taking place in the region – lots of fast food chains, even a few shopping centers, again this is rather new for me, because Kannur is not even a big city. Could the communist government of Kerala be responsible for all this ‘prosperity’? We ran across a Russian couple, who are staying at a beach resort 15km away from where I am. The resort owner is a very proud member of the communist party and when we met he raved on about how great communism has been in Kerala. Unfortunately, when he asked about the way communism was in Russia we couldn’t match his enthusiasm, to which he responded – Well maybe it was different over there, here it is great! This development, the huge mansions, the communism – I am still trying to get my head around it all, I’d like to come across someone who can give me a more accurate understanding of everything. One thing for sure, for a photographer like myself, who tries to capture ancient culture and traditions Kannur town is no place to be, but I have simply based myself here for a few days to photograph the Theyyam.Giving BlessingsPhotographing the Theyyam has been fascinating and frustrating. Fascinating because, well I think the images suggest why, and frustrating for several reasons. First there are crowds and then there are crowds of local photographers who battle for a good angle, not something I’m used to, since I rarely come across ‘likeminded individuals’ on my photographic quests. The next source of frustration comes from the fact that Theyyam is a deeply religious performance, in fact Theyyam means ‘God’ in the local language and so while the artist is performing he is basically a deity. When photographing such performances without much knowledge (learning on the spot from the fellow photographers who sometimes get reprimanded for pushing past anyone and anything) one has to tread carefully, not to offend anyone. Of course you could say that I could be better prepared and learn more about what I’m photographing, but not so. I have learned about the principal ideas and the history, however there are more than 400 Theyyam performances which are somewhat different from each other, not only that, the performances take place in different temples all the time and that means that the degree of restrictions is variable. On any given day I do not even know which Theyyam I’ll be photographing.
Applying make up and learningFinishing touches and curious bystandersThe first Theyyam the “Muhcilot” left me rather unimpressed, performance wise. In short it consisted of an elaborately dressed plump artist circling the temple and murmuring something in what I later found out to be a mixture of Sanskrit, Old Malayalam and Tamil (south Indian languages). Then the devotees rushed in, blessings were given and money started pouring in from all directions, so much money that it had to be put into baskets to be carried away. This went on for over two hours and as I later found out (I couldn’t bear staying any longer) it would go into the night, until all of the devotees were blessed.Performance TimePerformanceThe second Theyyam was the same as the first and rather than watch it I decided to head to the Kerala Folklore Academy, to learn whether there was more to Theyyam than what I had seen. The photos on the walls of their small museum and a very brief conversation with a very-busy-overtime-working Theyyam expert left me with the belief that indeed there was much more to Theyyam. The very next night I would see just how much more. Upon arriving at another village temple I unknowingly befriended a young Theyyam artist who spoke basic English. When I found out who he was and who the small group of young men with him were (all Theyyam artists) I asked if I could photograph them while they put on their makeup and get dressed, they agreed. I photographed the whole process and then, suddenly the temple drummers began to beat a dramatic tune, the last elements of the costume were in place and the artist, as if possessed by a wild beast, jumped from his make up chair and rushed into the temple. His performance would be a stark contrast to the monotonous stuff I had seen earlier. There was fast, loud, dramatic drumming, fire, summersaults and cartwheels. The next Theyyam performance was even more impressive, with more of the same content, executed in an even more dramatic manner. The whole thing was pretty amazing, the atmosphere, the crowd’s reaction and of course the Theyyam itself. Tanya and I definitely felt the magic in the air.

There is much more to Theyyam, the story behind it is quite fascinating and while I will probably write much more about it in the future, for the moment there is no time to share this on the blog. However, if anyone’s interested here’s a website that goes into a bit of depth about Theyyam: www.theyyam.com

Now to the photos. Tanya and I wanted to see whether we could manage to work our two person team with an off camera flash for the images taken after dark. It worked great for the make-up part. A gel was placed over the flash to warm the light and then a portable softbox, to make that light less harsh. Again I simply wanted to simulate natural light – a candle, or a warm light bulb – whatever doesn’t strike one immediately as a harsh flash. Without the flash there would be no images or they’s be horrendous. If I were to use a 1/20 Shutter speed I could have possibly come up with something visible, but very flat and that wouldn’t do justice to the ‘subject’. This two person set-up of ours works nicely in a relatively small or a closed off space and when the line of vision is maintained between the IR flash remote and the flash. Different story when the line of vision is lost – the person with the flash has to twist the flash sensor towards the camera and has to remain parallel or a little in front of the camera. If not – the flash will simply not go off. Very frustrating, but that’s the price to pay for not using the radio transmitter systems. On the plus side – I do not look like I have a walkie-talkie on top of my camera and I attract a little bit less attention then I would have otherwise.

New Year, Giant Prawns and Kerala…finally

January 9, 2009

gokarna-fishermenYes, my first blog entry for 2009 is well over due, but we are on the road after all and we are exhausted. Yesterday we finally arrived in “God’s Own Country” – Kerala. We watched sunset from the beach, but I was so tired that I fell asleep right there on the sand. We are already around 2000km from Bundi – the place where we started our motorcycle journey. The way from Goa to Kerala isn’t so long, but it has been more tiring than our other journeys. National Highway 17 is going into my books as one of the crappiest major roads in India, albeit one of the more beautiful.
Our New Year’s Eve was one of the best I’ve had, ever. In Arambol, Goa Tanya and I became friends with a girl from Moscow who shared our, well more like my craze for seafood. She joined in our plan to buy seafood for cheap at the fish market and cook it by the fire on the beach on New Year’s Eve. The evening went even better than planned; we somehow managed to find an empty beach, lit a fire and cooked our gigantic prawns and an equally gigantic crab. Of course being really far from the action in Goa is impossible and so we were treated to a few rounds of fireworks from the neighboring beaches.
I guess from my limited time in Goa I can say that it is indeed a different world to the rest of India. Those who don’t venture outside of this tiny state would certainly get a very warped idea of what India is like. I mean where else in India could you see bikini clad European girls riding scooters? The thing is they don’t even usually get stared at (at least not in Arambol). It was an absolute shock to me and Tanya at first, simply didn’t make sense that this was happening in a country where the only women showing skin are Bollywood stars that can only be seen on TV and on billboards, in a country where for most part men and women do not even hold hands in public, where village women rarely unveil their faces. Perhaps the bikini girls were oblivious to that India or perhaps they had been there and had enough, it felt like this was their turf and their turn to make the rules. There are many things that make Goa very different from the ‘real’ India. It’s cleaner, it’s richer and dare I say more open minded. This open mindedness often leads to ‘progress’ but just as often it destroys local cultures and ways of living. I avoided Goa over my past three trips to India because I expected to see nothing more than hoards of tourists and dreadlocked, grass smoking foreigners. In many cases that held true, but in many others it did not. The culture is still there, it’s in the churches of Old Goa, the streets of Panjim, it is probably in the villages away from the coast. Given enough time before my trip ends I plan to come back and peak into Goa’s quieter pockets.
brahmin-outside-of-temple Our next stop was in North Karnataka, Gokarna – a small temple town with a hippy vibe. There are no parties like those of Goa in Gokarna. It seems that the foreigners who come here come to simply chill and get an occasional sample of the local culture, which exists oblivious to the dreadlocks, bikinis and newly opened cafes with foreign menus. Every morning beautifully dressed Brahmins (priests) can be seen going in an out of temples, pilgrims are praying, making offerings and occasionally wetting their feet in the sea, while at the North end of Gokarna beach old fishermen mend their nets and set out to make a living the same way that their forefathers have for generations. The really big draw cards of the region are the quieter, ideallyc beaches of Om and Kudle. I have only been to Om and while the amount of rubbish that covers the path down to the beach is abhorring, the beach itself is clean and very beautiful. I wish I had unlimited time to stay longer in Gokarna, but I don’t and so I had to move on after three days. On our final day in the area I had to satisfy my seafood lust once again, still joined by our friend from Moscow we bought a whole load of crabs and some prawns at the nearby fish market town of Kadidi and had the stuff barbequed for us at a beachside restaurant/shack. What a meal, the only problem or perhaps a blessing is the fact that I still can’t look at seafood three days later, it will pass, I think. Our Moscow friend has joked that I should quit photography and write a guidebook for budget culinary travelers on where to find cheap food, where to have it cooked etc. Hey, might not be such a bad idea.
malpe-harbour Right now we’re in Kannur – a town in an area of North of Kerala that is famous for Theyyam – a ritualistic dance where the performer is possessed by a higher power and becomes the embodiment of a God. From the photos I’ve seen it’s pretty colorful and amazing. This is what I’m here for. It’s Theyyam season and a performance/ritual happens almost daily. I’ll see my first Theyyam tomorrow.
Kerala is also India’s most educated state with over 90% literacy rate. How is this manifested in everyday life? Well, more people can speak good English, that’s the obvious thing that stands out. However this wouldn’t be India if there were no surprises. This evening we visited a fort built by the Portuguese in the 1500s. At the entrance sat a man, a simple looking mustached fellow with a badge “Tourist Police” on the left side of his shirt. I had always thought that the caretakers/tourist police or whoever sits at the entrance of monuments are just there to fill a spot, to get paid a nominal wage because they do not have the qualifications to do much else. Boy was I wrong and I realized it as soon as the “Tourist Policeman” opened his mouth. In very good English he started to tell me in great detail about the fort. But that wasn’t the surprise. Suddenly the man said – “Two years ago I had a book published about the history of this fort.” – “Really?” – “Yes” I still found it slightly hard to believe until I saw it with my very own eyes – a book with a picture of the fort and Vasco Da Gamma at the front and a photo of the mustached Tourist Policeman smiling on the back cover.

On a side note, I have forgotten to mention that there is an interview with me HERE.
Also for those who have enquired about my workshops, I do not know when the next one will be at this stage. However I will recommend this:

ldthai-150
If you are lucky and can still get a spot you could be learning from some photographers who I really respect. Matt, David and Gavin are three guys who really know their stuff, as well as the often overlooked business side of travel photography. Anyway, in short hurry or book for next year, if it’s possible.

My images above: (Top) Fishermen preparing the nets before they go out to sea, Gokarna, Karnataka (Middle) A Brahmin (priest) outside a temple, Gokarna (Bottom) A scene at Malpe Harbour, Karnataka. Those marks in the sky are eagles and crows circling, looking for the odd fish to grab from the piles of what seemed to me like some sort of sea cockroaches.