Archive for the ‘India’ Category

Bangalore, Pune, Mumbai and Good Bye India.

March 6, 2009

curious-in-mumbaiBangalore – we didn’t originally plan to stop in this city, but it was the nearest place from where we could get a train to Pune, our final stop before we’d fly from Mumbai. I didn’t want to ride any more either, but all trains to Bangalore were full and you can’t put a motorcycle on a bus.

I planned to ride the 480km from Madurai to Bangalore over two days, but somehow Tanya and I summoned up enough energy and finishing the ride in one day seemed possible.

480km is the longest distance that I have ever ridden in one day on a motorcycle, anywhere. If I were riding in Australia, this distance would not seem that far, really. But this is India and here distance is not only measured by milestones along the road. It is measured by how many cows, chickens, goats, children and women with firewood on their heads you almost hit (because they almost jumped under your wheels) as well as how many buses and trucks almost hit you (because they are bigger and don’t care). It’s a long distance, almost unbearably long. Your butt feels like it’s burning on the motorcycle seat all the way, but you finally pass the pain barrier after 400km, you stop feeling or caring.

Bangalore – the “I.T. City”, “The future of India”. You could have fooled me by the last 20km of road that leads there. Countless potholes, puddles of black water, construction, everywhere and that horrible, dark smoke, the whole thing felt like traveling through a post-apocalyptical landscape, and then you reach the city itself. I’m sure that Bangalore is as amazing as people make it out to be, but whatever it has to offer, it can offer to someone else. I had no time to discover its charm under the black cloud of traffic smoke; I was to finish my “business” and to head off.

At the railway station we sent what was left of the motorcycle back to my Gujarati friend Hardik, who is now in Ahmedabad (Gujarat’s commercial capital). Then it was our turn to go. We’ve become soft when it comes to public transport. We avoid buses because of the loud music and no leg-room; we avoid the sleeper class on the train because of the countless beggars and hawkers that pass through every other minute and we even avoid the “Three-tier AC”, because it still feels somewhat crowded. So we got two “Two-Tier AC” tickets for our 24-hour train ride to Pune. “Two Tier AC” means that you have a compartment with four beds in it and two beds along the corridor, what it does not mean is that you will get the peace and quite that you long for on a tiring journey. I had to force myself to sleep to the sound of continuous burping, farting and snoring of fellow passengers. At 11:30 pm a young boy with a loud, squeaky voice decided it was a good time to have a conversation with his father about Superman. Oh, the joys of travel on the Indian Railways!

Pune – just a one night stop here, a quick catch up with a friend – Rahul, a young man who had recently spent a year in Germany, a year which radically changed the way he now looked at his own city, his country for that matter. The first time I met him I told him that I thought Pune was very modern and developed. “Modern, developed?! No, this place is not like that! You see a high-rise glass building and then you walk inside and you see the people there, spitting on the shiny floors, throwing their shit around. That is modern? Developed?” With his unusually cynical views and his stories about Pune’s Koregaon Park and the infamous “Osho International Meditation Center” Rahul certainly kept me amused and entertained. I hope I meet him again one day.

Mumbai – the city of dreams for millions. I never liked this place very much, but make no mistake about it, it is absolutely, incredibly fascinating.

One more friend to catch up with in Mumbai – Santosh, an independent filmmaker who works as a sound engineer in various Bollywood drama-series out of necessity.  Santosh is one of the most intelligent fellows I have come across on my Indian journeys. Whenever I meet him he tells me countless stories about various places we come past in Mumbai. These stories have probably played a part in forming my view of the city – yes there is crime and there are slums, but there is so much more that you will simply pass by if you are visiting by yourself. So many cultures and sub-cultures and everyone has a story, a fascinating story.

As we walked to a restaurant in Colaba, a place where I usually eat, we passed through the parts of the city where the horrors took place in December. It’s eerie when you hear what happened and picture things, but now, just a couple of months later life goes on as before. Sure there are a few policemen with machine guns, but you couldn’t even imagine what took place in the very same streets, where today people are laughing, drinking and celebrating life. That’s how India is. It doesn’t stop for anyone, nor does it compromise or change because you want it to. It is every bit “The Incredible India” of the romanticized advertisements and it is every bit as dark and hopeless as its worst slums, its deranged beggars and its corrupt politicians.

This trip has exhausted us more than any of our previous visits to the country. I don’t know why exactly. Perhaps it’s the distance we’ve covered by motorcycle or perhaps it is because we understand things a little more now. The naivety is gone and it is not only the exotic, beautiful India that we see these days. We realize just how hard it can be to survive in this country, to live with dignity or to at least make it possible for your children to live with dignity. We haven’t learned something that we didn’t know before, but it has really hit home this time. Our realization however, doesn’t make this country any less fascinating. It is a matter of time until we come back. Although I want to spend a few years seeing other parts of the world, I know that just like this time, when India calls – you simply pack up and go.

 

Photo: The image at the top was taken on a previous India trip. I shot it in a neighborhood about 500 meters from the famous Taj Hotel in Mumbai. It wasn’t quite what you’d classify as the slums in India, but not much better. Insane contrast, the richest of the rich were staying at the Taj, while the poorest of the poor were living in less than ideal conditions and all that separated them from each other was a five minute walk. It’s the old cliché about India – the land of extreme contrasts, but it is so true and it is still tough to get your head around the whole concept when it comes to the rich and the poor.

Madurai

March 3, 2009

madurai-prayer-011From Kanyakumari it is a 250 km ride to Madurai. We’ve made it…barely. After over 10,000 km on the road over the past three months, our bodies are aching in places we didn’t know could ache. The two-wheeled machine which has been transporting us all this time is “exhausted” too. It experienced another “major injury” – another crack right through the middle of its chasis on the way to Madurai, but somehow we managed to pull through to our destination.
madurai-market-02madurai-market-01 Madurai is a fascinating city. My short time here would not do it any justice. However, I decided to at least have a peek at it, rather than to simply pass it by. Parts of the city are particularly photogenic. The fruit and vegetable market inside the city is as bustling and challenging to photograph as the fish market in Kollam. I came to this place every morning, I suppose more to absorb the atmosphere than to create any compelling images. Later in the mornings I’d go to the temple, the most famous temple in all of south India and arguably the finest example of Dravidian architecture – the Sri Menakshi. To my huge disappointment there was restoration work being done to the Sri Menakshi during my visit. Its giant, elaborately decorated towers were covered with faded, dry palm leaves. I was left only with post card images of what it looked like and my imagination of how it may look after the restoration.
madrurai-temple-011 Thankfully the inside of the vast temple grounds was very much intact and buzzing with religious activity. I have a strange feeling in Hindu temples; it is as if I am both – a complete alien and totally at home there. All the rituals, the hundreds queuing up for darshan (blessing) or prashad (blessed food) and bowing to the Gods carved out of stone; on the surface none of it makes much sense to someone like me. I’m not religious by any stretch of the imagination, in fact I’d say I’m anti-religious at times, but the essence behind every religion is very human and when I think of that, I, as a human being can connect with it. I feel that behind the multitude of layers, the rituals at Hindu temples or for that matter any sites of worship, stand two universal factors – misery and hope. Misery and hope go hand in hand in and around the Sri Menakshi Temple. A poor farmer’s family spends the night on the pavement by a make-shift fire, a deformed man begs for money, a newly-wed couple makes an offering and the fat businessman who has “made it” bows down to the Shiva statue – there is a degree of hope and misery that drives all of these people. They plead for a better life, money, happiness, forgiveness and they all hope that they will be heard by the divine. There isn’t an individual in the world that doesn’t suffer or hope. And as for surrendering to the divine, if it’s not God that a person looks to, it’s love, work, alcohol, drugs. The essence remains the same, only the layers around it change. Knowing this makes me feel at ease about the blanks in my knowledge of Hinduism. I can fill in those blanks. What makes me comfortable is the fact that those in the temple are humans, before they are anything else. Their actions are a manifestation of their cultural upbringing, but these actions are driven by the same misery and hope that I and every other human feel.
We spent three days in Madurai. Our next stop is Bangalore. How we have to get there is another story.

At the edge of the world…or India.

February 26, 2009

at-the-edge-of-the-world

Kanyakumari is where India ends. It’s as far south as you can go before you face nothing but endless water. I thought it a rather romantic idea to reach “The world’s edge”, to ride all the way to Kanyakumari on the motorcycle, and finally we have made it. I’ve got no idea exactly how many kilometers this place is from Rajasthan, where we began the journey, but mine and Tanya’s bottoms say “It’s pretty damn far!”
salt-workers-son Besides being a major place of religious pilgrimage, the biggest attractions of Kanyakumari are sunrise and sunset watching. Because the town is located on a narrow tip, right at the very bottom of India, it is possible to see the sun rise and set over the sea, and you only have to walk a couple of hundred meters from one spot to the other. As a result every morning there are hordes of mostly local tourists who line up to watch the sunrise and to photograph each other in silly poses at the sunrise point. In the evenings the same deal is repeated at sunset point. The whole area around those two spots is kitschy beyond description and rather irritating, due to the countless numbers of people trying to sell you tourist junk at every corner. But should you venture outside of the tourist zone, you will see a very different side of this region.
sunset-point One day we decided to ride along the coastline road that headed north-east from the “Edge of India”. The whole way felt strange, fascinating and edge-of-the-worldly. Sparsely populated fishing villages, government housing, likely erected after the 2004 Tsunami and churches, in almost every village, they seemed so out of place due to their grand design and enormous size that dwarfed anything we had seen in Goa.
Without a map, a description of the area in any guidebook or any useful information from the tourist office the ride was exploration for the sake of exploring, a journey into the unknown. There were no demands for pens, chocolates or money along the way. It was beautiful “unadulterated” India. When we got back into town I was faced with the same dilemma that I have encountered a few times on this trip – a bit over three months to cover a relatively small part of India, but ultimately so little time.
We have less than ten days until we fly back to Sydney and so the journey towards Mumbai must begin soon. The next stop is Madurai, we ride from there to Bangalore and travel by train for the remaining days.

me-edge-of-the-worldPhotos:
Top and middle: A child of a salt worker, patiently waiting for mother with his juice bottle. I photographed this at a salt making field (or whatever you would call a place that makes salt). We came across it while doing our little exploration trip. We came back a few times, wanting to see the mother and son again, but they were no longer there.
Second from the bottom: Tourists at sunset point.
Bottom: This one’s for my mum. She hasn’t seen her son in over four months. Yeah, it’s kinda cheesy, but till I get back I guess a photo is all she can see of me.

Last Days in Kerala

February 24, 2009

alumkadavu-boatman-01Let me paint you a mental picture – it’s early in the morning on Munro Island, the village street is still quite, golden light shines on the greenery that’s abundant everywhere you look and a water canal flows to the right of the road. By the same road is a group of little schoolboys, one of them is urinating, facing away from the road. Suddenly he notices Tanya and I pass by on the motorcycle and turns around, without zipping up his pants or finishing his ‘business’ he screams “Hello! School Pen!munro-fishermanWe decided to spend our last few days in Kerala photographing things that you can only see in this state – the backwaters, the boatmen, the sand collectors (see image below). Munro Island was a pretty ideal location. It is beautiful, that is no secret and it’s that beauty that attracts countless houseboat tourists and spreads the “Hello, school-pen, chocolate, rupee!” disease among the island’s population.The incident described above is ridiculous and that’s what I think of the whole thing, it’s ridiculous and stupid beyond words. Even the adults murmured those dreadful words, encouraging those I photographed to demand a pen, chocolate or money for being photographed. To the defense of the people in my images, none of them asked me for anything. They really were as dignified as I hope they look in the images.alumkadavu-coconuts-01The negatives aside Munro Island is a special part of Kerala that is hard to resist. Here you can still see people living unhurried, traditional lives. There are no roads through the middle of the island, instead the canals are the island’s highways and the only practical way to get from place to place, you constantly see men and occasionally women getting around in small boats. Our highlight on the island was hiring a boat from a village family and going about by ourselves. Judging by the astonished looks on local people’s faces it seems that no foreign visitors ever do this, but we loved exploring and learning this particular boat riding technique. In Kerala’s backwaters people don’t usually paddle with oars, as the waters are rather shallow they have a long piece of bamboo which is used to push off from the ground under water. We got one oar and one long piece of bamboo. After some trial and error Tanya took over the role of the navigator and used the piece of bamboo to push off and change direction when needed. I paddled with the oar and looked for potential photos.The atmosphere on Munro Island is very peaceful and laid back, at least it’s like that along the canals. Different story near the roads, where I saw and heard something that absolutely shocked, puzzled and horrified me – loudspeakers on trees and electricity poles. Every day the loudspeakers blasted out some insane tune, so loud that it crackled from distortion. Why would anyone want this in “paradise”? I guess, it’s just another Kerala mystery.munro-island-sand-collectorsmunro-sand-collector-02Alumkadavu, the magical place by the lake which I wrote about in one of my past posts was our last stop in Kerala. We liked it so much the first time that we decided to go back for a day, but, well, the magic was sucked out of it this time around. Why? LOUDSPEAKERS! Thankfully they weren’t on trees, but what we heard was bad enough – 24 hours of temple music so loud that we could hear it as if it was at full volume in our own room, and it was actually on the other side of the lake. We came back to this village to absorb the peaceful vibes and to get some photos of people fishing on the lake. Neither happened, but I did get a few images of one of the “public ferry” boatman over a few rides with him (image at the top of the post). He was a nice guy and a hard worker, who didn’t mind me snapping away and occasionally rocking the boat, he was too agile to care. He’d walk right along the edge from the font to the back of the boat and vice-versa.

I am now writing from Tamil Nadu, a state that shares its’ border with Kerala. So, “What will I remember about God’s Own Country?”. Well, it is remarkably beautiful and full of colorful, ancient traditions that are very much a part of people’s lives today. These people are mostly gentle and kind, and dignified, but I guess I’ll hear “School-pen, chocolate, rupee!” in my nightmares for some time to come, probably accompanied by temple music playing at full blast from a loudspeaker on a tree.

Photos:

Top to bottom:

– Boatman of a public “ferry”, Alumkadavu

– A fisherman with his morning catch at a small fish market, near Munro Island

– Coconut loading. We were riding around Alumkadavu at sunset, looking for something interesting to photograph and found these men loading coconuts into a truck. They were a bit surprised, in a pleasant way, the man on the right opened up one of the coconuts and gifted it to me.

– Sand collecting, Munro Island. Seems like this is a big industry in Kerala. I saw these guys working while we were on our way back from our boat ride. You can’t really get a decent shot from the boat, nor can you get it from the shore, so I went chest deep into the water. The workers cracked up with laughter, but continued their job. I shot a few frames. The next image is from their boat, it’s worth exploring different angles if you have a chance.

The Little Tea-Shack at the end of “Beach Road”

February 23, 2009

kollam-teashop-ownersportDuring one of our days in Kollam we wanted to find out where the “Beach Road” led to, so we decided to ride it south, as long as it followed the shoreline. After passing a couple of fishing villages and beaches we came to a corner, there the road branched off inland. A small shack stood on that corner, smoke was coming out of its windows and people with tea glasses stood outside. Having come to the end of the “Beach Road” and not having any desire to head back to our room, we got off the motorbike and went into the smoky shack. Inside I found one of my favorite photographic places in Kerala.

The shack was a small eatery that served basic food and tea to fishermen and other village folk. There are countless numbers of such tea-shacks all around India, but this particular one caught my eye. The blue wall, with everything on it was like a tapestry that told a short story about the place and the people who live there. Anyone who’s been to South Kerala will recognize the symbols of the state in the photograph at the top of the post. The ‘subjects’, the owners of the tea-shack – Manuel and Anitha Sebastian are husband and wife; they are Catholic Indians, of whom there seems to be a lot along the coastline of South Kerala.

I made three visits to the tea-shack; I would go there later in the morning, after photographing fishermen by the sea. The top image was taken during my last time there, in the first two I couldn’t get the couple together; one or the other would always be busy with customers or in the kitchen. Despite not really being able to speak to each other, sign language and some familiar words helped me explain that I wanted to take some photos. Manuel and Anitha found me rather amusing. They thought it was really funny, or crazy (in which case they masked shock with laughter) when I photographed them through the window which expelled the smoke from their cooking. It was one of these cases where photography seemed to brighten up people’s mundane, daily routine and they gladly welcomed me into their lives, for a brief moment in time.

Customers kept coming in and out of the shack. After it was known what I was doing inside, it seemed that some came with the hopes that they too would be photographed. Here are some more images from the “Little Tea-Shack at the end of the Beach Road”.

Man-at-teashackOne early Sunday morning I realized that no one goes to work on Sundays, no fishermen would be going out to the sea. Since I had already gotten up early I headed off to the tea-shack in hopes of catching some customers having tea there. This gentleman had just come from church and was reading the news with a glass of tea in his hand. I asked if I could photograph him, he smiled and agreed. Initially he stared directly into the camera, but I asked him to look a little to the side, to make the portrait more casual.

kollam-teashop-cookingAnitha cooking parothas, while Manuel prepares them. Manuel managed to communicate to me that everyday they go through 400 parothas, no small task for a tiny place like theirs. This was taken through the window that sporadically expelled smoke from the cooking fire.

kollam-tea-shopManuel pauses while making parothas.

The rest of the images are pretty self explanatory. All were taken with natural, light that came from the sides, through the windows.

kollam-tea-shop-group

kollam-tea-makingkollam-teashop-sadhu

These are the Good Times

February 21, 2009

kollam-fishermen-021At last we have reached a place which validates our reasons for coming to Kerala – North Travancore. This will be the last of what we see of “God’s Own Country” before we move on, and we’ll certainly be left with a nice impression. The region represents the Kerala which I had hoped existed, but only had glances of so far – North Travancore has fishing settlements and harbors, quiet villages along the backwaters and in the city of Kollam there is even an atmospheric, bustling fruit and spice market. I have encountered all that I had hoped. The region is a paradise for a photographer, or at least a photographer with a motorcycle, as the places of photographic interest are not exactly within walking distance of each other.

 

The Photos

One of my biggest photographic obsessions is fishing villages and fishing harbours. I love of the sea and seafood, and sometimes I not so secretly wish for a lifestyle like the fishermen that are in my images. I am fascinated by these men, they’re brave, tough and while often crude, they are always full of life and humor.

In Kollam, the biggest city of North Travancore I finally satisfied my last for all photographic things fish-related. Along the shoreline North and South of Kollam Beach there are a few picturesque fishing settlements. Now, picturesque doesn’t mean that they’re ideal places to hang out. The stench of fish fills the air, rubbish is everywhere and in the morning, walking along the shoreline is like walking through a minefield. Let me explain – the fishermen, like most of their fellow countrymen make crapping one of the first priorities to begin the day, but unlike most of their fellow countrymen they take a crap directly on the beach. I’m sorry for devoting attention to this, but the crap really is a big part of the experience of a morning walk along the shore – one wrong move, and you’re in trouble.

While shooting the image at the top of the post I was confronted with a rather strange predicament. As usual I had to look under my feet to avoid the “mines” on my way towards the fishermen, but then as I went into the water, Tanya noticed something floating and being thrown back to shore. It was a piece of crap that simply wouldn’t agree to be taken away by the sea and it seemed as if it was stalking me. Now I had two things to worry about – the waves that could damage my camera and the floating crap that could leave me with a psychological scar. In-between crouching for the shot, standing up when the waves came and dodging the piece of crap I managed to get a few images, this is one of them.

They say that this fishing technique is as old as time itself. The net is taken out from the shore, it’s spread by a few boats, sometimes over quite a distance. When everything is ready, the boats signal to two groups of men on shore, one group at each end of the net. The groups begin to pull and start moving sideways towards each other, to form a circle with the net. When this is done, the pulling gets more intense, everything within the circle is captured and as the net makes its way towards the shore, the pulling becomes more difficult. More men join in (this shot was taken towards the end). The final moments are quite amazing. The fishermen chant to encourage each other, their voices join into a melody that resembles a primeval war-cry, the tempo gets faster, as the catch approaches the shore, the volume rises. The full net is carried onto the beach, the fish are sorted and distributed among the families of the fishermen. If the catch is good, some big fish will have made their way into the net, it is usually sold and the money is divided. On this occasion the catch was nothing more than a load of tiny silver fish, which will only be used for curries or dried under the sun. A few disappointed looks, a few sighs, but this is just another day at work for the fishermen. The net is packed up, washed in the ocean and spread out to dry till next day.

kollam-fishing-harbour1Men unloading sharks from a boat at Neendakara Fishing Harbour. This was probably one of the most, if not the most bustling fishing harbor that I had ever been to. You’d think that it would make an ideal photographic spot, which it can, but not without difficulties. The light was great, it was early morning, but there was just way too much happening. You really had to decide what you wanted to focus on or you’d shoot a lot of everything and nothing really worthwhile.

kollam-fisherman-05South of Kollam Beach – An elderly fisherman packing up the net, while crows and eagles circle in search of leftovers.

kollam-fishermen-08

kollam-fishermen-05fisherman-and-his-wifeTop: Old fisherman pulling in the catch, South of Kollam Beach.

Middle: Fishermen push the boat out to sea, as the sun is about to rise, South of Kollam Beach.

Bottom: A fisherman and his wife in a Catholic settlement North of Kollam Beach (most of the fishermen in this area seem to be Catholics).

kollam-elephant-processionkollam-chai-wallahTop: Namboodiri caste (Keralan priest) man and boy atop a decorated elephant during Gaja Mela, Rural Travancore.

Bottom: Couldn’t resist taking a shot of this tea maker at Gaja mela. There was a power cut (very usual all over Kerala) and the only light came from the kerosene lamp and the fire, making his little tea-hop, seem rather mysterious. I shot a few frames of the man and had a couple of teas while doing it. When I asked how much for the tea, he waived his hands to sign “don’t worry about it”. I insisted, but he repeated the same thing. That’s the generosity and hospitality I have come to love in India.

Going South or “Chocolate, school-pen, hello-ten-rupees!”

February 16, 2009

alumkadavu-passenger-boatWhenever tourism hits a place in a developing country it seems to create the “chocolate, school-pen and hello-ten-rupees” (or whatever other currency) phenomenon. A mushrooming of expensive restaurants with rubbish food follows and then all the prices for regular services skyrocket. I really dislike the way tourism from the ‘rich’ world shapes the ‘poor’ world. The sort of interaction between the two breeds cynicism, and for a photographer of people cynicism is a very dangerous thing. What will your photograph say if your subject sees you as nothing more than a moneybag and you see the subject as someone who will do anything to get a piece of that money? I would never want to take photos that way.

alamkadavu-boat-makingIs tourism bad? I’ve got no answer to that. As far as what I’ve seen, the negative impact often outweighs any positives. Of course it ultimately depends on what your priorities are. If you’d like to have everything at the snap of your fingers because you have the money and you don’t mind that your relationships with people in these so called “third world” countries are nothing more than transactions, then tourism has worked out well for you. If, however you want to genuinely experience a culture and not be confronted with a price-tag for a smile or a hello, well then you’re really outta luck. Since I belong to the latter category I avoid tourist “hot-spots” like I’d avoid the plague. But it’s impossible to avoid them completely, some are on your way, others lure you in with something you simply can’t resist and then there are times when you think it won’t be as bad as people say. My next couple of stops after Thrissur fell under a few of those categories. Cochin lured me in with the images I had seen of the Chinese fishing nets and tales about colorful colonial architecture. Allepey, dubbed the Venice of India was on the way, and the Venice thing sounded tempting.

alumkadavu-houseboatI probably romanticized Cochin like no other place in India and when you do that you set your self up for disappointment. But Cochin didn’t really disappoint me as a visitor, it was in many ways what I had imagined, however this city did tease me and didn’t give me what I wanted, photographically speaking. I only saw hints of what could have been, had the day of the week been right, had there not been a crowd of tourists photographing the same person I wanted to photograph, had the fishermen at the Chinese nets not tried to get money out of me for “allowing” me to see how they work. There are countless stories in that city and I’m sure that many are very photogenic, but having only a limited amount of time and only one life, you think; is there another place I’d rather be? And there are, quite many, so we moved on.

Allepey was our next stop. I heard that it was not that special from a few people I’d come across, but who could resist at least having a glance at “Venice of India”. Having never actually been to Venice I don’t know how Allepey measures up, but it was indeed not that special, as far as personal impressions go. The town did give me an introduction to the backwaters of Kerala that I had seen in so many photos and, in the surrounding areas I was given a dose of that real tourist-equals-moneybag welcome.

coir-spinning-wheelPaying three times the price for a supposedly traditional, yet crappy, small fish dishes at an eatery on an isolated island was inevitable. The next boat back was two hours away and the eatery was the only thing on the island. Getting knocked out by half a liter of “Tori” (a palm drink with an alcoholic effect) on the same island should have been expected by someone who can’t remember when he had his last drink. The tori induced nap did prove to be practical, as the tiny portion of food left a lot of time to kill. The next day at nearby Marari beach we were briefly stalked by very cute little girls who demanded pens for a made-up school exam and after hearing a negative response kept nagging my wife,” Please open the bag! Please let me see what is inside your bag!” Oh, Kerala, God’s Own Country!

But just as our levels of cynicism peaked, there was an unexpected stop at what’s at least pretty close to being a magical little village by the lake – Alumkadavu. The first house boat (those things that tourists pay big bucks to rent) was built in Alamkadavu, and unless I met an imposter, then I accidentally stumbled upon the gentleman who was in charge of making that very first boat. These houseboats are impressive and I really mean it when I say it. They range from small and basic to close to 30 meters long and luxurious. I’d really love one of these, if I have good enough fortune to afford it, which seems like I won’t anytime too soon, since the price quoted to me was $110,000 Australian Dollars for a fully furnished, air conditioned boat. Still, one can dream.

inside-the-kitchenAlumkadavu is a tiny place, but it’s famous for the ‘vallom’ (traditional boat) making at the same place where the first houseboat was built. It’s also famous for a mini coir industry. Coir is the fiber of a dry coconut shell and it’s used for all sorts of things – insulation, mattresses and ropes.

This brings me to the photos.

– The first image is of a small passenger boat. There are many of these boats navigating the Ashtamudi Lake and the surrounding canals.

– Men fixing a house boat. Apparently the boats can go eight years without needing any real maintenance. I was shown one boat which was 40 years old and in need of only some simple work.

– The view from our room in Alumkadavu – a house boat ready for departure, after spending the night by the nearby dock.

– A woman weaving a rope from coir.

– In Alumkadavu we had our food at a tiny local eatery and while we waited, I snapped a few      frames of this man making parothas (a kind of pancake made up of thin layers of flour). While I photographed, the man kept saying “Good, good. One parotha. Thank you! Thank you!” I think that was about all he knew in English and he seemed to have lots of fun repeating it. Quirky character. Shot with a Sigma 20mm f1.8. I am loving this lens more and more. I hesitated getting it a couple of years back. Now I realize that I have only really used my Canon 24-70 f2.8 and the Sigma. Awesome lens! Not without imperfections, especially on a full frame camera, but at f1.8 and a relatively wide angle I can shoot stuff like this, which would be impossible otherwise.

Thrissur, Men in make up and using a flash on an elephant

February 7, 2009

elephant-and-mahoutThrissur – the cultural capital of Kerala, but just where do you begin to look for the culture? The Keralan towns I’ve come across are nothing like those of North India. The culture is not on display for you, you don’t see turbaned men and traditionally dressed women with tribal tattoos walking the streets, as you do in Gujarat and Rajasthan, even in parts of Delhi. You have to dig a little deeper and the government run Thrissur tourist office was where I began digging. Good idea, although the tourism officers could not provide me with any practical information on where to find a festival or see Kathakali, they did direct me to the right person – Mr C.A. Menon, an charismatic, white-bearded gentlemen, somewhat eccentric and passionate about his culture and sharing it with anyone interested. As he sat on his antique reclining chair and I on his antique hanging bed, that used to belong to a Sultan, he spoke with excitement about a festival that was to take place at Guruvayoor, in an ancient Krishna temple 30 km form Thrissur. “This only happens once a year! You are very lucky! There will be elephants and an oracle who will get into a trance and throw colorful powder on himself! This is a ceremony to appease the Goddess Kali! It will be very special!” And so we rode Guruvayoor. The procession was in full swing, deafening music, even more deafening fire crackers, an oracle, who threw all sorts of things on himself – red powder, yellow powder, rice and various vegetables and there were elephants. They swayed from side to side and flapped their ears, looking rather sad and bored by the happenings. When all was finished, we didn’t quite know what to make of everything. The next day Mr Menon sent us to see another procession, unfortunately it didn’t leave a positive impression on us. The peak of this procession came when five elephants, some as big as a bus reached the temple. A few hundred men, drunk out of their minds, cheered, danced, sang and threw rice (a ritualistic thing) at the beasts. These elephants again swayed and flapped their ears to the mayhem around them, while the mahouts occasionally poked and hit them with thin sticks. I thought that at any minute I could witness a “When animals attack!” moment, but somehow these magnificent creatures kept their cool and didn’t stomp on anyone.
When I saw Mr Menon again, he asked me what I thought. I didn’t have the heart to tell him, so I simply told him that the processions were an amazing spectacle, which they were. The same night Mr Menon gave us the location of a performance of an ancient form of Kathakali – a classical dance, which Kerala is world-famous for. The make-up part and the preparations were even more impressive than those I had witnessed at the Theyyam performances, but, and I don’t mean to be an ass and seem like I am winging, after watching Theyaam – the somersaults, the fire-walking and the biting off of chicken heads, the subtle movements of Kathakali almost put me to sleep. Call me ignorant, uncultured, whatever – Kathakali just ain’t that exciting. That doesn’t mean that it’s not photogenic, it is, extremely (which I think the images suggest) but the part behind the scenes is really the only thing that captivated me. Now, my opinions don’t mean that what I’ve seen is not worth seeing, I guess it’s just better not to expect any “magic”.
make-up-expertThe day after the Kathakali we would see another elephant procession. This one would take place at night and could potentially be more colorful and bright than the first two we had seen. It was, and we got to see the elephants getting dressed up for their “big moment”. With the fear that the elephant could get pissed off at my dear wife when the flash in a soft-box sets off I asked the mahouts whether it was OK to use our little set-up while photographing, they said it was. We took a few shots, but we were feeling a little down. Tanya in particular wanted to see elephants and get close to them, and now when she did, they were in chains, swaying and flapping their ears, their tiny eyes looking sad and lifeless (perhaps that’s just how they look). When the time for the ceremony came, the firecrackers exploded in a very loud collective bang, the music started and the elephants began to sway, feeling like we had seen all that we wanted to see it was time for us to leave.
make-up-expertsready-for-the-showMy stay at Thrissur wasn’t disappointing, it just wasn’t amazing. There was even a bit of “magic” in a place that I discovered accidentally – a Vedic school, in a 500-year-old building. Here thirty children spend most of their days chanting Vedas. From my understanding Vedas are Hindu scriptures that contain all sorts of wisdom. The children that come here belong to a particular cast of Keralan Brahmins, which is responsible for chanting the Vedas, like hymns, during various religious functions. This part of the Hindu culture was on the verge of extinction, but it seems that in the past decade the parents’ interest to send their children to the school and spend four years learning how to chant has been renewed. One of the teachers explained: “Eight to twelve is the crucial age, if the Vedas and the way to chant them are imprinted in the boys’ minds at this stage of their lives, they will never forget. My Guru learned to chant when he was a young boy like them, then he stopped for fifty years. After retiring he returned to the temple where he learned as a child and with a little practice it all came back to him.” The amazing thing is that the chants can last for an entire day and nothing is written down. The words, along with countless tones are memorized, and it has been like that for as long as anyone can remember. It was hard to get any detailed explanation of what the whole purpose of the chanting was, but the scene was otherworldly. The sound of the chanting and the sight of young students in traditional dhotis against the ancient, weathered building made you feel like you are in a totally a different time.

chantingchanting-vedasPhotos:
From top to bottom: A temple elephant in his costume and his mahout (elephant carer, trainer). This is one of the images I shot with a flash. Same deal as usual – Tanya holding the flash in a softbox on the side.
A somewhat cliched shot of a Kathakali artist looking in the mirror as he puts on make up. I tried to make this image better than anything I’d seen in the past with the help of the flash set-up. Here, I got Tanya to stand near a light-bulb which was illuminating everything with a yellowish light. We used a gel to warm up the flash and placed it so that the flash light would come from the same direction as the light from the light-bulb.This resulted in matching light which was more intense, thus I could use a lower ISO and a higher shutter speed.
More make-up. Same gel, but the flash is slightly moved away from the light-bulb to illuminate more of the artist’s face (in make up).
Last preparations – the Kathakali team is putting the final parts of the costume on the artist. I wanted to have the artist’s face illuminated, but I also wanted to have those shadows in the back. The flash was moved to the far left side of the light-bulb. Result – light is coming from both sides, more intense from the left.
A student chanting. He was trying very hard and grimacing all the time.
Bottom: A group of young students chanting.
The chanting images are shot only with the available light, which there was really not much of. I tried a few later with a flash, but this was one of the situations where you either shoot in natural light or have at least two flash units to better simulate this light, otherwise you simply kill the atmosphere.