Archive for the ‘tradition’ Category

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.

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.

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:

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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.

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