The Day I Met The Gurjars

Over the years, and even before I declared myself a photographer, I photographed several towns, districts, tribes, people and their homes running along and across the Aravalli mountains. I’ve been driven along the fold mountains ever since I was born, either to reach our ancestral home, or that of our relatives, and now my parents’ and brother’s. In recent years, my brother, Deepak, has driven me around hundreds of miles, through villages and tribal areas that made for a fascinating experience. Because of his extensive travel experience and knowledge of the areas and communities, he’s fully familiar with the places I will find interesting, as a photographer. His good connections in the land have proven useful too, to get access to no-go zones. People who would normally not entertain you, happily welcome you, because there is a common language and understanding once we have had a chance to connect.

This day was one such experience. We drove far from Jaipur and reached a town habited by the Gurjars (aka Gujjars). There was a tense environment upon approach. Gurjars have been, until recently, a lot in the news because of rioting, killings, disruption. They are a feared tribe of the North. Their men are tall, physically strong, fierce and rough in approach, proud but with a patriarchal mindset. They are known for charging before speaking. They own swords and carry knives hidden in their clothing. That’s what I’m told. Basically speaking, you cannot afford to be a gurjar’s enemy in those regions. I sort of worried thinking what might happen. They had rioted on the highway only a few days before we went there.

So, here we were, myself and Deepak, entering this village. We got off at the square where many heavy-built men with sun-kissed ruggedness and long moustaches were seated on their Enfields and Hero Hondas, or on a raised chabutara. Two of them got up with their sticks to enquire the purpose of our visit. Deepak got out of the car to speak to them. After a few minutes, he returned and asked me to step out of the car and enter the village. “No holds barred. You have a free rein,” he says. That I can do what I like, enter any home I like, speak to any man, woman, child, elderly, take photos of their homes, people and cattle. This came as a blessing for me.

They did, though, kept asking in various ways if I was a journalist. It took me three hours to convince them fully that I was one of them, a Rajasthani, and not there to cause any trouble. That the photographs were for personal use, not commissioned by any publication, that what they share with me will remain with me. No one will find out. I had no qualms about sharing my details with them, just to put their minds at rest. I spent the day chatting with and photographing the tough guys as Deepak patiently waited at the square with the even tougher ones. One sweet young fellow in green, with green eyes too, invited me to his cycle shop. If he’d ever walked on London or LA streets, people would have mistaken him for Kirk Douglas. By god, that resemblance was uncanny.

The toughest nut to crack was the head of the Gurjars. The old man, who Deepak addressed as tau. They had met a few times before, as Deepak had passed through the town a number of times, but never had he sought permission to allow a stranger (me) into their lives. It was the first. Once cracked, tau took me to a few homes himself. Nobody could turn him away. That’s the kind of authority he wielded among the village folk. Deepak waved at me and said, “Now that he’s happy with you, you are set.” I was actually set. That’s when I got to mingle with the toughest lot. The stories they shared will remain with me forever. They got their women to offer us tea and snacks. They preferred I didn’t share photos of their women, but allowed me to photograph them. I appreciate and respect their trust in me.

It was the most gratifying journey, thanks to Deepak who made it all possible for me. Thanks to the Gurjars who welcomed me in their homes and lives, shared stories that changed my perception of them. People might continue to fear them, but they promised me that I can visit anytime I like, give any one of them a call, and they will be there to welcome me.

….. Sapna Dhandh-Sharma

An Afternoon in Amer

The Gullies
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

Apart from the great many tourists flocking to the grand fortress of Amer, where the maximum activity is noticed, the town of Amer remains unchanged since at least my childhood days. I cannot imagine it being any different a century ago, or even two or three centuries ago for that matter. The 17th century muralled walls of the many temples, the Panna Meena Kund, the bazaars, and the shops tucked into the small pockets of the fort’s base, remain untouched and neglected. As a result, many sandstone structures have fallen into a state of grave disrepair. But, the raw beauty prevails.

Murals and Swastikas on the outside of a temple wall.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

I hail from Rajasthan, and the areas around Aravalli Mountains (the oldest range of fold mountains in India) have been frequented by me since I was a child. I grew up knowing the region, its people, language and the customs. The women’s attires were always ‘very’ colourful, with one neon-orange found aplenty, the men wore the same multi-coloured turbans as they did now, and the kids played with marble balls on sandy tracks even then.

The sultry afternoons were, and still are, lazy, and many folks kept cows, buffaloes and goats for milk. Langurs guard the gullies, and keep a count of the kids returning from school with their huge backpacks.

Langurs watch the kids returning from school.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

A few women carried hay on their heads for the cattle, while some hung-out to sing desert lyrics, or gossip. The men played card games and smoked bidis and chewed tobacco or paan.

Men play card games, women hang-out to gossip, and kids return from school.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

Once in a while an object comes into sight that makes the time we are in apparent. My camera being the biggest reminder, of course.

It takes them a while to acclimatise to my presence . These people do not like their privacy being invaded. It is very difficult to photograph women facing the camera with their veil completely lifted. I speak their language, and yet…

Woman in a red sari.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India.
Woman in a neon-orange sari.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India
An old mansion falling apart.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India

Many grand old mansions that belonged to the aristocrats are now in a crumbling and uninhabitable state. The families and their grandeur have long gone and, despite a shortage of good living space for people, these mansions are allowed to wither away.

But the Khejri tree indiscriminately thrives in every quarter.

Khejri Tree – State tree of Rajasthan.
Amer, Jaipur, Rajasthan, India.

I take my time. I am in no rush. I carry my heavy camera in the sweltering afternoon, walking miles, striking conversations with those I walk past, ensuring they realise I am one of them, that I just wear different clothes.

I long to return.

Dalai Lama, The Ultimate Show-stopper

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama

The opportunity to photograph His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama was one I had waited all my life. I am not sure if his arrival has always been such a closely guarded secret as it was at this particular event in Rajasthan, India! People got to find out only half hour or so before about the arrival of their much-loved spiritual leader. The moment the news broke, so did the rest. The uncontainable darting, galloping, hurtling, flurry of humanity with lost sense of direction, all wanting to take position for the best view.

Having good connections within the event’s committee meant I learnt about the his arrival the night before. Landing at the venue slightly early, I glued myself to the front, slightly lower, of the stage, without giving into the the pushing and shoving, where I thought he would be seated. I wanted to photograph him up close. Full stop.

There he walked in, the humble superstar, followed by hundreds of Buddhist monks. His mesmerising presence induced a brief state of hypnosis and I forgot all about firing my camera’s shutter. Once ‘awake’, I fired a couple of shots, determined to capture his captivating and infectious laughter. He delivered, like always, in the famed Dalai-Lama-style, leaving me entranced by his charm and magnetism.