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.
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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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 loved poetry from an early age – learning, reciting verses in English, Hindi, Sanskrit, Urdu and Persian. Partly because it was a compulsory requirement in my school, but also because I enjoyed the analysing and the memory testing process.
I would often buy books by Persian writers. My favourites were Omar Khayyam, Ferdowsi, Hafez, Shirazi and Rumi. I also read Kahlil Gibran for his peculiar style of writing.
Last trip, I packed some of these books to bring along with me. Loved their aged look (they loved my aged look too). I read them again after a long time. All these men were far ahead of their time. So much depth in those words!
Today is Sufi poet Rumi’s day…..
Fountain of Fire, by Rumi, as translated by Nadar Khalili.
look at love how it tangles with the one fallen in love
look at spirit how it fuses with earth giving it new life
why are you so busy with this or that or good or bad pay attention to how things blend
why talk about all the known and the unknown see how the unknown merges into the known
why think seperately of this life and the next when one is born from the last
look at your heart and tongue one feels but deaf and dumb the other speaks in words and signs
look at water and fire earth and wind enemies and friends all at once
the wolf and the lamb the lion and the deer far away yet together
look at the unity of this spring and winter manifested in the equinox
you too must mingle my friends since the earth and the sky are mingled just for you and me
be like sugarcane sweet yet silent don’t get mixed up with bitter words
my beloved grows right out of my own heart how much more union can there be
come on sweetheart let’s adore one another before there is no more of you and me
a mirror tells the truth look at your grim face brighten up and cast away your bitter smile
a generous friend gives life for a friend let’s rise above this animalistic behaviour and be kind to one another
spite darkens friendships why not cast away malice from our heart
once you think of me dead and gone you will make up with me you will miss me you may even adore me
why be a worshiper of the dead think of me as a goner come and make up now
since you will come and throw kisses at my tombstone later why not give them to me now this is me that same person
i may talk too much but my heart is silence what else can i do i am condemned to live this life
i’ve come again like a new year to crash the gate of this old prison
i’ve come again to break the teeth and claws of this man-eating monster we call life
i’ve come again to puncture the glory of the cosmos who mercilessly destroys humans
i am the falcon hunting down the birds of black omen before their flights
i gave my word at the outset to give my life with no qualms i pray to the Lord to break my back before i break my word
how do you dare to let someone like me intoxicated with love enter your house
you must know better if i enter i’ll break all this and destroy all that
if the sheriff arrives i’ll throw the wine in his face if your gatekeeper pulls my hand i’ll break his arm
if the heavens don’t go round to my heart’s desire i’ll crush its wheels and pull out its roots
you have set up a colourful table calling it life and asked me to your feast but punish me if i enjoy myself
what tyranny is this
you mustn’t be afraid of death you’re a deathless soul you can’t be kept in a dark grave you’re filled with God’s glow
be happy with your beloved you can’t find any better the world will shimmer because of the diamond you hold
when your heart is immersed in this blissful love you can easily endure any bitter face around
in the absence of malice there is nothing but happiness and good times don’t dwell in sorrow my friend.
I am born into a Hindu Brahmin family in India. This statement alone equals to passport to respect, social privileges, and positive discrimination for life. Every single application form asks for your caste and I wrote ‘Brahmin’, unbeknownst to me at the time its importance in terms of being accepted in whatever it was I was wanting to choose as long as I had the right credentials.
So, why in the world would I even want to highlight the wrongs of the millennia-old system, – ‘The Caste System of India’?
The answer is – my conscience does not allow me to continue without questioning.
This world; its system, environment and abundance should also belong to someone else as much as they do to me.
Same as I am opposed to monarchy, which represents all that meritocracy does not, I am vocal about casteism as this too advocates the by-birth rights, undermining the efforts and struggles of those from the ever-growing educated class, some of whom were not born into the upper strata of the caste hierarchy, but qualify only through the constitutional concessions, in spite of having the right credentials. Funnily, this new breed became a target of mockery – ‘educational success because of concessions’.
How can an upper caste person’s access to privileges not be labelled as a concession instead of a prerogative?
So, in some way, both sides of the caste-scale fall under constitutional concessions. One side has all set. The other, not so. If the caste-scale transformed into a caste-balance, it will tip to one side. The more the weight of privileges, the lighter it becomes. Oppositely, the burden of inequality is heavier, which means those on that side will forever struggle to tip the balance in their favour.
Will it ever happen? I doubt it would in my lifetime, for there is a life beyond the educational system. The upper-caste mafia rules the roost in every region, department, field, discipline, branch, sector, and so on. For some have-nots, it is a grim situation of one-step-forward-and-two-step-backwards.
Social inequality is rife worldwide. India, on the other hand, has it etched in its institution of caste. India’s caste system dates back thousands of years. It is much debated, argued and, in recent years, even denied, especially by the “modern” Indians. Constitutionally, caste-based discrimination is abolished, but socially, it is practised as openly, and somewhat shamelessly, as it always has been and reflects a different reality to the radical statement of the modern-day Indian youth.
Having said that, in my experience, the caste-based discrimination among Indians living in the West is far greater than those living in India’s urban settings. The migrators who left the subcontinent decades ago held onto the ancient and un-progressive order they were born into like an infant onto its mother’s bosom. In many cases, minimal to none social integration, or interaction with the indigenous population meant further isolation from the progressive mindset, one which India’s youth wholeheartedly adopted and want to perpetuate. The mindset I gradually started to embrace by mentally shedding the upper caste skin. I don’t remember having interactions around religon or caste. I mildly lived that life in my home, around family who had their own cultural beliefs, but without being imposed upon. We had discussions in the house, but never foisting of ideologies. A pleasantly secular household. I had freedom to make choices in life. I was like a pampered child who was left loose in a sweet shop. Perhaps, that was partly the reason I felt ill-prepared for a world beyond my childhood, a world where freedom was not considered a birth-right.
My friends were from all faiths, castes and genders. There was no fear about anything in my life that was being shaped in the same pre-dominantly Hindu and casteist society. We discussed everything under the sky, except our differences. For a girl like me, stepping into the Indian life of Britain was like stepping into a world I did not grow up knowing. Even my parents did not grow up knowing that world. This might have been a world somewhat before theirs.
British Indian society, I felt, was a sort of strange concoction of desi and fringed native, an impotent east-west cocktail with illogical, uncompromising values at its core. The elders were unwilling to adapt, leaving their offsprings in a state of utter confusion. The result was sheer misery for many. Casteism, plus racism, combined with ever-present misogynistic attitude and double standards. This is not to say that Indians in India do not have these, but they can be excused for not having lived in the West where there is far greater equality. How can one enjoy the freedom that western life offers, but be unwilling to relinquish the life alien to the free world?
Some elders go as far as making their kids feel guilty by loudly reminiscing their own marriages to their uncles’ and aunts’ family relations, skipping one gotra, as they say. If kids had any sense, or freedom to that sense, they would argue back by calling it ‘marrying a second cousin’. So, the elders not only want their children to marry in the same caste, but in the same family too, if they can help it. Familyism?
Intercaste interactions will, despite the brainwashing and emotional blackmailing, occur. They have been happening for centuries. But, somehow, such interactions seem less in a familial situation than in the realms of matrimony or out-of-family friendships. Marrying outside the caste is still seen as an unacceptable, and somewhat shameful, act. One elder actually told me that her entire family had to relocate to another city, cutting off all the neighbourhood ties, because the daughter brought shame on the family by marrying a, what she described as, a lower caste man. This elder would never mention her daughter’s married surname to people because of the shame factor.
This is another thing… In Indian families, even if you leave the caste, the caste doesn’t leave you. It’s attached in the form of your surname. This whole ‘shame’ concept is simply incomprehensible to me, especially when families living in England engage in this kind of nonsense, but I also know that it’s a culturally inherent trait that has to be dealt at grass-roots level. It is almost like no one wants to steer the boat that faces the tide.
Each caste is happily or unhappily a part of this very complex network of occupational inter-dependence. This is a chain where every unit plays a designated role. You break that link, the whole network is affected. So, when the modern youth starts uttering liberal platitudes, he has to think about which section of the matrix he should first snap in order for the system to respond positively to bring about the much-required change.
What remains to be seen is how long can a system, which took thousands of years to evolve and perfect to this degree of inter-exploitation, be changed within the lifetime of any of those alive!
Will that change be internal, or will it only be a superficial victory?
I have admired Dr. David Campany since the time I read his book, The Open Road: Photography & the American Road Trip. Little did I know at the time that he was to be the future teacher of my daughter.
Sophie (Malavika) brings a book titled Photography and Cinema authored by Campany and says, “I am making notes from this book.”
“Oh,” I ask, “What led you to Campany?”
“Campany himself. He taught us today.”
“Of course.” It hit me then. He’s Sophie’s faculty.
THE David Campany is the professor at her university.
These kids are so so so damn lucky. To be taught by him and his colleagues. So much knowledge these brilliant minds have accumulated between them.
Sophie really couldn’t appreciate my excitement. In due course she will. She’s still very young.
The guy is an academic genius. I absolutely adore him. He is famous in not the literal sense of the word, but he is famous in the circle that matters to me. Understated star of the photography’s academic world. Most iconic photographers pale in comparison because they don’t understand the language of photography. They only create captivating photographs. Campany has mastered the language. Photography is more than pleasing photos. It’s a concept, an idea, an exploration.
I wish I were his student. I am, kind of. I regularly read his work. Ask him questions from time to time. He is aware I’m a follower of his work, an avid reader of his books. He doesn’t know his student is that fan’s daughter. Typical youngster, Sophie, wants to keep her personal life away from her peers and teachers. Though, she proudly does end up mentioning and introducing me to her circle as we tend to bump into each other at galleries. They think I am her friend. Campany might perhaps have noticed a similarity in our facial features, and one day he might connect the dots.
In the meantime, I want to share an excerpt from one of his works that I have personally enjoyed reading.
Photographs are unruly, anarchic things. They never do quite what you expect. This may appear an odd claim, given that most photos seem to be so obvious, clichéd even. Don’t they perform reliably enough in advertising, documentary and the family album? Yes and no. In many cases it is really the accompanying words that make them reliable. Captions, titles, commentary. What we read will shape and direct the possibilities in what we see. Deprive images of language and they soon revert to ambiguity. Try covering the text in this magazine and see if it is possible to figure out what’s going on.
Or, take a look at the first image reproduced above. You probably have already. Clearly, it’s not a sunset or a selfie. What are you actually seeing? How are your eyes moving around this image? Are you searching for clues? Is it a landscape? A microscopic view? Is it a document? An artwork? It is almost impossible to know what this photograph is of, let alone what it might mean. In calling for explanation, a photograph like this can make us feel the gap between looking, reading and knowing. I am a curator of exhibitions, and recently I was invited to put together my “dream show”. That’s a phrase to raise the eyebrow of any Freudian, but I took it seriously. What could such an exhibition be? Nobody wants to see artists’ corny interpretations of their dreams. That would be almost as tedious as hearing your partner recount theirs over breakfast (it is for good reason that we pay analysts to listen). Dreams are untroubled by conscience or decorum. You are “innocent when you dream”, as Tom Waits once sang. A dream will defy the logic of time and space, too: things from an almost-forgotten holiday combine with yesterday’s trip to the cinema. Moreover, there is often no obvious connection between what is dreamt and what it might mean. This is not unlike our initial responses to images. In those moments before we switch from free-associative looking to the authority of words, we are free to react as our impulses take us. We intuit that an image cannot carry a message the way a truck carries coal, and so we are not held by rational thought. Why not begin an exhibition with that particularly odd photograph? It’s an image so wide open it could mean almost anything, or nothing. A risky start. I shall tell you a little about the photograph. In 1920, the artist Man Ray was visiting his friend, Marcel Duchamp, in his studio on Broadway, Manhattan. Man Ray had little money and was complaining to Duchamp that a rich collector wanted him to photograph her artworks. He was learning how to use a camera to document his own paintings and sculptures but in his memoir he recalls: “The thought of photographing the art of others was repugnant to me, beneath my dignity as an artist.” Duchamp suggested his own latest, unfinished artwork might be something upon which Man Ray could practise. Duchamp’s piece would become known as “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” (1915-1923), one of the most notorious and arcane works in all art history. It comprises two vertical glass panels sandwiching a diagram drawn in molten lead lines, and it may or may not be an allegory of sexual relations. But on that day in 1920, it was just a flat surface, covered in New York dust. Man Ray recalled: “Looking down on the work as I focused the camera, it appeared like some strange landscape from a bird’s-eye view.” Relocating to Paris, Man Ray took the photograph with him. Surrealism, with its interest in the unconscious and the uncanny, was blooming. In October 1922, the same image was published in a little journal with a deliberately misleading caption: “View from an aeroplane” (it would later be retitled “Elevage de poussière” and translated as “Dust breeding”). Seeing Earth from above is disorienting, but wartime aerial reconnaissance photographs had already become common currency in newspapers and magazines. Devastated cities have an unsettling beauty. Meanwhile, many avant-garde photographers were starting to shoot unexpected subject matter from new angles, attempting to revolutionise perception itself. Also in October 1922, TS Eliot published The Waste Land. The great dream-like poem of the interwar era picks over the rubble of western civilisation like a literary detective, stacking up quotations and allusions as fragments of evidence. “I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” warns Eliot. To many writers and artists of the 1920s the ideal of a rational, stable order was looking more like a fantasy. What if The Waste Land and Man Ray’s photograph of dust, appearing that same month, were harbingers of the ensuing century? This would be the theme of my exhibition. Any photographer will tell you that dust has a double-edged relation to the camera. It must be kept well away from the equipment but it is deeply photogenic. Floating in the air, dust motes catch the light, and settle on hard surfaces as a soft glow. There is also something universal about dust. We come from it, go to it and create it daily. So, an image of dust, even one as obscure as Man Ray’s, is likely to have all manner of resonances and associations. Some will be yours only, but many will be shared, from the epic scale of the aerial view and the abstract landscape, to the close-up world of forensic imaging. Beyond these associations many artists have explored the idea of dust as material and metaphor, with its allusions to time, mortality and ruin. For example, in the early 1970s the Californian John Divola began breaking into disused houses and turning arty vandal with knife, aerosol can, string and cardboard.
He would make mysterious, ritualistic interventions in the corners of rooms and then photograph them. Rich in narrative implication, his images slip between forensics, performance art, sculpture and fine art photography. The visual and conceptual similarity to the Man Ray photograph is striking. A little later, the French artist Robert Filliou had himself photographed cleaning (without permission) the dust from 100 artworks in the Louvre.
A Polaroid and a stained white cloth from each painting was put in a small open box and exhibited. Filliou even suggested, teasingly, that the aura of these paintings vanished with the dust’s removal. More recently, Eva Stenram placed under her bed colour negatives of the first images sent by Nasa from the surface of Mars, and allowed balls of dust to gather on them before making prints. The cosmic and the domestic implications of dust are conflated.
Even when images of dust are thoroughly earthbound they can be other-worldly. Jeff Mermelstein is a street photographer in the classic mould: New York is his beat and he’s ready for the unexpected. He was out shooting that September morning when the Twin Towers were struck. His shot of a public sculpture in a powdered avenue near Wall Street is both urgent and entirely dream-like. He wrote shortly after the event: “I don’t really remember finding that statue covered in debris. I’m not a war photographer, so this wasn’t an easy experience for me. The constantly shattering glass was terrifying and distracting, and my camera kept getting completely covered in ash. But because for years I have been taking documentary pictures of New Yorkers out on the sidewalks, there is a way in which I was prepared.”
The most remarkable extension of Man Ray’s photograph was made by Sophie Ristelhueber. In 1991, the French artist visited the deserts of Kuwait. Allied forces had pushed Saddam’s invading army back into Iraq, and Ristelhueber wanted to see, for herself, the traces left behind. Tanks, personal belongings, and long trenches dug into the sand. She photographed on foot and from the air, always looking down as if surveying the ground before her. The resulting photographic series was titled “Fait”, meaning both “fact” and “done”. In a short text, Ristelhueber revealed her inspiration: “By shifting from the air to the ground, I sought to destroy any notion of scale as in Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Dust Breeding’.” It’s a picture that fascinates me and that I kept in my mind throughout the time I was working out there. The constant shift between the infinitely big and the infinitely small may disorientate the spectator. But it is a good illustration of our relationship to the world: we have at our disposal modern techniques for seeing everything, apprehending everything, yet we see nothing.”
Ristelhueber kept one image back, thinking it looked too much like its inspiration. In 2007 she printed it as a single work, titled “À cause de l’élevage de poussière” (Because of the dust breeding). It is a striking photograph, and its genesis speaks volumes about the unpredictable effects that images can have upon us. An artist photographs an ex-war zone and her visual template is a peculiar, semi-abstract view of a half-finished artwork made 70 years earlier, on another continent. No logic can account for that. We don’t file images in our minds the way they are filed in an archive, or searched for online. Words will not come close to accounting for the madness of images.
There has been a sad shift from art being created to it being questioned. The photographs were meant to be created as visual delights. A new process, technique, or aesthetic appeal. Words were for writers as they didn’t paint. They explained in thousand words what a photographer could in one frame.
Then came the period of mass-manufacturing of cameras and photographers – the wave of ‘every person is a photographer’.
So if everyone is photographing the Stonehenge, then someone who is making a big deal out of photography will now need to concoct some cock-and-bull to somehow convince the world that only their photograph of the monument is worth hanging on the museum and living room walls over the millions of other photographers’ images of the same scene.
That’s all it takes.
People are attracted to the poorly lit/composed image because they are made to believe it’s created that way on purpose, for a reason. It’s deliberately pixelated, and not because the amateur forgot to adjust the camera settings…. The Mosaicy Feel – first ever. Even a bad day of photography got sold.
This not only compromises the effort of a real genius, but also encourages mediocrity as those who shout the loudest get heard, get sold. Mediocrity rules.
Though, a few geniuses have learnt to shout too. The professionals are having to adapt.
If my photographs are good enough, then why am I not considered close enough? How did Capa get away with it then?
I’m far from being a genius, but also far from being a mediocre. So, if an image I create evokes awe, then why do I need to explain it?
Should my answer to why something was photographed be not as straightforward as Mallory’s reason for wanting to summit Mount Everest?
Thousands of people pouring in and out of London. Escalators, like conveyor belts, transporting people in all directions. Men, women, transgenders, children, all looking only ahead. Some carry coffee/tea mugs in one hand and Metro in the other. There is absolutely no eye contact but every person is aware of their surrounding and the presence of others as they glide, wriggle, dodge, walk past without knocking into anyone. The whole scene looks like an alien experiment designed to study human behaviour after being injected with a soul-sucking drug. We seem to be all alone together. I am dispassionately humming Abba and switching to The Kinks’ eponymous number.
A piano busker comes into my view. He is playing and singing The Long and Winding Road that echoes in the tunnel. And as if the alien drug injected in me wore off just then….I feel a stabbing pain in my heart. My soul wakes up and moistens my eyes. Tears roll down my cheeks like broken string of pearls.
McCartney wrote every single word for me it seemed as I walk past the pianist, mouthing the song as it peters out…
Many times I’ve been alone, and many times I’ve cried.
Anyway, you’ll never know the many ways I’ve tried.