Perched high on the seat of a pedal rickshaw, feeling like a queen of the night, I am headed home in the dark from a wonderful photo shoot across the river with Lisa, a fellow artist here at Kriti Gallery. The traffic in Varanasi is intense no matter the time of day, but night time is a bit more precarious because most bicycles and rickshaws (and even some tuktuks) have no lights. My driver is good, but even he got hung up on another rickshaw and had to get down and lift his conveyance to untangle us. Most are good natured when such incidents occur; it is just another fact of life, it seems.
Next to us, in the thick of all the traffic stopped at an intersection, is a horse! A pinto, all gussied up in wedding attire with an elaborately pompomed headdress and covered haunches. The rider is a master, keeping control and calming the horse midst the craziness (and he doesn’t even have his feet in stirrups). Believe me, traffic is loud and aggressive…and yet here we all are going our own ways.
This is a photo of a similarly attired animal. Horses are conditioned to stand in heavy traffic for hour upon hour during wedding processions. This horse and his partner have been standing near our gate with LOUD music blaring for two and a half hours, and they are still here (I am going to bed!)
So I am musing on this vision so I can relate it to you, since, of course, I have no camera, when I look to my right and see something even more extraordinary: An ELEPHANT. It is majestically walking down the noisy boulevard, rider on top, with no fanfare whatsoever.
Life is a parade here. Especially in the evening, when lighted apparati are held high by troupes of dalits all connected to a generator by electric cords strung from one person to the next. These walking fairs have been a nightly event outside our gate. Weddings and political festivities. I moseyed over to the side street where many very loud musical pieces were being played all at once, both loudspeaker recordings and live music. So much noise I had to investigate. It is the orange hat party, maybe Modi? Some distinguished looking men in their orange pagadis smiling and looking, well, distinguished. The comparison of the parade workers holding lamps atop their heads for hours and these men in their finery is thought provoking.
The caste system is certainly alive and well, and from what I read recently, superiority of the Brahmin has been questioned from times clear back to the Buddha (https://tricycle.org/author/krishnan-venkatesh/). Without a trained eye for this matter, mostly I just see lots of people, and cannot distinguish caste. Maybe I am primarily seeing people of the street, and they are of the lower groupings. Still, I am working with a couple of men who are well enough off to have the time to help me and they seem unaffected in dealing with the castes. I have been told caste is not an appropriate topic of conversation, so I have not mentioned it, but I am certainly curious.
Well, it is best to start slowly, just like walking up to wildlife. Which is just what happened, albeit not by plan.
The photography session starts with him wearing a T-shirt that has a “despicable” (cute) on it and his jockey-style under shorts. After an initial shoot, off comes the T-shirt. But still the line of the langot is compromised by the jockies. Not good. Next, we change the back drop so it fully screens him and will create a back lit shadow dance– that is if he is comfortable stripping down under these conditions. He agrees, and I make a video of his shadow tying on the langot. Now he is comfortable enough with the situation… We replace the front fabric so that he is fully visible and I get some really beautiful images of him putting the garment.
Whew! I was really concerned that I was going to have to live with the jockies…
Imagine this: up before daylight and on the streets to catch a tuktuk while the boulevards still sleep. By the time you arrive at the chowk on the northern end of the Ghats, the dawn has broken, and you have chai and buttered toast with the locals. The narrow alleys of the mohallas are still dark, but looking up, strips of skylight catch the eye like glinting silver.
In the shadowed passages, people begin to appear, at first just a few, but you know that soon it will be bustling.
Emerging into light, you look down on the ghats to see the long shadows of morning. It is said that one needs to come every day to the ghats at dawn to know Varanasi. It is the time of pujas and bathing milk men, sweepers and snake charmers. Banners of laundry celebrate the new day. No stalls are open, and it is almost quiet.
As Petra and I continue toward our breakfast at Aum Cafe, I learn that the oil paints artistically inclined “foreigners” are using to cat-spray ghat walls degrade not only the visuals, but the structure of the walls. I see illegal building going on, and men carrying garbage to dump in the river. There is one portion of the river bank that is meticulous in its grooming, with nicely raked and sand and stones planted just so. It is in front of an extreme right-leaning school, and is a gambit so that the politicos can say how they are cleaning up the Ganges. And there is a very fancy hotel that was renovated for tourism. Only problem is that the first two stories, including the reception area, are under water during the monsoon.
So I was told…
This is a short day, as I slept most of it! Over to Homestay for an 8:30 shoot of breakfast being served, then back again. And by 10am I am out like a light, not rising til 3pm. My goodness. Fortunately lunch was saved for me.
We set up my staging area for the No Stitches shoot, and it is a good thing that I decided on a different fabric. Once washed and ironed, the muslin has weaving-induced stripes that are quite distracting. Soon, the new fabric, and then I will be photographing!
Not that my camera has been idle. Aside from the street photography that is inevitable here, I found some seed pods that are a real trip. Petra called them some kind of almond…what do I know?? The pods are evocative. Happily, I brought a piece of black velvet, and I am trying to capture thier sensuality. Pictures to come!!
My query for today is about self image. The women here mostly wear saris, which reveal their abdomens. It matters not about weight, or stretch marks, or tone. It is what they wear. But the saris are so stunning, and much (this is a question) thought must go into the choice of fabric. And these often bejeweled women seem to care very much about how they look. So is there a different beauty standard? Are Indians less concerned about aging? Or is there a class that is as youth oriented as we Westerners, and I just don’t see them? I know, I know: who cares!
Oh, I almost forgot about my day’s lesson. When crossing a very busy street, or any street, for that matter, DO NOT STOP, HESITATE, NOR REVERSE MOVEMENT. I alsmost got creamed today because I looked up and saw a bicycle bearing down on me and adjusted. WRONG! He was adept at traffic and had begun alter his course according to my predictive movement. He and I are now in the same place, at the same time. We somehow avoid pain, but contact was made. JUST KEEP GOING. The drivers here deal with what is in front of them and gauge by movement.
Today was magical. I got lost and ended up exactly where I wanted to be, but didn’t know it. Ah, Varanasi.
Awakened several times in the predawn morning by the din of monkeys frolicking on the roof accompanied by barking dogs, when I do get up, I am drowsy. In fact the lethargy is so bad that I can’t even bring myself to make coffee! However, I can’t indulge my torpor as there is much too much to do today.
First on the agenda is my initial photographic foray over to Homestay. Making friends with with Reena, the young Dalit woman who sweeps and cleans the toilets, is easier than I thought it would be. She is lovely, and of course shy around the camera, but that is no surprise. What is a surprise is how pleased she is to be included. I noticed her smiling at me with recognition when we were staying there last week, but today was really fun. I love the cooperative nature of this kind of work, and the opening it can provide for cross cultural communication.
Since the game plan has changed from my original idea of photographing the same seven people everyday, the pace of everything is much more natural…and a lot more fun for everyone involved. It was a challenge for me to renege on a project where others had already put in time, but it was to no one’s benefit to continue down a path of duty rather than inspiration.
Lisa, one of the resident artists here at Kriti, said that her first residency had some parallels. She fairly tightly planned her project, and then realized that it made sense when she was at home in Australia, but in Seoul, where she was at that time, it no longer was pertinent. So she too altered her direction and freed herself up to create an extraordinary sounding performance piece.
At Homestay, Malika and her house girls pose for a fairly formal portrait in the kitchen, and so far it looks to be a good image. I like the idea of combining an editorial image with some candid shots, so tomorrow I will return for the serving of breakfast. Hopefully the three Indian women with whom we shared dinner last night will be there. They were good company, and aside from feeling comfortable with them, I want to hear how their day excursion to Bhod Gaya was. Up and back in one day! Whew. Too much for me, of this there is no doubt. And they are not young.
The remainder of the day is primarily spent setting up the (perfect) poles that Chandu and Hari brought for my photo set, and getting the correct fabric for the screen portion. The muslin I got a couple of days ago is a bit too opaque and this morning I found a sheer cotton, but it is very white and will have to be dyed. The man who will see to the dying, the same man from whom we purchased the incredibly beautiful silk scarves last year, stopped by Kriti. I get on his motorcycle and we buzz down to the Khanda fabric store. He is sooooooo careful driving that it takes forever to get there.
And now for the magic of Varanasi. I decide to walk home. I follow Petra’s instructions, turning right after the second Petrol station. A couple hundred yards later, I realize that I don’t see much that is familiar, but it seems I can’t go too wrong, so I keep walking, hoping to find a primary boulevard. Pretty soon the street “T”s, and I turn right again, as per my instructions. After a while I find myself in a world of very small houses, and it seems I have found another realm, a quiet enclave within this bustling modern city. Tiny shops, but mostly homes band the dirt roadway like the decorative ribbon on the edges of many Indian garments.
There is a quality here that I like. Even so, a subtle cognition alerts me that I am outside the places where tourists venture and I must admit I am a bit lost. I know I will feel more comfortable if I have an exit plan so I look for my cell phone with the gps that will show where I am and also point me toward Kriti. But guess what! I don’t have it. Hmm.
Continuing down the road, I tuck my SLR into my bag. It just doesn’t seem like the right place to flaunt an expensive camera. Now I am just walking around looking, looking. The one story buildings are mostly painted bright colors, and many have people in front. Most of the people pay me no obvious heed, but I look to my left and see a woman smiling at me. I look again. It is Reena! At home. I cannot say how much I have thought about how to conclude my photo essay about Homestay by seeing where the people who work there live. And here is Reena. It really is amazing that in all of Varanasi, which is very big, I walk down her street.
Of course she is OK with me making images of her, even gracious…although most of the people here, especially the women, clearly don’t want me photographing them. They cover their faces or get up and leave if I point the camera with my gesture of asking permission. The exception is Reena’s neighbor. He hams it up to a point a little close to crazy. I obliged him with a few exposures and then am on my way after asking how to get out.
Moving forward in my peregrinations, I am greeted with a sight familiar from my Tibetan adventures. Cow dung patties. But here it seems building are made of them. I think every spare space is used for drying this fuel, and there is plenty of it as I have stumbled upon a “ranch.” Or actually several of them. Many cattle, mostly tethered, and barns. It is quite a surprise. Once again, the camera comes out and I get a couple of reference shots.
Upon reaching a busy commercial street, I wonder out to the traffic controller and try to pronounce Mahmoor Ganj. I don’t say it well, but he understands and points to the direction I should go. I walk a few steps and realize I am exactly where I started: at the fabric shop. Hilarious. I have just walked a huge circle.
I head out again and make a turn one block past the place I turned on my original endeavor, and I am on the right road. All is well and I am home in no time.
Back at the Gallery, I tell Petra about my day and she informs me that until about 15 years ago, the place where I found Reena had been a separate little village, surrounded by mango plantations. The house of her in-laws, right next to the gallery, was surrounded by groves as well.
I am very happy today. Content. I have help with my project, and not only that, I am liking it a lot.
The working title is WITHOUT STITCHES, Many people in India wear clothing that is kept in place not by buttons or zippers, but by folds. It can be underwear (langot), skirt (lungi), pants (dhoti) or dress (sari). It turns out tradition has it that fabric that has been punctured (or knotted?) is impure, thus these swaths of fabric are tucked into place in a manner so that they stay on. This also explains the intricate patterns woven into the fabric, rather than the use of embroidery for embellishment.
That these garments do not unravel is astonishing to me as just wrapping a towel around my body and rolling the top part over, which seems should work just fine, renders me naked in no time. People wearing these garments work in them, like sweeping streets or cooking or shopping or whatever and they don’t lose them. How is this?
When I asked a couple of people about it they made hand motions that looked a lot like dance to me…hence this project was born: The Dance of No Stitches.
I have purchased some muslin to create my back drop and two banners which will be stretched laterally with a space between top and bottom to reveal only torsos. This way faces will not be seen, and models do not have to worry. And, with full assistance from Chandu and Hari, we have located poles to rent (VERY PRICEY) that will be the structure from which the fabric is suspended. So the scene is set. Now Chandu and Hari will proceed to find my subjects. These hopefully will be real people, with a mix of body shapes and ages.
I think we start on Wednesday, with installation of the set on Tuesday, and a trial shoot. My only sadness is that I do not have my Hassey with me. This should be a film based project, but digital will have to suffice.
It is a beautiful day in Delhi, and it is the day we have come here for. Judith’s final interview with Vipin Bhardwaj, the head Pujara for this month at the Kalka Ji Temple in Delhi, is this afternoon. (Judith’s books deal with religion and modernity, and Vipin is a highly spiritual man with some pretty interesting ideas.)
But before we go there, we head towards the Lhodi Gardens, which turns out to be the sight of some unique two-story looking tombs that are really single chambers. The grounds are beautiful, with caretakers every where one looks. Also yoga classes abound. I bump into an extraordinary pair of dedicated athletes who partake in a sport called parkour. As I frame an image of the ancient tomb, I see on the monitor a man in a blue shirt doing push-ups with his hands on the ground and his feet up a couple of steps on the center entry. Quite impressed, I ask if I might make a few exposures while he is exercising. Round the corner comes another blue shirt, the wearer asks if she too may join the photo shoot. She is now in a plank position spanning the width of the entry. She is strong, flexible and beautiful. So, of course I spend more time photographing her. (Pictures to come, I assure you.)
There is another ancient tomb in a different part of the garden, and it is there that I encounter a group of boys who want me to take their picture, and I do. Afterwards, what they tell me they really want is a picture of me with them. I of course, comply. Hopefully they will receive the email I just sent.
After tea in a lovely garden setting near the Park, we stop by Humayan’s tomb, the final resting place of many, but the big deal dude is the father of Shaw Jihan, of Taj Mahal fame. The lineage of the Taj is apparent. Not at all as perfect, it is non-the-less spectacular, and very well attended. Lines of school children, all very well behaved, garland the grounds, waiting to enter. They, too, want me to take thier pictures. So, I do..
And now for the Kalka Ji.
Pictures to come
Well, first off it was raining in Delhi – hard, which meant NO SMOG! That lasted for a day after we landed, and what a treat! The next real treat was our driver, Bittoo. A charming man who’s car is clean and he is caring. He looked after us and basically became part of our entourage.
At first blush, our accommodations were sorely lacking. The Delhi B&B has no pretensions what so ever. Warn furniture, odd decorations – a life size baby doll, lying askew on the back of a sofa, that startled me every time I entered the dining/living room – and apparently random arrangements of tchotchkes everywhere. But it mattered not, because it was and is the people who make the place wonderful. Ajay, the proprietor is a personable man who is helpful and kind. His son Ashu is the tech wizard and a real sweetie. And then their is Ram, the 108 year old man who lives in the back, and was a chef in the culinary team for Nehru when he was the first Prime Minister of India. What stories Ram must have to tell….
Ajay’s lovely wife designs beautiful fancy clothing and Ashu runs her garment business. I met the daughter just as I was leaving for the airport, but she, too, seems smart and competent.
At Ajay’s suggestion we decided to spring for a driver, and that was certainly the right choice. We were escorted to our desired destinations, and did not need to haggle with taxi drivers, nor ever worry about returning home. And Bittoo, our driver, also had suggestions to enrich our time. We wouldn’t have gone to the Lotus temple without him, and for my tastes it is one of the most beautiful buildings anywhere. He also turned us on to a great tea shop in the Lhodi Gardens. On the practical end, he translated for us at the Apple store, where Judith went for some iPhone help. We couldn’t have even found the place without him guiding us.
While sight seeing was fun, our purpose in going to Delhi was not for tourism, but work.
Judith was finishing up her interview with Vipin Bhardwaj, whose family has been responsible for the Kalka Ji Temple forever. While Vipin is a formidable presence, he is generous, kind, and accommodating. Not only that, he sparkles. We had the great honor of observing him in the role of chief Pujara for evening ceremonies at Kalka Ji, right thru closing. Kalka Ji is one of the largest and oldest temples in Delhi. It is not even slightly westernized. Imagine crowds and color and noise…lots of noise.
Just purchased the last tickets….those from Dehli to Varanasi and back.
We will fly from San Francisco to London for a brief layover and a play: KINKY BOOTS.
Hopefully we will have time to go out to Claire Ptak’s Violet Bakery before heading back to Heathrow and then on to Delhi. That’s the plan, plus the Tate.
Claire is a former Inverness resident, and has really made a splash in the foodie world.
It has been wonderful to watch her talents blossom.