Twelve Years to Create a Photograph

Akshay Giri begins Aarti in the early morning inside their tented encampment: Kumbh Mela, Prayag

I am a photographer who is prepared to wait, to be patient and not to rush into certain situations. In my experience it is sometimes so much more worthwhile not to pursue a photograph the instant I find myself in a situation where the possibility may arise, however tempting it might be. I just have to believe that a better picture can be attained by investing the time to achieve it.

My instinct is first to leave the camera in the bag and set about building a relationship based on respect and reassurance. Through that relationship I accumulate knowledge and a deeper understanding of my subject in order to create honest, meaningful photos as a true reflection of the story, lifestyle or person I wish to portray.

I tend to avoid pointing a camera at someone I don’t understand or have made absolutely no connection with. If it’s a level of intimacy, impact and depth you want in an image then I advise you to overlook the temptation to snatch photos from a safe distance with a long lens. It is simply fear, a sense of awkwardness and a reluctance to overcome the challenge that actually prevents many people with cameras engaging with a subject.  Make it a habit to put a 50mm, a 35mm or a wider angle lens on your camera and practise interacting with your subjects. I guarantee it will change the way you take photos and for the better.

My work in India often takes me back to the same places, to the same people, not because I am compelled to repeat myself, but because I want to convey a sense of continuity and depth in my images.  Sharing life’s cycle with many of the people I photograph is a privilege and provides a fascinating and rewarding dimension to what I do.

I have just returned from my fourth visit to a Kumbh Mela, the festival that celebrates the Hindu myth of creation and which is often defined by its sheer scale as well as the huge number of devotees it attracts. In amongst the vast tented city set out on the flood plain of the Ganges, near Allahabad, I was able to find some acquaintances and faces, from years past. Just the simple gesture of being recognised or welcomed into a tented encampment by a familiar sadhu made the whole experience that much more meaningful and profound. I was able to share tea and a meal on many occasions, rest up for a few hours and sleep the night in the tents of those sadhus we knew of old. These points of contact helped anchor our time there, make greater sense of the festival itself and allowed me the opportunity to create the pictures that I wanted.

It was of course not always like this. When I visited the Kumbh in early 2001 l was initially so overwhelmed by the event I just did not know where to begin. In an attempt to make some sense of our surroundings we decided to talk to as many people as we could.

Along one of the main thoroughfares we introduced ourselves to a fearsome looking, big bellied sadhu simply because we noticed he came from a town in Punjab not far from where my assistant lived. We instantly had something in common and it soon became obvious that his rather intimidating appearance belied his character. Hardwar Giri, spoke gently and offered us prasad.

From that time on we made it a habit to visit him as part of our routine trek across the huge festival grounds. We usually found him sitting by a makeshift fire outside the gaping flap of his tent. Naked but for a skirt-like cloth around his waist, his hair fell in long thick strands to the floor. Like a painted warrior, he had a large saffron-orange tika smeared on his forehead with similar marks by his ears. He wore a mala of large rudraksha beads around his neck. He always seemed to be surrounded by a crowd, his encampment, an area of constant activity. I sat amidst it all, observing the goings on and I began to regard him as a figure of great authority and spiritual stature. He was very strict with junior members of his sadhu fraternity but he enjoyed their affection and respect. It was obvious he was a senior player in the akhara to which he belonged. I enjoyed his company and grew fond of his commanding yet beguiling presence. However, much to my regret I never made a descent photograph of him, although I tried several times. I reassured myself that there would be a next time and embarked on other projects.

Nine years later I was back at the Kumbh Mela, this time in Hardwar, and naturally one of the first things we did was to seek out our friend. It didn’t take long but what we found was not what we expected. He greeted us as he lay on his side by a smoky fire. He looked weak and torpid, coughing loudly, he seemed to have lost all his vitality. His chela, Vasu Dev Giri, who looked worried and drawn, confirmed to us his guru was seriously ill. We visited their tent several times but we noticed little improvement in our sadhu’s health. Again I didn’t make a photograph as I felt, given his condition, it was wholly inappropriate to try. I reassured myself there would be many opportunities in the future. In fact I believed the next opportunity was just around the corner because I had promised to visit the dera on our return to the Punjab in a few weeks time.

As I walked through the gate of their home and dera I imagined catching sight of his smiling face, confidant that he had made a full recovery. Yet a few paces further I was confronted with the most melancholic of sights, a freshly dug grave. Sadly, Hardwar Giri had died a few days after returning from the Kumbh and had been buried in the sadhu tradition, sitting upright alongside his guru who had died many years before. Hardwar Giri’s chela was distraught and barely coping with his loss. He had now adopted the position of his late guru and it seemed to me it would take some considerable time for him to feel comfortable in that role. Hardwar Giri would indeed be a hard act to follow.

A twelve year cycle had now been completed and the Kumbh festival was once again being held near Allahabad. The tented camp we had rather cautiously approached for the first time all those years ago was on exactly the same site. Now head of the dera, Vasu Dev Giri sat on a slightly elevated position by the fire. He had cut his hair in memory of Hardwar Giri. Dressed in saffron coloured cloth he now appeared to me a figure of quiet confidence. He offered us tea and we talked about how he still missed his late guru. It was especially poignant because this was the first Kumbh he had attended without Hardwar Giri, and he felt his absence more acutely than ever before.

This tented camp became an occasional place of refuge, a place where we could relax, away from the relentless cacophony. Within its intimate confines I was able, perhaps for the first time, to feel the true essence of this spiritual festival. The ritual and tradition I saw and shared in this small private world was a microcosm of that being practised by countless other sadhus in thousands of other encampments across the sprawling Mela ground. The significance was though I was there to record the silence, the prayers, the chatter, the laughter, the serving of food and the time honoured Hindu ways. There was nothing contrived or staged in this, merely an understanding founded on twelve years of shared experience.

Vasu Dev Giri meditates before their makeshift temple while Akshay Giri smokes a cigarette: Kumbh Mela, Prayag
Parlada Nand Giri (right) Vasu Dev Giri (middle) and Akshay Giri chant prayer songs around the dhuni or fire in the early morning: Kumbh Mela, Prayag
Akshay Giri begins Aarti in the early morning inside their tented encampment: Kumbh Mela, Prayag


Comments

Nick said...

Thanks for reading my blog post. Please let me know what you think. English only please :)

Laura said on

Wow! I love your blog, you bring not only your talent but also your compassion into your blog. I hope to read other items at a later time. I love your photo’s, they show me the way that others believe and live, this world is getting smaller and smaller and I think it is a wonderful thing to learn about every type of life there is on this small planet we call home!

Lakshmi said on

Do you have any interviews with sadhus. I believe some sadhus are aged >500 years. also what kind of daily life they live? do they live in Himalias or some caves? what is their earnings to lead life? do they really do tapasya?

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Nick Fleming Behind the Lens

Photographing Nihangs of the Baba Bakala Dal (<a href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com" target="_blank">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
Travelling with the flower man on Nageen Lake, Srinagar, Kashmir (<a href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com" target="_blank">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
Photographing in Varanasi (<a target="_blank" href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
Milan Bharti making a cup of tea, Varanasi (<a target="_blank" href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
Nick Fleming and sadhu at dawn on the ghats at Varanasi (<a target="_blank" href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
Portrait session with young sadhu during the Kumbh Mela in Hardwar (<a href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com" target="_blank">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
Taking a breather on the Armanath Yatra, Kashmir (<a href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com" target="_blank">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
Photographing while on the Armanath Yatra, Kashmir (<a href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com" target="_blank">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
Photographing in Patthar Masjid, Srinagar, Kashmir (<a href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com" target="_blank">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
On the path up to Gaumukh (<a href="http://dalbirsindia.wordpress.com" target="_blank">Photo by Dalbir Singh</a>)
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