Open your phone. Go to the photo gallery. See the last 10 photographs. No – not the last 10 pictures but photographs.
How many of them hold meaning?
Literature and history are full of experts and critiques defining a photograph. The world of today has made its way through the complexities of their words and myriads of their thoughts. Taking a picture is common folk. Everyone does it and why not. Technology allows it, apps glorify it, softwares ease out dodge and burn techniques and huge hoardings advertise the awesome photographs made by phone users across the world.
Personally I am averse to taking pictures randomly. I retort in the most haughtiest of fashions when I am asked to click selfies and photos of any near and dear ones. Of course I do as a part of my profession – I am an events and wedding photographer, but commerce needs to over rule the heart. However, in the weekly meetings of a professional networking group of which I am a part, I am expected to photograph the acclaimed folks every week and I get called out for it. Just that when I get called out, I am mostly in my most despicable avatar.
But what do photographs stand for. I have been asked many a times as to why wouldn’t I participate in a selfie exercise or click random photos of anyone.
The photos that you see as part of this blog post are from two recent vacations. In both I was with my closest. And these are the photographs that I could create. When I look at them, I smile. They give me joy. These are people close to me. Each photograph has a moment attached to it. Its a record; a happening of my life; an event or its precursor. This is not random. Nothing in my photography is random. Not even my weakest photograph(s).
It was exactly a year back when I stepped foot on the famous Juhu Beach in Mumbai. We were on a family vacation and chose to stay at the Ramada Plaza – Juhu which opens into the beach. As I walked on the beach, I saw two policemen, on a bike, racing amidst the crowd blowing the bike horn in great urgency. I looked around to see an imaginary law and order issue which needed an immediate solution, but had to contend with nothing.
As I looked around and the evening grew into the night, an entirely new world emerged as the evening set in. Countless hawkers selling their foods and wares; beach photographers with indigenous apparatus that prints photos in a minute hog the beach to make a quick buck; the nearby eatery bustling with cries of who’s better than who; families sitting on rented mats eating out of their hampers occasionally mixing it with the foods from the stalls. The next morning I saw a completely new face to the beach with the same places of the night converting into jogging tracks, cricket squares and football grounds.
It was an ecosystem coming ṭo life – full of elements borne and bred by the beach.
The beach is many things to many. By the time that my first visit came to an end, I was taken in by the charm of the beach. One morning I came to the beach to witness selections for stunt men for the Indian Film Industry. Aspirants waited for their chance to be tested in mock fights replete with dishooms and aaaahs.
Another day I walked right into the middle of a football match and was promptly ejected of the ‘field’. During my monsoon visit I was appalled at the waste. I was later told that this was a result of human apathy and is a yearly affair. And how can I forget the morning singer wearing a black t shirt, shorts and goggles!! He had these huge headphones on his ears & sang Salman Khan songs to an amused crowd around him.
And while I noticed the umpteen number of relationships blooming and breaking on the beach; they deserve their space. After all its the maximum city – it has space for everyone.
As the pictures grew I decided to put them together in a form. And this came Ecosystem to print. Printed at and by PhotoJaanic, the wonderful photo printing company based in Goa, the book was delivered at my doorstep in three days flat after ordering. The site offers great options of laying out your prints in individual or book form, has some good paper options. The printing is neat and the shipping is full of care.
50 kilometres from Pune, lies the small district of Mulshi, a popular ecotourism zone, especially in monsoons. Punekars (and other tourists) flock to Mushi and its popular road waterfalls and resorts for a quick get-away.
On a day devoid of the sun and replete from the rain, Mulshi is heaven. The roads are washed black, the trees painted green. Winds rustle the leaves to make music. One can drive down the long winding roads for hours admiring the landscape of cut hills and small peaks. A general tendency of the traveller here is to stop the vehicle on the side of the road to either enjoy the waterfall or a snack or a beer to keep the spirit high.
But for the lucky, Kaa is always in the Jungle!!!
A friend told me about a jungle – untouched and uncut. “It has its own legend”, is what she said, as we drove into Mulshi.
The Devarai Forest is near a village in Mulshi, just off the main highway before the turn to Pimpri. To reach the forest, one needs to walk through the fields of the common folk, cross a couple of small rivers on foot, both of which were in full flow during the monsoon. Not sure of the way, we sought help from a lad from the village. He dropped us near the second river, but would go no further.
We saw a house, abandoned and moss laden – thick and green in colour. We walked by the house and voila!!! We entered a most dense settlement of trees. A completely new world was in front – leaving behind the vast fields and the flowing Mutha river. Just a few steps and I was inside!! Not sure about Meri and Pippin; but I had the same look on my face as Aragorn, Legolas and Gimli when they entered the Fangorn Forest.
I never really had many opportunities to go into a forest. As a kid journeys to National Parks and Forests were limited. My parents preferred visiting cities and beaches. When I grew up I inhabited the same likings. Consequently, standing in a dense forest surrounded by trees was a unique feeling. I was out of my comfort zone.
The trees were old. In their grown up years some of them must have fought with each other…their branches tangled in a permanent arm twist. Some must have been friends…lovers maybe too…they bent and stood the same way. They were tall – even lifting my head I could not fathom the top of the tree. I needed a Bilbo moment when he climbs the tree to find the direction to the Lonely Mountain.
Legend goes that the forest was protected by a Goddess who pronounced that if anyone cut so as much a leaf in the same, he or she would face her wrath. And hence the Devarai has seen many seasons of staying the way it was.
After sufficient exploration of the forest, we walked back, to have our lunch near the river Mutha. In a distance, a family splashed water on each other – drunk on Whisky and Coke, unaware of the tree treasure just a few steps away.
From a formally educated photographer this could be unusual. But the events leading to the thoughts mentioned are such that it is compelling for me to put this down in words.
Education doesn’t make a photographer. No amount of it can. There is enough literature within the world that talks about how photos are experiential – they are borne when the six senses of the photog come together. It is then, the photog’s fortitude to push the limits and create pictures that stun sensibilities before normalising to satisfaction.
On travel a couple of months back, I found myself managing a Lubitel. The Lubitel is a fully manual medium format camera; popularly also known as a Twin Lens Reflex. In one roll of film, one can shoot 12 square photos. One can modify a few settings in the camera to bump up the number of shots to 16, but I like it as it is – 12. To operate the Lubitel, one needs to hand-complete all activities of creating a photograph. Loading the film and winding it to a shoot – ready position, looking through the waist level viewfinder to get the composition correct without the help of grid lines, managing the exposure settings in a half imaginative state – a light meter or a digital camera help partially in pre empting what the photo would look like; is what my life became as I went about creating photographs of the trip.
Processing of these photos is done by experts. So I sent my film rolls (210 photos in 8 different films) for processing to the experts and after three weeks of waiting they handed me 92 photos. Just that. The rest were all washed out. As I peered at the photos that the agency was able to process; the sense of longing for the ones that they could not took a back seat.
As I saw these photos, the memory of the process of creating each one came back. I was in Goa in the last week of March – and that is perhaps the last week before the hot and strong summer sets in. Moving out the hotel between 10 AM and 5 PM is sacrilege. It is also sacrilege to not spending time by the pool in the same time zone. But shooting with film took me out. Armed with a bag full of film, a tungsten powered light meter and a small digital camera I rode out to places that I thought would be fit to be shot. So while beaches remained a easy go, climbing Fort Aguada and Fort Chapora in the severing heat, being chased down a small hillock that overlooks the Vagator Beach by stray dogs and losing my way and landing up in a small village while on my way to Arambol. I never reached Arambol though – turned back because at the point of losing direction I realised that I was 15 KMs away. Making a picture using a TLR attracted attention of all kinds. People stopped by, confirmed if it was the camera of the olden times; some wondered as to why would I spend time doing this if I could easily create digital pictures. Most people ask the cost.
The thing about shooting with film is that it makes a photog look at his or her trade awfully lot more closely than they would. It made me “look” and “wait”. The key to success was not to press the shutter at the wrong time – the moment had either just passed by or had not come. It made me work to getting to the place in light that mattered.
And I realised that while doing all this to create the pictures that I was, I had discovered a new face of Goa. I ventured up a hill, a fort that I had never climbed, into roads that always looked deserted and boring. I stopped near fields and small pools. I saw chapels and houses of locals. I got into a village and spent time talking to a lady about how my way was lost.
It was then a realisation that has eluded me for the most of my travelling life. It is imperative for a traveller to push the boundaries on a trip. An extra kilometre, an hour less of the normal sleep time, a conversation in the middle of no-where – might just lead to that all important moment in the trip – where you find the picture that sums it up.
To me, Nepal was a place that I could go anytime. As and when I heard about family and friends going to Nepal; “I can go anytime…Its just here!!!” is what I always thought. I was told that its fairly easy for Indians to go to Nepal – didn’t need Visa; sometime back even a passport was not required (this information may need validation). You could just show any Govt of India authorised identification card and get into Nepal. Some people get into Nepal without it as well. Nepal is easily accessible – by air and by road through the North Eastern part of UP and Bihar.
In 2015, a devastating earthquake rocked Nepal. Close to 10000 people perished and countless went missing. Sitting in my house in Pune, I could only imagine the horror of the earthquake as news channels streamed in information and visuals which brought the tragedy to my living room.
Perhaps the trigger for the trip was a late evening phone conversation with my friend and fellow Nepalese photographer, Sachindra Rajbansi, who was in Kathmandu at the time of the quake. He and his family had rushed down from their apartment when the building started swaying. He told me that after 50 days or so, things were coming back to normal and they were not as bad as they seemed.
I was puzzled. How can things be not so bad after a tragedy as horrifying as this?
I fixed a trip to Nepal with another photographer colleague Shiv Kiran. We were disaster tourists; we wanted to see the extent of the damage; the rubble on the street; people sleeping on the pavements et al. While traveling to Nepal, I wondered if there were any happy picture stories that I could bring out.
Air travel from New Delhi to Nepal is pretty smooth. There are multiple air carriers that operate flights to and fro. We booked ourselves on an Indigo Airlines flight that landed us at the Kathmandu Airport promptly in four hours post take off. For a tourist destination, Kathmandu Airport was a bit of a disappointment. Some satellite town airports in India have better airport facilities.
In the first two days of the trip we had the chance to visit the ancient city of Bhaktapur and the settlements besides the river Bungmati. I saw first-hand the destruction wrought upon the land by nature. Heaps of rubble everywhere, making small dunes that one can walk over, without even thinking that a human body could be buried inside. Beautiful ancient structures – reduced to mud and in some places standing partially on their own and partially on wooden supports, made me wonder – what did this place look like when I was a kid. I was beginning to rue my decision of not coming to Nepal earlier.
Sachindra took us to Pokhara for a couple of days. A long dusty road trip in heat gave way to an accommodation in his restaurant, Samay Restaurant, by the Phewa Lake. For a two good days we ate, slept and drank beer with the awesome staff of this lovely place that nests on the banks of the lake and has open air seating and awesome food. Samay (hindi for time) literally stands still here as the sound of the gentle water getting rocked by the oar of a boat brings tranquil to the heart. The trip had now started.
The beauty of Pokhara is in the landscape. Pokhara serves as the foot hills for the Annapurna treks and is haven for those who like a calm and rested life, whose days are accompanied by waits for evenings and evenings await the next day’s sun. I found Pokhara seeping in my senses and as time went by my desire to walk about the land, meet the locals and record these transactions became stronger.
Sachindra talks to a local farmer who asked us 500 nepali rupees when I photographed his buffalo.
Residents of Pokhara at Phewa Lake
Scenes from Pokhara
The most memorable part of the trip was the walk to a nearby village, to reach which we rode on two wheelers towards the mountains, then crossed a small river by a wire boat and then walked through the fields. The first settlements of the village greeted us with a site that for me was a never before – settlements on a mountain in front of us. The remaining of the day was spent riding across Pokhara’s small roads, visiting the Shankar temple and the Stupa. We didn’t really get to Stupa – came back as rain started to pelt down and we were in a hurry to reach back to Samay.
At the mid-way between Kathmandu and Pokhara comes a spot where the Nepali version of the thali is served. Its called the Thakali. People who love rice and meat, must stop here to relish this sumptious ensemble of unlimited rice, chicken or mutton curry, spinach vegetable and yellow dal. Down it with some coca cola and move out. All for 100 Nepali Rupees.
Back in Kathmandu, we made a trip to Patan, the second settlement in the capital city. Patan was also badly hit by the earthquake and Sachindra informed us that the place was sealed immediately after the quake and returned to operational efficiency within 48 hours. One reason of the same was the fact that Patan has a lot of precious idols and they had to be safeguarded.
One of the key highlights of the trip were the Virgin Goddesses – Kumaris of Bhakatpur and Patan. While at Bhaktapur, the Living Goddess gave us her glimpse from the window, in Patan we got audience with her in her chambers. Her father carried her to the throne and seated there she saw us for a minute or two before we moved out.
I couldn’t have completed a trip to Nepal without visiting PashupatiNath, one of the most revered shrines of Lord Shiva. Other than the architecture, I was struck by the evening aarti which is a spectacle in itself. The aarti starts softly and grows in crescendo and beats; the crowd joins in with claps and shouts and suddenly someone loses their head and starts dancing in ecstasy. For the faithful this is a blessing; for the observer, a celebration of being human.
A view of the Pashupati Nath temple premises
Devotees at the Arti
Devotees at the Arti
It was time to go back home. Leaving Nepal, I felt like a kid going back to school after a vacation full of vocations and happiness. Sadness filled me and I tried my best to delay every minute that took me to the airport. The land takes you in, the stories cradle you to sleep, food is benign and people are warm. The bustle of daily life in Kathmandu mixed with pollution amidst the history of the city makes for an eclectic mix of emotions. In Pokhara, the mountains and Phewa Lake come together to seduce the traveller’s senses. Happiness seeps in the heart with the blues and greens of the land and it becomes just so important to walk to the nearest village to strike a conversation with the locals.
Growing up, I knew umpteen numbers of people who would go to Nepal – either for the casinos or shopping or prayers in Kathmandu. I had not heard of Pokhara, nor of the architecture and neither of the beauty that lies hidden in the nooks and corners of this wonderful mountain laden land. Nobody told me about the beautiful early sun rise and the golden sunsets and I was yet to see the content in the smile of the passerby who uses a rope – dinghy daily to cross the river to get to work.