To dream

I should actually be working as I write this – there are tons of things that are needed to be attended to, and a to-do list that is long, very long! But I was exchanging notes with someone very, very dear to me last evening (you know who you are), and that has, sort of, triggered this need to write. In a manner of speaking, scribbling my thoughts here, clears out the clutter in my head, metaphorically separates the grain from the chaff, and invariably leaves me happy and content. Come to think of it, I am always happy and content. So scratch that out – it makes me count my blessings. God has been kind to me.

Flashback. About 10 months ago, I had an epiphany, the proverbial Eureka moment. I had a dream. And I decided to chase it, come what may. Trust me when I say, it is larger than anything, anything I have ever even thought of. More on my dream at a later time. But this is what I think – it is not only the Martin Luther King’s, the Gandhi’s, and the Mandela’s who have a right to dream. It is ordinary folk – you and me – who need to dream. Dreams change the world. Dreamers change the world. Dreams make us better people. Dreams bring in the promise of a tomorrow better than today. So look within yourself, find that dream, and chase it – pursue it, and make it come true.

This one time, what makes me count my blessings truly are the people who have come forth to support me, and stand by me. The usual suspects are there, of course – those who have always held my hand – and there are some of my closest friends, but other than them, there are many, many others who till a few months back were complete strangers, as I was to them. These strangers of then are now with me, dear to my heart, sharing my dream, and making it come true. You all know who you are. You all know what you mean to me. To you, I shall be eternally grateful and indebted. Your faith and trust in me means the world to me. I shall never let you down. That is my promise.

They are the ones who remind me of what John Lennon said: “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I’m not the only one. I hope someday you’ll join us. And the world will live as one.” So thank you for your courage and your indomitable spirit. Thank you for your faith. Thank you for believing in me. Let us change the world, one step, one moment at a time. You make my world a better place. You make this life worth living. You make the sun rise each day.

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There will always be the naysayers, the others who will be filled with disdain and doubt; with scorn and sarcasm; who are jealous and jaded. Don’t let them affect you. Do what you ought to. Do what your heart tells you. Do what is right. Be thankful for your friends, your companions in this journey, be grateful for their support each moment. Trust them with your life. Remember they have trusted you when ALL you have is a dream. Don’t let go of your passion. Even when it consumes you. There will be sleepless nights. There will be doubts. This is normal. Let it pass. Remember the sun shines brightest after the darkest of nights.

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And with no intention at all of being melodramatic (or despondent), I have often wondered what should my epitaph read. Maybe these words of apocryphal origin:

“I am not a star.

There is no halo over my head.

Fate doesn’t like the color of my eyes.

Struggle and strife are old friends of mine.

Who am I?

I am survival. I am guts. I am pride.

I like odds.

Especially when they’re stacked against me.

Because there will come a time,

When I will stare them in the eye.

And smile the smile of the one who’s pulled it off.

I am the guy who will have deep lines on his face someday.

And it’ll make me look good when I laugh.

Because that is the day I will fear no fear.

And taste sweat that is sweet.

And look back for the very first time and say,

I did it my way. The long hard way.”

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But now I am reminded of the words of Charles Lindbergh: “I owned the world that hour as I rode over it. free of the earth, free of the mountains, free of the clouds, but how inseparably I was bound to them.” I am torn. How about Atticus: “I hope to arrive to my death, late, in love, and a little drunk.”

But no, let me keep it short. I think I will settle for:

“He had the courage to dream.”

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To dreams come true

Two years. It has been two years since I wrote last. Even now I don’t want to write. Yet I wanted to share some words that I have had with me many years.

“The paradox of our time in history is that we have taller buildings but shorter tempers, wider Freeways, but narrower viewpoints. We spend more, but have less, we buy more, but enjoy less. We have bigger houses and smaller families, more conveniences, but less time. We have more degrees but less sense, more knowledge, but less judgment, more experts, yet more problems, more medicine, but less wellness.

We drink too much, smoke too much, spend too recklessly, laugh too little, drive too fast, get too angry, stay up too late, get up too tired, read too little, watch TV too much, and pray too seldom. We have multiplied our possessions, but reduced our values. We talk too much, love too seldom, and hate too often.

We’ve learned how to make a living, but not a life. We’ve added years to life not life to years. We’ve been all the way to the moon and back, but have trouble crossing the street to meet a new neighbor. We conquered outer space but not inner space. We’ve done larger things, but not better things.

We’ve cleaned up the air, but polluted the soul. We’ve conquered the atom, but not our prejudice. We write more, but learn less. We plan more, but accomplish less. We’ve learned to rush, but not to wait. We build more computers to hold more information, to produce more copies than ever, but we communicate less and less.

These are the times of fast foods and slow digestion, big men and small character, steep profits and shallow relationships.

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These are the days of two incomes but more divorce, fancier houses, but broken homes. These are days of quick trips, disposable diapers, throwaway morality, one night stands, overweight bodies, and pills that do everything from cheer, to quiet, to kill. It is a time when there is much in the showroom window and nothing in the stockroom. A time when technology can bring this letter to you, and a time when you can choose either to share this insight, or to just hit delete…

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Remember, to spend some time with your loved ones, because they are not going to be around forever. Remember, say a kind word to someone who looks up to you in awe, because that little person soon will grow up and leave your side.

Remember, to give a warm hug to the one next to you, because that is the only treasure you can give with your heart and it doesn’t cost a cent.

Remember, to say, “I love you” to your partner and your loved ones, but most of all mean it. A kiss and an embrace will mend hurt when it comes from deep inside of you.

Remember to hold hands and cherish the moment for someday that person might not be there again. Give time to love, give time to speak! And give time to share the precious thoughts in your mind.” Anon.

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Yes, I will remember these words. Yes, I will breathe these words. Yes, I will live these words.

These words. To you. To me. To us.

To 2016. To fairytales. To dreams come true.

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Let Go

I have never really felt the need to write as much as I feel at this moment. Photography and writing are a form of catharsis for me, a purging of the soul, an introspection; and I know by the end of these words, I will feel calmer. It is one of those times when you feel the need for someone to listen without interruption, without judgment, without suggestion, with nothing at all, but to listen with a realization and recognition that I am flawed beyond compare, I am human, I have many fallibilities and failings and that I err more often than most. That’s just me.

I am writing this because somewhere I feel this tumult and turmoil deep within. After a long, long time. There is uncertainty on more fronts than one. Many reasons really, but its not the reasons that matter as much as what I feel. I feel as if I am unable to express myself, I feel as if I cannot say whatever I want to say without being judged, and I feel as if I cannot be silent.  Paradoxical but true: I cannot say, I cannot be silent.

Silence. What a beautiful experience. To be quiet in solitude. I believe we don’t understand the need for solitude. I believe we don’t understand that answers to questions which lie within, are not found outside ourselves but inside. I find these answers when I write and photograph. Alone. Not with you. Or you. Or you. As I stare at this photograph, the words of Bei Dao come to me:

“In the world I am
Always a stranger
I do not understand its language
It does not understand my silence”

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However much I love being alone in the mountains photographing the raw, unblemished beauty there, I prefer photographing people. Being in the mountains is meditative, being with people is pensive. Subtle difference in the act itself. I photograph strangers whom I meet along my travels and my journeys, and by the end of the day, they no longer are strangers but their faces are etched in my memory forever. I see their eyes, and then I see all else. Those eyes for me are a mirror to the soul, and in almost all the eyes that I have seen, I see loss. Which is what I feel right now. Loss. And being lost.

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But then I need to remember that as sure as we gain, as surely shall we lose. I need to remember that what is born must die. I need to remember that the sun rises to set again. I need to remember that winter is always followed by spring. This is the circle of life. I need to remember these words of Siddh?rtha Gautama, the Buddha:

“In the end
these things matter most:
How well did you love?
How fully did you live?
How deeply did you let go?” 

Yes. Let go.

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It changes me

Just this morning I was wondering what to write – there was this incessant urge to scribble a few words when the answer came to me in a conversation with a friend. I’ve just returned from Kathmandu after a week of photography, holding, feeling, touching, caressing my camera after many months, and I find a change in myself, and it isn’t subtle. I am more at peace and calmer than when I left. I am happy, I am content. Photography makes me who I am, the person I want to be.

And in reflection of who I want to be someday, if there is something that I want all my photographs to say, I hope and pray that the language is that of compassion and of grace. When I step out with my camera, there is a difference that comes about, in the way I think, in how I feel, in the way I converse, in the person that I am. I cannot express it better – this is just what happens to me.

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I am not an evangelist. Believe me when I say that I am more sinner than saint, more flawed than most, but as I photograph all these things seem to change. There is a metamorphosis. It is almost as if I were blessed, gifted to see what I see and that is when the transformation happens, slowly, surely, each day, each time.

I wander, I observe, and I am lost. Then there is this silence of mind, a calmness that comes around me, about me, which stills my senses and renders all into a sort of slow motion, where time has no meaning at all. I can sit for hours and see even the most mundane of things, wondering about the Divine Hands that made them all. It is beautiful. It is blissful. It is serene.

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It is difficult to explain to most about these feelings, but some I am sure will understand. For those who do, what I experience is mindfulness. I am there in the present. The past no longer exists. The future has no meaning for me. It is only in the present that I am. Alone with Him. It is a communion. It is alchemy. It is metaphysical. It is being one with the Cosmos, in touch with That which is Divine, the Who that is the Creator.

There are moments of tears, of shivers, of goose bumps, not only when I photograph, but even later when I see the same photographs and that time returns to me.

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And this is why I always say that for me photography is meditation, a reflection, an introspection. Or actually, photography for me is a prayer. As William Nicholson said in Shadowlands: “I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time  waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God – it changes me.”

Yes. It is a prayer.

It changes me.

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On gratitude

Almost a lifetime. That is how long it feels now that I am here finally writing a post. Words don’t come easy. I am stumbling, staring at the blank sheet of paper as I attempt to find expressions that can convey what and how I feel. Nothing yet.

But I know the photographs I want to share, and those I hope will render this easy. For the last 3 months I have been in the deserts of Iraq on work, but yearning for the mountains that I love.  Those are the photographs I have open at this point of time – waiting, hoping that there will be this sudden surge of inspiration. The mountains do something for me. And not going there makes me feel as if I were incomplete. In the same way, photography and writing make me complete. I am different from what I was when I left for Iraq. I have been told that by those who know me. And what I have been told hasn’t been good. I have changed, and not for the better. This is what happens when I don’t photograph, when I don’t write and I don’t find myself in the mountains. These are what I am, this is who I am.

After months of travel, I finally got around to editing some photographs of Ladakh where I was in April, and found quotes as I often do for them.

For this one, I thought of what Andy Rooney said: “Everyone wants to live on top of the mountain, but all the happiness and growth occurs while you’re climbing it.” ­

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And this is what Pablo Neruda said in 100 Love Sonnets:

“So I wait for you like a lonely house

till you will see me again and live in me.

Till then my windows ache.”

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“I’ve learned that a storm isn’t always just bad weather, and a fire can be the start of something. I’ve found out that there are a lot more shades of gray in this world than I ever knew about. I’ve learned that sometimes, when you´re afraid but you keep on moving forward, that’s the biggest kind of courage there is. And finally, I’ve learned that life isn’t really about failure and success. It’s about being present, in the moment when big things happen, when everything changes, including myself.” – Cynthia Hand, Hallowed

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As as I beheld spring, the words of Ernest Hemingway came to mind:  “You expected to be sad in the fall. Part of you died each year when the leaves fell from the trees and their branches were bare against the wind and the cold, wintery light. But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen.”

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I feel better now as I write. I know this post isn’t great, but this is just how I feel without having photographed or written for months. I just hope the photographs compensate for my words.

“Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming “Wow! What a Ride!” ­– Hunter S. Thompson

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It is much later such as now when I contemplate deeper on what that moment meant to me, do words come out and find their place, intruding as they were on my feelings. It is only in retrospect that I can actually apply logic and creativity and composition and all such things to the frame. Not then.

The feeling of being there, both in solitude and otherwise, is something I cannot explain in words. Not possible, even for me.  But I’ll do the best I can. The feeling is meditative, of being immersed in the here and now, utterly and completely awestruck by the sheer beauty of it all. As I reflect on how I feel then, I realize that more often than not, I have no thoughts. Everything is still. And somewhere in that meditative frame of mind, I put the camera to my eye and press the shutter. I don’t compose. Or let me put it differently – I cannot compose. At least not according to me. I am in a zone.

Sometimes not always, there are those errant tears that run down as I see whatever is in front of my eyes. It is Creation. No, it is the Creator.

And there is only one thought if at all that overwhelms me then:

Of gratitude.

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The Last Aryans

This post is long overdue, I know. Somehow things have just conspired to happen this way. Anyway, I was out in Ladakh for quite a few days in April, then Spiti for a while in May and as I write this post, I am sitting in Iraq on work. So it were the mountains that beckoned me for two months in a row and now the deserts should I say, of Assyria?

And indeed JRR Tolkien’s words from ‘The Fellowship of the Rings’ are for me: “Not all those who wander are lost.” That is what I believe. I am, what can only be described as, an inveterate traveler with a classic case of the wanderlust. I travel to photograph. And write. I travel to discover. And each time I do, I discover more about me than that outside of me.

Let me explain.

I am, as I said, a mountain person. I climb. I trek. Alone. People often question me why? Quite honestly, I can never come up with a one-line answer. But it is just the reason why I headed off to Ladakh a few weeks ago. Just to be in solitude, with myself and my thoughts, in the mountains. And of course, I needed a muse to photograph. Much of my photography is about portraiture. I’d read about the ‘Last Aryans’ in Ladakh sometime in the past, and being with them was part of my ever increasing, to-do bucket list. I needed to tick this one off. It was long overdue.

When I met the so-called ‘Last Aryans’, the words that instantly came to mind are: ‘forgotten’ tribe; a few thousand people who even now speak their own language and worship their own Gods, almost isolated from the world. The Brokpas (or Brogpas (literally meaning mountain dwellers, Brog meaning hillock, and Pa for an inhabitant), of Ladakh are an indigenous tribe of only about 4000 people, and are amongst the smallest ethnic groups in the world. They are, by and large, isolated from ‘civilization’, living in a remote area – the Dha Hanu valley of Ladakh, a region of the turbulent Indian state of Kashmir.

Most people head to Ladakh to the usual suspects of Leh and around, Pangong Tso and of course, Khardung-La for the mandatory photo-op. Now don’t get me wrong – these are all beautiful places, but Ladakh is much more than that. Ladakh’s less visited ‘second half ’ is its northern part – sparsely populated Buddhist Zanskar and the slightly greener Shia-Islam Suru Valley, which have much to offer. En route north to this area from Leh, is the Dha Hanu valley. Across this part of the world, the Indus flows gently, enhancing the romance of a landscape that is otherwise surreally barren, possibly even more than what Ladakh is otherwise known for.

Some of the Brokpas also inhabit the Baltistan region, and pretty much the same, they speak an archaic form of the Shina language unintelligible with other dialects of Shina. I found it fascinating that between themselves they would converse in their dialect, yet with me they were comfortable in Hindi, or even a smattering of English. While Brokpa folklore says that their ancestors migrated to this valley several centuries back, probably due to the harsh environmental conditions, some believe that they migrated from Gilgit during the turmoil of warring chieftains. There is another view, apocryphal perhaps, that they are actually descendants of Alexander the Great’s army, whose Genghis Khan-like sexual decadence is a matter of legend!

Whatever might be their origin though, the Brokpas are now considered (or conjectured) to be the last Aryans of the Kashmir-Himalayan highlands, and the purest descendants of the ancient Indo-Europeans. This theory is not lost of them. In all my conversations across villages, the young and aged both reiterated that they were ‘true’ Aryans innumerable times. On these lines, it is noteworthy that they are predominantly Caucasoid in contrast to the Tibeto-Burman inhabitants of most of Ladakh. DNA samples drawn from the Brokpas have been sent to the Genographic Project for analysis, based on which the community has been determined to be “ancient” and “isolated”. There isn’t enough global data, though, to ascribe their true location of origin.

What marks the Brokpas out, however, is that they have lived isolated for centuries in such an inaccessibly harsh terrain (where temperatures plummet to minus 40 degrees in winter) that their “Aryan” DNA “seemingly” remains untainted. Because of this isolation, fraternal polyandry and polygamy was also prevalent. Having read about this, I broached this subject with some finesse after the ice was broken; I was told by the villagers that this was the case about a century ago; however, is changing under the influence of Buddhism and Islam. It has also been documented that in the past, some foreigners had found their way to Brokpa villages to be impregnated by Brokpa men, tantalized by the prospect of exotic Aryan purity.  In my conversations with them, this was attributed to an urban legend, pun intended.  That being said, in 2007, filmmaker Sanjeev Sivan released his documentary “Achtung Baby: In Search of Purity” based on German women travelling to these villages to be impregnated by men they believe to be racially pure Aryans. The Brokpas do qualify as exotic on most counts, beginning with the elaborate floral headdresses that the women wear even when they work in the fields – rather Fridaesque. The headdress includes rows of coins, some dating as far back as the 19th century, stitched together for ornamentation, and bright ribbons. The typical attire of the male consists of a turban with a flower or two, and a long woolen gown held at the waist by a girdle of cloth, and woolen trousers.

The Brokpas are nominally Buddhist; however animist and Bön rituals still survive. And yet the Buddhism they practice is markedly dissimilar from that followed in central and eastern Ladakh. Their customs differ from those of the Tibetan-descended population of those areas; and their cosmic system shows distinct traces of pre-Buddhist animistic religion. I sure hope to see this in full flow in September, which is when I have been invited to their Bonana-na festival at harvest.

This community is relatively more backward economically than the Baltis or other communities of the region, and their general socio-economic condition remains poor. The main sources of livelihood for the Brokpas are animal husbandry, and agriculture with apple, mulberry, apricots, walnuts, cherry, peaches, pears and grapes grown in these villages.

The traditional Brokpa diet is based on locally grown foods such as barley, wheat prepared most often as tsampa/sattu (roasted flour), and potatoes. Other food includes radishes, turnips, and a brewed tea made of black tea, butter and salt, which I quite enjoyed, reminiscent of my travels in the Khumbu in Nepal when I had this with the Sherpas. Religious taboo bans dairy and poultry sources, as the deity venerated here detests cows and chicken, and so both are considered unmentionable. It is a question though as to how this uniqueness gels with the Aryan image, a race popularly deemed to be of cattle herders in ancient times?

The sum of it all remains the indelible truth that no one really knows where Brokpas come from. The confusion is amusingly represented in a blurb on them in a Lonely Planet guide to India. Titled ‘Lost Tribes’, it says in all earnestness, ‘The facial features of the Brokpa (also known as Drokpa or Dards) ‘people of the pastures’ have led to speculation that the tribe has descended from Alexander the Great’s invasion force or even a lost tribe of Israel.’

Possibly that means that the Brokpas could have come from anywhere.

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To them, to you

Nothing seems the same anymore – the past has ceased to exist, and the future matters no longer. All that is important is the “here and now”.  That is truly how I feel at this moment. And for me to feel this way has been a long and arduous journey – almost ten years that began sometime late 2001. Much of those ten years were spent in darkness, a miasma – not literally, but figuratively. I was rather oblivious to feelings of those around me, people that mattered, and those who loved me, I ended up hurting, caused them deep pain and anguish in return for love.

But there will always be a tipping point, a watershed moment when things will change – I believe it to be karmic, that all of this ends when you change and when your deeds change; maybe it happens at the metaphysical level, maybe at another, but the world becomes a different place when I see it differently, when that darkness gets replaced with light. For me, it was when I stepped out with my camera alone for the very first time and went to the Himalayas in September 2011. I had time to reflect, time to retrospect and time to spring clean my soul. And when I did that, my perception of things changed. When I made this photograph of an old lady, these words of Auguste Rodin are just right for what I felt: “To any artist, worthy of the name, all in nature is beautiful, because his eyes, fearlessly accepting all exterior truth, read there, as in an open book, all the inner truth.” 

Getting to that inner truth, as August Rodin calls it, isn’t easy – it needs me to reach deep within the confines of my soul and confess finally to myself that much of what I see there is darkness; to replace that with light needs me to change. It really isn’t an easy journey – change never is; the harder right than the easier wrong, you see. But the easier wrong calls for punishment, or retribution if that is a better word. So I paid. And when I paid my dues and accumulated no more, everything changed. I believe that there is someone who is omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, you might call Him by many names: Jesus, Allah, Krishna, but what’s in a name anyway? What I believe is that the Truth is within me, and not elsewhere. The light lies within. And that light once seen, illuminates all around me with beauty. As Audrey Hepburn said: “The beauty of a woman is not in the clothes she wears, the figure that she carries, or the way she combs her hair. The beauty of a woman is seen in her eyes, because that is the doorway to her heart, the place where love resides. True beauty in a woman is reflected in her soul. It’s the caring that she lovingly gives, the passion that she shows and the beauty of a woman only grows with passing years.”  And these words came to mind with this photograph of an 102 year old Bishnoi lady admiring the finery of her grand daughter-in-law.

And you see as I introspect, I realize that I started seeing the light within only with my camera – which is why I always say that photography isn’t a passion anymore, it is spiritual for me. The etymology of photography, by the way, is Greek – “phot-” for light and “-graphos” for drawing. The act of creating a photograph is only after seeing the light. But more than that, I do believe a photograph has less to do with seeing the light, but more with feeling the light within. I don’t think I can create a photograph that means something, or even anything, with what I see…I can do it only with how I feel.

Because of photography, I see and feel things differently, I see magic and wonder in much that is often ignored. I find “ordinary” people fascinating, their stories compelling, when most either ignore them or worse, pity them. It is only when I can feel the magic of that which is around me, can I even begin to attempt and capture it. None of my photographs fall in the realm of art, and I would be delusional calling myself an artist. I am not one. My photographs are of what I see, you see, we all see everyday, not exotica, but perhaps the difference is that I see the magic in them, those ordinary people, I believe they have much more than I have. I believe that they are my gurus.

Which brings me to what is the meaning of guru. In the earliest known discourse of the word in the Markandeya Purana, in the form of a dialog between Shiva and Parvati, Shiva alludes to guru being the remover of darkness, bestower of light. Light. The Inner Light. Which is why I say that these “ordinary” people are my gurus – they showed me the light when all that I had was darkness. Which is why I respect them, no, I revere them. They taught me the real meaning of love. I revere you. You taught me the real meaning of love.

To them, I owe a lot.

To you, I owe a lot.

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Karma and Kumbh

The month of March has been frenetic and feverish – and that is an understatement. Other than the consulting assignment, which I have been working on, it has also been a sort of geeky month. My website had some glitches on the server, then my iPhone acted up and finally, my laptop decided it was time to breathe its last. Add to that a switch to Apple after using Windows for about 20 years, and you can imagine how it has been. Fascinating!

And this meant that even writing a post got put on the backburner. Anyway, here I am again…with thoughts of the Maha Kumbh that I went to in February.

Held this year at Allahabad, at the confluence of the three most holy rivers in India: the Ganga, the Yamuna, and the mythological Saraswati, the Kumbh lures the faithful for a dip in the holy waters that relieves them of lifetimes of karma. Hindu religious scriptures say that bathing on the astrologically favorable days snuffs out innumerable sins, relieving the pilgrim of his or her entanglement in the complex cycle of birth, disease, old age, and death – the cycle of samsara. Kumbh is actually a Sanskrit word meaning “pot”, “pitcher” or “jar” and mela means “festival.” According to Indian mythology, the Kumbh Mela derives its name from the pot of the immortalizing nectar from the waters of the holy river Ganga.

It has had an appeal or an allure for saints and scholars for many millennia. In about 302 B.C., the great Greek historian Megasthenes documented his seventy-five-day stay at Prayaga (Allahabad), during a mela which had an attendance of two and a half million. Some hundreds of years later, in the 7th century A.D., the devout emperor Harsha invited the distinguished Chinese mendicant Hsian Tsang to attend the festivities of the mela. Later when writing his journals, Tsang noted Harsha’s consummate spiritual leadership with lavish praise and wrote: “The festival concluded with Harsha distributing all of his accumulated wealth to the needy, down to his robes, and returning to his palace in clothes borrowed from his sister.”

The Kumbh is a melting pot for perhaps more than eight thousand religious groups and sects that debate and discuss philosophy. For the mela, it is said that this is a symbol of Hindu unity, an instrument for passing on spiritual teachings and values of India’s ancient Vedic culture to the masses of devotees.

Here saints and sinners, mystics and beggars, all gather on the banks of the holy Ganga in the smorgasbord of by far the largest human congregation on Earth, albeit temporary. Pilgrims travel from far across many miles to bathe in the Ganga; they are dressed in their finest and most colorful – it is a celebration of hope, and festivity for a better tomorrow.

The numbers tell the story – this year there were a total of 100 million people who attended the Kumbh; on the days these photographs were made, I was just one of 30 million people there.

At the Kumbh, there is a veritable sea of swaying bodies and heads, which moves slowly towards the confluence of the three rivers – a deluge of pilgrims. The intonation of invocations, cacophony of flutes, bells, cymbals, horns, and the constant blaring of devotional songs over innumerable loudspeakers are a constant accompaniment to reverence. There are the aged who cannot walk without support, there are mothers being carried literally by their sons, there are sons being carried by their mothers. All in the name of faith. And hope.

Yes. Faith. And hope. That about sums it all up: for karma, and Kumbh.

And for life.

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C’est la vie

Many of you have written to me wondering where I am (or was) across the last month or thereabouts; to most I have replied, but for those who wrote in the past few days.  I’ve been out for four weeks and more – much of it on work, but some for photography. I’d headed to Jaipur, followed by Lucknow and then Benares as I prefer to call the city (or Varanasi, as it is contemporarily known). After this this was the Kumbh Mela at Allahabad, then Jodhpur and finally Jaisalmer in Rajasthan.

I’ll write about each of those places by and by, but for now I just thought I’d write a few lines on how I feel at this moment as I type. Not so good really – in fact, dejected. I’ve been going through my photographs of the Kumbh Mela and I have managed to mess up quite a few. Not because I couldn’t be in the right place at the right time (the “decisive moment” in other words, was right there in front of me) but because I completely messed up my camera settings, and yes, I messed those up on both days at the Kumbh.

It has never happened to me before this. This time was different. I was distracted.  I wasn’t quite there. I didn’t enter the zone. I forgot to see my camera settings before starting to photograph. I can’t believe I did this. And guess what – no one will be able to figure that out from the photographs I post here now. But I am writing this. Why? Because my blog for me is my confession, my diary – a place where I am completely honest, naked in thought and expression. Because this post will remind me that along with these photographs, there are many more which I should have got, but didn’t.  Because these words will tell me that I don’t photograph for anyone else but for myself. And only I know the truth as it exists, as it really is, and not how it appears to be.

And it gets even better – I don’t wear my glasses when photographing. I don’t see my images on the camera (I might later at some point of time, but it is much after the point of no return when I have walked away from the scene), I don’t look at the histogram; most times I don’t even see the settings in the viewfinder. My entire focus is on what is within that frame. I am actually lost in another world. I set the aperture and approximate shutter speed, which I then change while paying attention to the sound of the shutter (but this time at Kumbh the ambient noise far overwhelmed the sound of the shutter). Yes, I know it is a strange way to photograph. I know that. But I photograph with instinct. I photograph from my heart and my soul. The camera ceases to exist when I photograph. I mean that.

So now at this point of time, I want nothing to do with either my camera or photography, but here I am writing this blog, again from my heart. I am not perfect, and I admit it openly. Even to those who believe that I know how to photograph, here is my confession – I don’t. Not at this moment anyway.

But yet I know, I’ll be at it again. I’ll again not see the photograph on the camera or the histogram for that matter; I’ll again use the sound of the shutter as a guide. Yes, I’ll do it all over again because that is the only way I know how to photograph – with instinct and my heart and soul. With love.

You see, it is love, when you return even as it pains and hurts.

C’est la vie.

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On logos, on perfection

This is my first post of 2013. I’ve had writers block – quite literally so. Across the last few weeks I have been meaning to write, but even the opening line has been difficult. So I said to myself: “Why not just say it as it is?” Isn’t it so strange that I don’t know what to write, yet here I am typing away on my keyboard, whispering to myself, hoping that some words will come to me? And as I think of what I am doing right now, I recognize that much of my photography is the same way – there isn’t conscious thought involved. Only the pressing need, just the burning desire, to tell a story.

I’m not stopping to think and ponder now; I’ve done that across weeks. This is the time to write, and because I don’t know what I have to say or want to say, I am going through some recent photographs in Delhi. As I see my photography of late, I realize it has changed a lot. My subjects, the people I photograph, my composition, pretty much everything – nothing seems like what it was when I started. The same is the case with me. I am no longer the same.

I’ve got it. Change. That is what this will be about. This blog I mean. Change always reminds me of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus who said that change was central to the Universe, and he came up with the term logos in Western philosophy, which meant both the source and the fundamental order of the Cosmos. Interestingly, in ordinary Greek, the meaning of logos went beyond this to notions such as language, statement, conversation, principle etc.  And you see, there are no coincidences in life; logos to me also means what my photography is about – my language, the words I want to say but which elude me, and so I let my photographs be those words.

This change in me is evident in the images I create. I photograph now from within my soul. Not with my eyes. I photograph because it is spiritual to me. It no longer is just a passion. And what better way to see the change within than use my photographs as milestones along this journey. I have slowly begun to minimize what I have in my photographs.  Be it the subject, or even perhaps what is captured within the frame. This is how my life has been of late. As Leonardo da Vinci said: “Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication.” My attempt is now to lead a simple, uncluttered life. I don’t want to be fettered with much. I have started giving away much of what I have, with the notable exceptions of my books and my music, and of course my camera. I have started sharing. And the more I give, the more I receive…

I used to be unapologetically self-centered in many ways. I always wanted to receive – giving (or even sharing) was the toughest call of all. Whatever I earned was mine and mine alone. I had everything and more. But did I do things for people who weren’t as fortunate as me? Unequivocally no.  If I were in a relationship, I wanted everything my way. I’ve changed all that. At least I think so. And guess what – I think the biggest hurdle to change was the thought that always held me back: “What will people say? They’ll say, he can’t ever change. He has always been this way. So why should I change?” 

But I needed to change. I had to see the difference between ebony and ivory.

So then there came a time in my life where everything changed. It has been called by many names – watershed moment, turning point, epiphany etc. To me it was the time when I finally started believing deep within that there was a Power far greater than me. Someday, maybe someday, I will write about this also. Don’t get me wrong – I am not religious – far from it actually. I am just a believer. And that changes how the game is played. The game is played where He wants me to play, not where I want. The game is played when He wants me to play, not when I want to play. And the game is played according to His rules, not mine. And when I understand all of this, I sleep better at night. Because I did it, the best way that I could.

I also had this desire to be perfect, the best at everything that I did. It isn’t possible. I couldn’t see my own flaws even though the reflection in the mirror said it all. Today I realize how profound and deep the words of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry in the Airman’s Odyssey are: “Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”  And we all know that day when there will be nothing left to take away, will be when I will stand on Judgment before my Master, my Creator. And that day I pray, I am able to say staring into His eyes: Yes, I changed.

These are just some thoughts:

On logos, on perfection.

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