So here’s a little woohoo moment: I made my debut as a photographer on National Geographic Traveller India’s website at the end of 2015. With four girlfriends, I went on an amazing trip across Madhya Pradesh. One of my friends and fellow travellers was Saumya Ancheri of NGT, who wrote this account. Saumya joined us after we’d tramped through Mandu, which is why there are no photos of Mandu here but I absolutely loved that little town. And I have some lovely photos of its gorgeous buildings, but that’s for another day. Read Saumya’s article and here are a few more photographs from that part of our Ladies’ Special trip to Madhya Pradesh.
I wrote about Ha Long Bay in Vietnam for the Bangalore edition of DNA, on 27th January. Here is the piece, with some more of my photographs.
Dragons, but no dungeons
You’d have thought that we’d opted for a cruise on Ha Long Bay just so that we could crack pun-ny jokes at its expense. “Ha long do you think the cruise will be?” “Wanna come ha long for a ride?” “What if I want ha longer bay?” “Is there ha shorter version of the cruise?” These and many more terrible puns were cracked as we made our way to Ha Long City, which is a few hours’ drive from Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam. All this mirth evaporated within about 20 minutes of getting on to the junk boat because when you’re surrounded by the beauty of Ha Long Bay, all you can do is gape.
Ha Long Bay translates to “the bay of descending dragons”. According to legend, when Vietnam was born, it was attacked by invaders and the gods sent down a legion of dragons to protect the country. These dragons spat out jewels and jade that created a necklace of islands that became a barrier against the invaders’ ships. After defeating the enemy, the dragons chose to stay on in this part of the country because it was so beautiful, and so was born Ha Long Bay. Many of the present-day junk boats that take tourists out to the bay have dragons carved on them because of this myth.
Dragons may not be entirely credible but it’s easy to believe someone being charmed by Ha Long Bay and wanting to live an eternity here. The waters are like polished glass. On cloudy days, the water and the sky is almost the same colour and so, it feels like the boat is floating through the sky. On days when the sun is out, the light catches the rippling waters and makes it sparkle like it’s a sea of crushed diamonds. Most of the 1600 islands and islets of Ha Long Bay are uninhabited by people, which means all around you is perfect, unbroken silence.
In winter, craggy islands – dotted with colourful flowers –seem to glide out of the mist as the boat goes further out and the mainland becomes invisible. Go in summer, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site is lush and green, covered with rare flowers and plants. Even familiar flora, like bougainvillea, look exotic here. Some of the islands have limestone caves with incredible stalactite and stalagmite formations. It’s like entering a weird wonderland.
And as if all this wasn’t enough, there’s fresh, delicious seafood. Vegetarians will have to starve but those who like prawns, lobsters, squid and fish will find the meal served on the junk boat unforgettable. It’s no surprise that the legendary dragons chose to make Ha Long Bay home.
There was a travel piece I wrote about the Golden Temple in Amritsar in last week’s The Mag. Here it is, complete with some more pictures I took while I was there. As pilgrimage sites go, the Golden Temple is right up there for sheer beauty and the incredible sense of peace it offers the visitor, faithful or faithless.
The Gold Standard of Serenity
When he stood up straight, the water reached halfway up his chest. Most of the time, he crouched and moved slowly, like a hunter watching his prey. Except there was no prey and in his hands was a bamboo pole. It must have been at least six feet long. He held it at right angle to himself, one end nuzzling his right armpit. When he moved, the pole swept across the surface of Sarovar — the sacred tank of water at the heart of Amritsar’s Harmandir Sahib complex — like a massive, single windshield wiper. Once the pole had completed its arc, the man raised it as though he was preparing to salute a visiting dignitary, and let it slide down and out until man and pole were back to first position. Then the whole process started again.
The man was obviously nuts.
Would a sane mind choose to stand in the middle of a pool of freezing water, in winter, wearing only a cotton kurta-pyjama, and wave a bamboo pole around? As it turns out, yes, if the aforementioned mind belonged to someone who had opted to clean the Sarovar as part of their voluntary service to Harmandir Sahib.
Popularly known as the Golden Temple, the Harmandir Sahib complex in Amritsar is the most important place of worship for Sikhs. It’s also a cliche-buster. The standard complaints about Indians is that we can’t keep public spaces clean. Usually we’re all about personal gain rather than philanthropy. We’re obsessed with hierarchy, whether it’s on the basis of caste or wealth. It’s all true until we take off our shoes and cover our heads to enter Harmandir Sahib. The complex is spotlessly clean and maintained to a great extent by Sikh volunteers who come from varied backgrounds and don’t blink an eyelid at having to do menial chores like scrubbing floors, washing dishes, putting away visitors’ shoes and looking ridiculous while cleaning the Sarovar with a bamboo pole.
(All the pictures are taken by me. They’re low-res so I doubt you can print them — ha! — and if you nick them to put up online, please do add a line of credit.)
These aren’t the only cliches that Harmandir Sahib busts. Here, religion isn’t about rules and divisiveness. Everyone, regardless of faith, gender and background, is welcome. Punjabis in general and Sikhs in particular are supposed to be loud and boisterous (bhangra, anyone?), but everything about Harmandir Sahib is serene and dignified. Walk down the steps and tranquility wraps itself around you like the comfiest blanket. Infants don’t wail. Children don’t scamper. Women don’t yell and men don’t ogle. Even a gold-plated dome doesn’t look gaudy somehow. In short, the Harmandir Sahib complex is a place of miracles. There’s something about Harmandir Sahib that soothes the most ruffled of feathers, whether or not you’re among the faithful. You wouldn’t expect the place that suffered the brutality of Operation Bluestar to feel calm. It isn’t as though anyone’s forgotten how tanks and soldiers entered the gurudwara’s grounds in 1984, crushing marble and human beings along the way. Walk around and many squares on the beautiful marble walkway have inscriptions with the names of those who were killed and those who paid what they could to rebuild the complex afterwards. The Indian army beseiged the Golden Temple to arrest Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale who had opposed Indira Gandhi. Three days later, more than 400 civilians had been killed, including Bhindranwale. The place where Bhindranwale was killed is almost a shrine today. Parents bring their children and bow reverently before the rough, pockmarked wall that is encased in glass.
What is perhaps truly miraculous about the Golden Temple is that despite all the violence it has witnessed and the scars it bears with pride, the Harmandir Sahib is characterised by its serenity and beauty. People spend the entire day sitting near the Sarovar, watching the light catch the white buildings that encircle the Harmandir Sahib and the rippling reflections on the Sarovar. This isn’t just religiosity. The Harmandir Sahib is one of the most beautiful sights you’ll ever see. With each passing hour, the light changes and so does the scene made up of the white buildings and golden domes, like a painting whose colour palette is masterfully transformed by an invisible paintbrush. As gorgeous as Harmandir Sahib is by day, wait until night falls. And when the brilliant gleam of the gurudwara all lit up bursts through the darkness, give thanks to whoever is responsible for the beauty of the Golden Temple.
The Humble Administrator’s Garden in Suzhou is supposed to be the one of the most beautiful of classical Chinese gardens. I wrote about it in this weekend’s The Mag, but for once, I think my photos do a much better job than the (rushed) article I wrote. So here are some of my photos of The Humble Administrator’s Garden, half of which were taken using my phone (because of course, the camera battery would have to die just when we walked in to the garden). Not that it matters. Even a crummy point-and-shoot wouldn’t be able to make this place look unpretty.
The July issue of ELLE has a little piece I wrote on Raghu Rai, who is going to have a mini-retrospective of sorts (as far as I remember).
Here are snippets from my conversation with him. I’ll put up the article once I find it in my archive.
I don’t believe in nostalgic nonsense. You know, living in the past is not a very creative process because that pulls you back. But the fact remains that there was greater harmony and greater peace between different elements and situations than we have today. But being a creative individual, all the tensions and charge, the stress and strain, they speak of another kind of energy that needed to be captured. Also you know, every place, every time has its own value and meaning.
The best light
Early morning and late afternoons. In India the light is very strong, the bulk of the months are very hot. Usually, that strong light and sunshine create very deep shadows and you lose and it gives unnecessary contrast. Sometimes it works, according to the spirit and the mood of the place but most of the time, I’ll prefer to have gentle and soft light, where the details are clearly visible and one can capture them and share them and see the highlights without creating any unnecessary contrast.
On the decisive moment
Of course. You don’t plan, you wait for it to happen. When different elements start working together — you see, there are moments. India is such a crowded country and such chaotic and contradictory things happen in any given space and there are moments when the relevant and the irrelevant, they separate themselves for a moment and they merge again, and that’s the moment you capture.
Also the purpose of photography is to capture energy and time that we live in. Planning makes things static. Because life at any given time is not static.
On photographing India
The bulk of India lives in a timeless space. I remember long ago, I think it was early 1970s, when Muzaffar Ali used to work with Air India, and he wanted me to do a calendar for Air India or something like that, and he asked, “If you can give us some pictures where we are dealing with time and space…”. So I told him, “If you ask me, I don’t understand that, this time and space because I always try to live beyond that. So don’t ask me for ideas of time and space.”
You see, the thing is that India also has an ancient civilisation and India having all the religions living here, contrast and contradictions. So India lives so many centuries side by side at any given time. That is what is so magical about this country. This is what comes across in many of these photographs.
On making his subjects more charismatic than they actually are
How can I do that? I wish I was so powerful a man that I could create more than life has. That is precisely where the magic lies. When you capture a moment which is so potent and so dynamic that when you look at it, you wonder how can that be? You see, the problem is that the bulk of the photography being done is very happy easy relaxed, nice images. For me, they are static and they don’t evoke anything in me. For me, this human expression, the deeper reaction, that is what I seek. That has its own current and power. It raises so many questions and answers at the same time. That’s what we are dealing with. The image has to have dynamism and not be a static, pretty one. When you look at it, people wonder how can that be? How can someone capture more than what meets the eye? It’s all there. The mysteries of life and nature have to be captured. Everything else is information.
On photographing politicians
You see, I always, even when I was with a newspaper and even when I worked with India Today for ten years, I always believed — well, let’s begin like this. You know in India sycophancy is a great art. That’s why so much political junk is surviving in this country. Somebody asked me when Mrs. Gandhi was thrown out in ’77, that you know, “she gave you so much, how can you take pictures of Mrs. Gandhi when she has lost the election?” I said, only dogs can be loyal. Human beings can never be loyal. They have to be responsible to the truth of a situation. Because loyalty for me has become a very cheap word in India. My loyalty, I will not say loyalty, my commitment to the situations is as they speak to me. That’s how I will see them at any given time. So that is what really inspires me to do photography. Even if I don’t like somebody or some politician, I’ll never carry that grudge when I go take pictures. I’ll look at that person all over again in that context where he or she is. Because we all have the capacity to change and I know we can do things that we can never even imagine at another time.
On Mother Teresa
Mother was somebody very rare, so rare that you can never come across another person like that. As a human being, as a person with a cause, and she spoke the total truth all the time. It didn’t matter who she was dealing with an ordinary person, an important person, big or small. Her energy, her connectivity with everything never fluctuated. That was something very rare for me. Her power of expression and love also never flickered. That was so magical about her as a human being. But in any given time, she was 100% there. Whether she was dealing with you, an ordinary person, or whether she was nursing an old person or a child, or being with the prime minister.
When I met her way back in 1970 when she was hardly known. When I was working at The Statesman, it used to be one of the most important newspapers, we had an editor. He was very close to Mother. He rang me up one day and said that “Raghu, I have met a great lady and you must photograph her.” And that was in 1970 when I met her for the first time.
On colour photography
Let me tell a few things about colour. Basically there’s everything in colour. You see, every colour has its physical presence. Some strong colours like red or bright orange, or bright purple, will enter your attention faster than other colours. Every colour has its physical presence, every colour has its emotional value and every colour when its put together in any given situation may not gel together.
Then, as you see and capture the reality, we can’t change reality. Like, a painter can paint the sky green and nobody will question it, but in our case, we have to capture it as it is. So the colours may not blend. So the image in any given situation, if the subject matter is serious and you have all sorts of colours peeking out, they don’t work together. But the moment you put a black and white filter, it silences the noise of colours. And then everything gels.
It is more difficult to make a real, meaningful colour photograph than in black and white. Most people are taking colour photographs, but in terms of colour and the vision for colour which speaks out, the meaning comes from its colour content as well as its emotional content. With digital technology what is good is, every colour film used to behave differently in different light and would show you different colours. Even the processing of the film used to be very, very difficult. Different labs would give you different results of the same situation, but in digital technology, you can always desaturate colours, you can control them and tell them to shut up when they make unnecessary noise. All these things are possible today. See, I’ve done many books in colour and many in black and white. Also the fact is earlier, in the ’60s and ’70s and even up to ’80s, it used to be only black and white. I started taking pictures in mid ’60s, so one of the reasons that people remember my black and white photographs is this. Then came the late ’80s when we started doing colour. But then we didn’t have as much control, like the kind we have today.
It’s not manipulation. Manipulation is something which doesn’t exist and you bring it in. But a technical fault has to be controlled. You see even in black and white, when some areas go too dark, or too bright, you need to adjust that. So that is not manipulation. That is controlling your image quality. That’s the minimum right that we should have.
On Raghu Rai, photographer
You can say I’m very arrogant, but most of the time I don’t read what is written about me. I have given so many interviews on television and I hate to watch myself. I’m not fond of Raghu Rai in that sense. But criticism with understanding is precious. Criticism with lack of understanding, or off-handed nonsense is not acceptable. In any case, I am a very ruthless surgeon myself and I deal with Raghu Rai on very tough terms and similarly I deal with my friends also with that kind of honesty. Sometimes people tell me I’m very cruel, but I say photography is my dharma and I have to be totally honest about it.
On editing himself
I’ll say that 90% of what we shoot is either repetitive or just the process of evolution of a situation. So if I have taken 100 pictures to get to one or if I have taken 20 pictures to get to one, I don’t carry those 19 or 99 pictures with me. Of course the ability to edit yourself ruthlessly is very important for your next journey into situations so that you are critically and analytically dealing with every situation. Otherwise you become a happy snappy good guy, which I am not.
You know how people go on taking photos of their food and/or their cats? I take photos of clouds. This obsession hasn’t been evident in the past few months since there haven’t been any clouds to photograph, but they’ve been gathering over the past couple of weeks. With the result that all the photos that I seem to have of late (on my phone) are clouds — wispy, poufy, streaky, and not yet swollen with rain. This morning, I tried to shake things up by shooting the cables of the Sealink and clouds. Imagine that.
A friend and I were in a taxi together and there was a gorgeous, cloudy sunset outside our windows. In unison, I cooed about how I can imagine the feel of rain-cooled wind when I see these pre-monsoon clouds and he said, “Seriously. You look at them and think, ‘Just burst, bitch.'”
While on the subject of confessions, I’ve gone ahead and set up a Tumblr account. Again. For no reason whatsoever. I’m clearly addicted to setting up blogs. (Why does it have to be so easy? Why do those templates have to be so pretty? Why was there only enough of this Sherlock/His Dark Materials fan-fic to fill half my day, leaving me an easy target for boredom by 3pm? I’m doomed.)
On the plus side, reblogging is easy, so if you do head over there, expect no original content but some interesting information/links/images. Until I abandon it. Only to restart it. Again.
Doomed, I tell you. Doomed.