The closest I have come to a pilgrimage in my lifetime would be the few trips I went on with my dad to see Manchester United play. The god was Alex Ferguson, the cathedral, the Theatre of Dreams. Outside of the stadium, the smell of greasy battered sausage and chips wafted through the buzzing crowds as thousands waited for the players to pull up before the game. Inside, a red sea of 70,000 fans sang of the glories of the inimitable Eric Cantona, as my dad learned all about the creativity of my cursing (thanks, funnily enough, in no small part to my singing in the stands with the Old Trafford faithful).
A couple of weeks ago, I found myself signing up for the Nabadwip Parikrama, which is essentially a 6-day pilgrimage around sacred sights of the Nabadwip and Mayapur area. Each day, devotees spend 12 hours, from 5am-5pm, traveling around the area, stopping at various temples, shrines or spots by the Ganga for example, where they would gather and sing or listen to lectures about Krishna and other important figures that illuminate the path back to godhead. Most days' proceedings were led by senior Vaisnavas, devotees from all over the world who have spent their lives in pursuit of Krishna's mercy. I had recently read a book about the sites and had also visited a few of them out of curiosity, so I felt I was somewhat prepared. I was wrong.
5am on the first morning: the birds are yet to wake but I find myself surrounded by Hare Krishnas singing bhajans (devotional songs) in the park. Once this session is finished, we are then loaded onto buses to take us to our first destination, which in this case was 3 minutes down the road. Stepping off the bus onto the road that runs through Mayapur, a number of devotees begin rolling around on the floor, and in the process covering themselves in dust and dirt from the ground. This dust, I was told, is itself sacred, as it is part of the 'Holy Dham'. While this served as a reasonable explanation, it certainly did not serve as motivation, and my feet remained firmly on the ground.
Over the course of the parikrama, I sat for hours and hours on end listening to stories about Krishna, Caitanya (the 16th century saint to whose lineage ISKCON belongs), and other devotees of the Lord. Sitting on marble floor in temples for some of the time, dirt roads covered by plastic sheets for the rest, it was far from comfortable. Austerity, however, is a necessary element of the parikrama. Ridding oneself of material attachments and worldly comforts paves the way for Krishna Consciousness. Again, understanding the logic behind the practise did not encourage enthusiasm in this 'conditioned soul' (what devotees call non-devotees). Though I have been in Mayapur just over 4 months at this point, and although there are thousands of verses of 'Krishna's pastimes' (stories about Krishna), I find myself getting bored of hearing a small repertoire of stories repeated over and over again. 'Hearing about Krishna' is an ethical imperative for devotees, something which they build their day around and something that animates an ever-intensifying emotional relationship with the Supreme Lord. It is a mistake to think of this storytelling as a form of entertainment, but rather as a necessary element of devotional worship. For someone without that ruci (taste) for love of Krishna, hearing these stories repeatedly can be monotonous, as of course can be said for the chanting, the kirtan and the daily schedule at the temple. It seems that the closer I get to the practises at the heart of ISKCON, the further I feel cut off from the philosophy.
Every Saturday evening during the winter months, the devotees put on what is called the 'Hati procession' ('hati' meaning elephant in Bengali). From the main temple, a parade of devotees, deities and a variety of animals complete a lap of the temple complex, accompanied by kirtans, dancing and drum performances. This is watched by thousands of pilgrims and residents who follow the procession around the route. Gaura-Nitai deities are wheeled out in front, pulled by oxen and surrounded by singing and dancing devotees, performing familiar kritan tunes. Behind them is a group of boys from the local gurukul school performing in a drum circle. Beyond one more layer of singing and dancing devotees, the two resident elephants are accompanied by more gurukul boys chanting Vedic mantras and stopping every couple of hundred feet, so that pujaris can make offerings.
This spectacle represents exactly what ISKCON is about. At processions like these, the complex becomes a stage upon which ISKCON performs itself for itself, with the added bonus of pilgrims lining the route. In the holy land of Mayapur where the multimillion dollar Temple of Vedic Planetarium rises in the background to pierce the skyline, devotees of all ages and races come together, bound by a commitment to an ideal of ancient Vedic culture. Propelled by the proselytising mission at the heart of that ideal, devotees, just as Caitanya had done 500 years earlier, line the streets singing and chanting the holy names of the Lord.
Over the past 6 months or so, I typically go out once or twice a week taking photographs, whether in Mayapur, Kolkata, or across the river in Nabadwip. The goal is always the same; to take photographs of people in spaces. From women selling fish on the ground at the market, people bathing in the Ganga, or the whole village posing for a photo, I have spent months trying to capture moments. I have tried to narrate, through photography, the lives of the people of West Bengal in their element, doing whatever it is they do. Just like my ethnographic research, photography demands that I find the meaningful in the mundane.
Photography is not just about framing a shot, adjusting the aperture, or buying a fancy camera. Photography is about relationships, interactions, moments. Searching, as I am, for the meaningful moments, photography is more than anything about blending in. Over 6ft tall, with Irish skin that oscillates seasonally between a pasty glare and a rosy burn, and ears that threaten lift-off on a windy day, this is no small feat. More often than not when I set out to take photos, I walk. I walk for hours through city streets or village dirt-paths. On the way, I stop and ask people if I can take photos. Some say no, in which case I walk on. Some say yes, in which case I do my best to make it as painless as possible for them, taking no more than a couple of shots and moving on, depending on their enthusiasm. At times, the interactions can be incredibly brief, though at other times I myself turn into the unsuspecting spectacle behind the camera.
Walking through Nabadwip last weekend, I came across a small area splashed with colours in an otherwise rather grey area of town (see above photo). I decided this would probably be a good place to try to get some shots, so I stopped at the chai stand across the road. Trying to think of a subtle enough reason to invade these people's private lives, I was ambushed before I could finish my small clay pot of chai. Noticing the camera, the chai-wallah ('tea guy') asked for me to take his picture. I needed to check the light and adjust the settings anyway so I was happy to take a couple of shots and show him. While he was posing for his close-up, little did I realise that behind my back swarms of kids had begun to emerge from the colourful neighbourhood across the road, as if smelling the bideshi (foreigner) from a distance. By the time I got a vague sense that I had company, I turned around to find about two dozen local kids pushing and cramming, all eagerly surrounding me to get their photo taken. I felt like the last barrel of ale before prohibition, though this has become quite common in my travels around India, and something I certainly have no right to complain about.
This being a day I was determined to spend outside of the confines of the ISKCON temple, I ended up spending about an hour in this area, drinking tea and taking photos of an ever-demanding throng of impatient kids. Some wanted single photos, some wanted photos with their friends. Some people brought their babies to be photographed, some their parents. It turned out to be absolutely impossible to get the oft-requested 'single chobi' (single photo), as wherever I pointed the camera at least 5 kids would appear in the frame, battling for their place in yet another photo. After taking the shot, I would turn the camera around so the kids could see their picture. Without fail, regardless of how serious or silly their pose, this would result in an eruption of laughter and giggles that would ripple to the edges of the crowd, all the way to the smaller kids who didn't even catch a glimpse of the photo.
People often ask me when they see my photos from India, 'how do you deal with the poverty everywhere?' This is a reasonable question, and to the neophyte, India is certainly a challenging place to visit, let alone try to discover beyond the beaten tracks. Through interactions like this however, you learn not to see the poverty. Maybe this is a necessary skill to develop in order to stay in India so long or maybe it's a deeply unsatisfying excuse for what might seem like apathy. Perceiving poverty, in my experience, requires an analytical distance, made possible only by the absence of interaction. When lost in a moment, you quite simply do not have the required analytical distance to assign labels. A newborn baby is not ‘Indian’, smiling faces don’t belong to a particular ‘caste’ and the economic background of the chai-wallah has nothing to do with my craving a cup of tea! Poverty too, in this way, has a funny way of hiding itself, disappearing at the very point you would expect it to become uncomfortably real. Without the necessary distance between us, and in the context of brimming interactions and uncontainable laughter, poverty has no choice but to wait…most probably to reveal itself once more to the taxi car that goes past, full of bemused bideshis wondering how it is that Mother India could allow her people live in such squalor.
The theatre of ‘doing photography’ reminds me of Geertz’s ethnographic experience of cockfights in Bali. What starts out simply as me taking a photo of one person, turns into a circus, at the centre of which I find myself stammering through broken Bangla, trying to understand the order/ chaos unfolding before my eyes, all the while trying to decide at what point I should just run for cover. Much like my fieldwork, it is not queues or crowds that form around me when I am taking pictures, but billowing hierarchies, cherished relationships, and microcosms that point to meaning well beyond the immediacy of the act we are all engaging in. As a photographer, my aim is to capture these fleeting shadows, freeze-frame these moments that can only whisper their way in and out of the photograph. The art of photography maybe is best summed up in the words of Derek Mahon; "At the heart of the ridiculous, the sublime."
Like Socrates, after visiting the oracle at Delphi, I feel like I am at that point now where I know just enough to know that I don't know anything at all (though comparing myself to Socrates may be a strange way to establish a humble tone to this concluding paragraph). At this stage, as is often the case (if not always) with anthropological fieldwork, my ideas have changed with my experience. Wavering between ideas of knowledge, emotion and 'Vedic Culture' ("whatever that is", as one of the most senior devotees in the movement commented in an interview), I find myself tip-toeing through a network of rabbit holes. It seems that every time I have a ‘realisation’ (to borrow a theistic phrase) and I feel like the field data is cohering around a central theme, it turns out to be just another rabbit hole in disguise. Despite the frustrations of the field, however, things are going relatively well. I have been going to the gurukul classes where we are studying the first canto of the Srimad Bhagavatam (a key text of over 18,000 verses) and I have also attended both cooking classes and deity dressing classes. I have been very lucky to meet with some of the leading figures of the movement and have a lot planned for January and beyond. Next week I will be traveling to China for a break and some good ol' Christmas cheer (whatever that looks like in the land of the red dragon!) so watch this space for my next blog post, "Big Trouble in Little China".
And so it goes...and so it goes.