A few days ago I promised you some photos of my recent stay in Madhya Pradesh and, having now looked through a selection of my favourites, I have to say that I am really excited to start posting them because as I get goose bumps just looking at some of them.
I’m starting with a simple backdrop image to give you an idea of the setting. This is the lovely, peaceful scene from my house each morning when I arose at dawn to happily sit in the doorway watching the women and children come to fill up their water bottles from the adjacent well; the family cows next door being milked so that I could enjoy rich and creamy chai or curd; and the men leading their oxen to work in the fields.
As I now sit in my nice, comfortable hotel room in Rajasthan and mingle with other backpackers I’m already finding it hard to believe that a few days ago I had been living in a simple mud floor house among these lovely, friendly villagers who were as fascinated by the foreign white woman in their midst as I was by them! (During my stay apparently people travelled 50km just to take a look at me and every time I stepped out of the house a crowd would gradually gather and quietly accompany me on my strolls. I was guest of honour at the local school celebrations for Independence Day and was even asked to give an impromptu speech to the hundreds of people gathered there).
I felt a bit of a fraud as, in my eyes, they were the true stars not me. Not only did I enjoy endless hospitality in countless homes but they were kind enough to let me take their photograph, enabling me not only to share some of the spirit and beauty of this magical corner of India untouched by tourists, but of the generous, lovely people who seem to have a spring in their step and a warm smile in spite of having little more than a roof over their heads and simple food in their stomachs.
I am currently re-reading an inspiring book “Three Cups of Tea” by Greg Mortenson, who has built countless schools where there is a need in Pakistan and Afghanistan. In it he quotes another writer, Helena Norberg-Hodge, who after almost two decades of observing Ladakh life observes: “I have seen that community and a close relationship with the land can enrich human life beyond all comparison with material wealth or technological sophistication. I have learned that another way is possible.”
I had a similar feeling as I observed life in this remote village. My heart went out to the children in dirty clothes with broken zips and missing buttons; I couldn’t bear to see the sores around their eyes and mouths and the flies making themselves at home on their faces. But at the same time, the only time I saw a child cry was when I refused to give a young girl a second balloon (to be fair, I should explain, to the other children so that there were enough to go round). I couldn’t decide whether I was viewing the community through rose coloured spectacles or if they really were content in spite of their lack of material possessions, but it made me wonder what would happen if you brought in fridges, televisions and computers – would they actually become happier or would the quiet contentment and community spirit be broken?
I know that the march of progress is inevitable and I personally would like to see that these children’s bellies are full; that they are not plagued by diseases that can be easily avoided; that their mothers don’t have to walk miles for a basic necessity like water; that they can put on clean, well-fitting clothes each morning and find the time and money to go to school instead of having to help their parents from far too fragile an age. Beyond that, maybe I’m just being over-idealistic, but I’m not sure that western ideas of wealth and prosperity would actually would make these people any more content than they already are.
I’m not saying that if someone prized away my computer and camera and access to internet I wouldn’t give them up without a tremendous fight. But at the same time it is the fear of losing these possessions (especially my photos); the problems with getting an internet connection or trying to charge camera batteries that have caused me more stress than anything else (other than an occasional fear for my personal safety) during my travels.
I sometimes wonder how my Indian friend who is currently travelling with me and who invited me to his village – who has no material possessions other than a mobile phone – tolerates my daily hair-tearing over one technological problem or another and why he doesn’t laugh at me while I drag all my belongings with me from one location to the next, always paranoid about not letting them out of my sight.
Sometimes I would love to be as free as him, with just a small bag slung over my shoulder, but it is my love of observing, recording and sharing images of this way of life in India that forces me to have all these ‘burdens’.
So, readers, I hope you enjoy the photos of rural Madhya Pradesh that I will post over the next few days and appreciate that I am suffering for my art!!!! But don’t worry, I’m not complaining or even contemplating ditching the camera, because I am well aware that i t i s my photography that has opened up so many doors to me during the past few months – from ashram bhandaras to festival processions; to weddings and people in remote Indian communities. I have been truly blessed to be able to be a silent observer (other than the clicking of the shutter button) to so many riches. And I will no doubt to continue to be as educated and moved by the people, as they are fascinated by me!
Oh, and in case you’re wondering – I did give something back beyond balloons – not a fridge or a TV, but a cow (as the one next door was getting a bit long in the tooth). Hopefully a few extra cups of creamy chai each day won’t rock the boat too much!