A lazy afternoon in India

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After a bit of a hiatus I’m back! I’ve had a few distractions since being back in London, but here’s hoping that I’ll get into the rhythm of posting again, as I have a vast archive of pictures still to get through that should really see the light of day, otherwise what’s the point of taking them?

I’m honoured that people have still been visiting my blog over the past few months, in spite of the absence of new posts. According to my stats I had nearly 500 viewings yesterday alone. So I figured that if people could be bothered to visit the site even when there wasn’t anything new to see, well then I should really start re-earning this attention by posting some fresh material!

So, I’m starting with an Indian picture. There is a nice serenity to this scene, shot in Madhya Pradesh I think. I feel at peace whenever I look at it. I remember it was late-afternoon at the time and still very hot. So everyone’s pace, including the dog’s, was very relaxed. I’m not sure why it seems to work in black and white – maybe because the cow was white, but it just does, for me anyhow.

A picture tells a thousand words

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I’m not a big fan of busy pictures. I think my images are generally hallmarked by their simplicity and order. But sometimes even a complicated picture can have great composition – like this one. Every person or animal just seems to fit into its own space; nothing seems to be competing with each other. And so I like it. Maybe it also comforts me because it reminds me of a biblical scene – of the animals sitting around the baby in the manger. Except in this case, instead of something being conjured up for an audience, it is real – the animals and humans actually are together in total harmony.

The whole scene looks so perfect that it is like I have played director and staged the shot, but of course I didn’t. I did hang out at this little chai shop for many a morning, so maybe that’s why everything came together. In fact it was one of my favourite places in which to sit, because there was always so much going on. It was located on a kind of crossroads (like the Times Square or Piccadilly Circus of Varanasi) right next to a temple. Which is why the cows seemed so at home there I guess, because they would be given offerings and always treated with kindness.

I remember when the biggest bull I have ever seen came by and the local people gathered around to care for its feet. He just patiently stood there, picking up his huge hooves and soaking up their attention as gentle as a lamb. It was one of those sights that stay with you forever and makes me realise that you needn’t be scared of anything, big or small, so long as you meet it with love and compassion.

I love the scene so much because it contains so much that I remember about India: the chai stalls; the people reading newspapers; the spiritual men; the animals all around you; and that sense of peaceful harmony in spite of the cacophony all around you. It’s an essence of India that I hope I never forget.

Meetings and greetings in Madhya Pradesh

 

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Regular followers of my blog will know that I was fortunate enough to stay in a remote village in Madhya Pradesh during my time in India last year. It was one of the most peaceful times of my life – calmer even than being out at sea on a sailboat. I loved waking up early and going for strolls in the first light when the air was still blessedly fresh and cool. Fortunately everyone else had the same idea, and the local folks were happy to stop and chat (or smile when my limited Hindi ran dry) on their way back from the village pump or on their way to work in the fields. Often they would happily let me photograph them too.

The oxymoron is that I seemingly witnessed joy and poverty in equal measures each day on my walks. I’m not saying that these people are happy because they are poor, but maybe they don’t yearn for things that they have never known. When I witnessed the sense of peace and contentment all around me I felt sure that an influx of material goods would not make them any happier. But that doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t be able to move away from subsistence living – for none of the children to have swollen bellies, wear tattered rags or peer at me through infected eyes. And maybe having electricity to run a fan and keep themselves cool during the intense summer heat or light a bulb or two once the sun went down would not spoil their lovely, kind, generous natures either.

But unfortunately it often seems to be all or nothing in India. And so these folks will keep getting by – with that shrug of acceptance bordering on cheerfulness – in spite of their daily struggles, because of that inner calm within that seems to stem from their beautiful surroundings, family, and the close-knit community that they live in.

Siblings in the doorway

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This wasn’t the easiest photograph to take because the boy is in the shadows while his sister stands in a stream of light flooding in through the doorway. But there was something about their expressions – a mixture of mournfulness and faint fascination; their seemingly subconscious holding of hands, and the beauty of the light catching their faces and clothes, that compelled me to capture them.

I admit to having had a fascination with this little girl, so she popped up in a few of my photographs that day (even though I was really supposed to be photographing the final stages of a wedding). I have previously published another one which I’m repeating here, along with some others that I’m rather partial to:

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I think that there is a poignancy to such a beautiful young thing in a poor Indian village wearing her misplaced party dress. She will doubtlessly wear it every day until it becomes even more worn and faded than it is now. It is one of those cruel Cinderella twists in this strange upside down world – that the girl who looks so beautiful, even in a raggedly old party dress, is the one that will probably never get to go to the ball.

Bedfellows

 

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I’m not sure if this gentleman was aware that a cat was sleeping under his bed, and if it belonged there or had just wandered off the street to enjoy some shade. But it made a nice scene – especially as cats, unlike dogs, were not a common sight during my explorations of Varanasi.

Apart from the light which is spotlighting both figures, I think what makes the picture is the echo of grey – from the man’s mop of hair to the cat immediately below, and the fact that your eye is drawn there by his hand pointing downwards. It’s nice when things randomly come together to create a harmonious image.

The blue chai cafe

 

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This colourful cafe was spotted in the warren of streets forming the old town of Varanasi. Aside from the framing of the woman in the doorway and the nice details such as the steaming kettle, it’s the vivid red and blue colours that make this picture so appealing to me.

Of course I wish now that I could have taken it with my new Fujifilm camera that brings out the colours so well. But we can’t redo what is done; we can only strive to keep moving forward and developing our craft through new tools and honed  skills.

 

Preparing lunch

 

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This photo was taken in a small village in Madhya Pradesh. I formed a quick bond with this lovely young lady who a few minutes earlier had been having a lot of fun with my camera. In fact, although I don’t think she had ever handled one before, she took probably my all-time favourite photograph of myself, seen below. I’m looking a bit dishevelled because I’d been travelling all day along dusty roads, but I think that she captured how happy and carefree I was feeling at the time.

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Of course, being a woman in India, she soon had to return to her household chores which involved helping to prepare lunch. She is actually of the Brahman (highest) caste, which Westerners often wrongly assume means that she is of a wealthy family. Actually the Brahman caste do not chase after riches – they pursue spiritual or scholarly careers and eschew things that can be considered luxuries. They eat a simple vegetarian diet and, as can be seen from this photograph, run a modest household with barely any more furniture than maybe a simple bed (without mattress or bedding), which would probably be shared with other family members.

This was still one of the luckier households in the village in that they had electricity. But that amounted to nothing during the inevitable daily power shortages, which always seemed to occur during the hottest time. Much of my time spent there involved trying to nap with the rest of the clan in the intense pre-monsoon heat; which was seemingly the only way of making it through those mettle-testing hot and humid hours.

I love the light in this image (thanks to the lack of windows in the house) and how she seems to come out of the darkness. I also love the serene expression on her face. If you look carefully you will see that she is using an intriguing slicer for chopping the vegetables, something that I have never seen outside of India but is a great invention which slices things in seconds with seemingly little effort. Everything that is being prepared will have been bought that day as fridges are still a rarity outside the very wealthiest of households. In fact what she is preparing is probably a special exception because of having guests to stay. Fresh salad ingredients such as cucumber were rarely seen in my experience beyond the tourist restaurants. I was an honoured guest, but a humbled one too, thanks to the warm hospitality that was proffered in this simple but seemingly happy home.

 

 

Keep searching

IMG_7035a copyToday on one of my ambles by the Thames in the glorious sunshine that is miraculously becoming the norm this summer in London, I stumbled across a sign that read:

“Those who search most are the ones who find most” Anon

It struck a chord with me as just yesterday I was given two invitations that I couldn’t possibly refuse. The first was to go and stay with some friends that I had made when I was in India last year. They live in the apple growing region of Himachal Pradesh in the foothills of the Himalayas, where they have recently set up their own chutney and jam making business. The prospect of seeing them again, inspecting their fledgling business and staying again in such a beautiful village of which I have such fond memories as well as other lovely friends, fills me with great joy. And right on cue I began to feel that itch on the souls of my feet again as I wondered if it would be too reckless an idea to go back.

Later that day I was invited by a Radio 4 presenter – who one fateful day landed in Nepal on a BBC assignment and fell in love with the place – to join him on the back of his Royal Enfield motorbike traversing the country as a ‘recce’ for a photo tour that we are going to run together there next spring. Those two invitations from neighbouring countries have combined to seal my fate and I have no option but to start looking into flights.

I know that neither of those ridiculously wonderful invitations would probably not have taken place if I was not an explorer. Life doesn’t happen by sitting at home watching terrible TV or scanning Facebook. Once you make the effort to get out there and do things then other opportunities just seem to present themselves – it’s the domino effect in rewind I guess.

I know that not everyone has the  freedom to do the things that I do, so I’m not saying that you all need to travel to far-flung countries in order to be fulfilled. But I thoroughly recommend that we all keep searching – whether that is through reading a different genre of book, listening to a new musician, learning a new skill, taking a different route home from work or giving someone the time of day whom we wouldn’t normally bother with. By doing so we will keep discovering not only more about this world but, more importantly, about ourselves. And believe me, we will be rewarded for it, many times over, in ways that right now we can only imagine.

 

 

The Child Within

 

IMG_8703-2I received an email from my mother today telling me my numerology birth sign predictions for this month. It seems a bit late in the day to be getting your July ‘numerologyscope’ (for want of a better word), but she wanted me to see it because she felt that what had been prophesied was something that she could already see happening in my life. So this is what was written for my sign (which, in case anyone is curious, is apparently a ‘5 Tai chi star’)

“Tai Chi it’s time to find your child within. The little person you were, full of hopes and dreams, needs to come out. See the world through their eyes again. Be curious and remember your dreams. It’s a great way to remember why you are where you are now.”

Numerology is nothing I have ever delved in so I don’t know if I believe in it or not, but I have to confess to spotting a certain correlation to what was predicted and how I feel right now. I do feel a sense of personal unburdening – a subtle shedding of those insecurities and doubts; of those sensations of guilt or just that heavy weight of believing myself not to be good enough or worthy enough.

That pesky, pernickity parrot that has been squatting on my shoulder for so long and chattering on about how useless I was seems to have buggered off to pick on someone else. A delicate little butterfly has taken his place; as light as a feather and whose beauty and gentle presence reminds me that miracles can happen and people can transcend into something beyond anything they could possibly have imagined – well not since they were a child anyhow, when silly fantastical dreams were still allowed.

This little butterfly is very welcome and can stay as long as she likes if she just continues to help me conjure back those old discarded hopes and dreams. Who knows what might happen next – maybe I’ll even start to think about fulfilling some of them.

Ganga gazing

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This morning I went to see an exhibition about Virginia Woolf at the National Portrait Gallery. It was a gentle yet weighty collection of images and mementoes – ranging from photographs and paintings, to deeply personal letters both to and from the author. I was surprised at how many significant people she knew – both in her childhood and through the ‘Bloomsbury Set’. My friend commented on how lucky she must have been to have been able to spend so much of her time being creative and just being around creative people. It made me realise how lucky I am too, because I also am in that position. I am so in awe of some of the people in my life right now and so humbled by the fact that they want to even give me the time of day, let alone encourage me with my own art. I will keep trying to earn that respect; and will continue to be inspired by those mighty shadows from the past and those wonderful giants in my midst.

I am so grateful to them for believing in me – and for making me feel so alive again by sheer virtue of being around such incredible, beautiful talent.

Death in Varanasi

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Death is all around you in Varanasi. You breathe in the dust of the bodies being burned along the ghats; you hear the chanting of the people racing through the streets towards the river carrying loved ones enveloped in colourful cloths and flowers. The process of burning of bodies goes on ceaselessly 24 hours like some kind of morbid factory; the elderly widows patiently wait in a nearby hostel for their turn to die. Occasionally you see a bloated body floating along the water that an enterprising bird has turned into a useful perch; a random skull rolling along the ghats or, as on this occasion, an entire skeleton washed up on the shore. 

Life goes on insensitive to death; the people seem oblivious to it. It’s no big deal because you will come back again soon in hopefully a better life. Or better still you will achieve ‘moksha’, or liberation.

 The dogs playing in this photo represent to me this strangely irreverent attitude towards the diseased. The body is insignificant; not even a curiosity. The soul has gone. What’s left is empty. Just a pile of cast off bones that have been stripped of their engine.

Incidentally, the reason why this body hasn’t been cremated is probably because it belonged to a sadhu (an Indian holy man). Along with children under two (who are not considered in need of purity from cremation because their souls are still pure); lepers or people with smallpox, they are allowed to be deposited in the Ganges with a heavy stone to weigh them down. Though as you can see, this doesn’t always achieve its purpose, resulting in a morbid curiosity for the tourists and, well, just a pile of bones for the locals.

 

Young snake charmer

Young snake charmer

It had never occurred to me that snake charmers really existed until I saw my first performer in Varanasi. On that occasion it was an elderly gentleman and I was so overwhelmed by the sight that I gave him a generous reward in return for his permission to take his photograph – which produced such delight that at one point I thought that not only him but all the other spectators were going to hug me!

It was slightly less happy occasion with this rather sorrowful looking boy who rather plaintively posed for a photograph too. The backdrop makes it a rather classic photograph and the edition of India in the description would make it popular stock photograph I guess. I like the composition and colours, but I can’t help feeling a bit sad when I see the photograph and wondering what his life was like to make him look so sad.

Another wedding, another re-paint

File109951Every time a daughter of a household marries in Varanasi the house is re-painted with wonderful fresh designs celebrating the marriage. I was gutted to see the beautiful existing paintings on this house being painted over but within a couple of days new murals had appeared on a lovely fresh canvas of pistachio green.

 

Weekly photo challenge: Object

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Here is another ‘diya’ picture – an offering to Ma Ganga (the goddess of the Ganges). The lady was doing her own personal puja ceremony by the river, in which a butter candle is lit in offering and then left to float on the river. I don’t know if this was a regular occurrence for her if she had come to Varanasi in pilgrimage especially for this purpose, and of course to bathe in the holy waters. She was one of thousands that would have been bathing and offering ‘puja’ that morning.

Posted for the Weekly Photo Challenge