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.

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.

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.

 

 

Weekly photo challenge: The Window

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This photo was taken in a house Madhya Pradesh, India. The young lady and child were in the kitchen, which had this tiny barred window looking out onto the central open courtyard of the house (so don’t worry they weren’t in prison!) I’m not sure how the onion had escaped….

(Posted for The Weekly Photo Challenge)

The M.P. hat maker

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Yesterday I posted a photograph of a lady in a beautiful Madhya Pradesh reed hat. So I thought today that I would post picture of a lady holding one of these hats that she was in the process of making, to show what wonderful craftsmanship goes into it, in spite of using very simple hand-held tools.

Woman in reed hat

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This beautiful woman is wearing one of the incredible reed hats that are hand-made in Madhya Pradesh.. I’m not sure if they are just worn during the rainy season (as they act like a kind of umbrella as well as a sunshade) but they seem to be principally worn when planting and picking rice so I suspect that is the case. (I was half-tempted to commission one for myself to protect my camera from the rain as it’s not easy taking photos whilst holding an umbrella!)

 

 

Curious guests

 

IMG_8070aYou will be forgiven for thinking that I set this picture up, by asking the lady to stand rigidly by the door and the boy in the doorway, but it is not posed. I just quickly snapped these two neighbours standing at the edge of the open-roof courtyard of the house where I was staying  during my few days in Madhya Pradesh, while they were taking shelter from a brief rain shower.

During their visit the lady never spoke to me – like many other neighbours it was enough for her just to observe this interesting distraction in the village. The shy but polite boy eventually rewarded me with a “hello” and a huge gleaming white grin, which he replicated every time he saw me from then on.

I had countless visitors like these who would just turn up and stand or sit, observing me go about my business. They usually declined my offer of chai; they just wanted to silently watch the show for a while! I admit that this constant audience took some getting used to, but I was rewarded with being able to sneak in some nice photographs of them; so I guess both parties got a little dash of each other’s lives to spice up our own!

 

 

Meet a few of my followers…

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Just to set the scene a bit further regarding my recent stay in Madhya Pradesh – this was an average size crowd that would gather every time I walked out of the door. Having no privacy took some getting used to, but everyone was really lovely so they were very nice company, and naturally I was in heaven whenever they let me take their photograph!

As an aside, tomorrow I leave Udaipur (I am very sorry to leave – it’s such a beautiful friendly place) and go to the more remote Mount Abu for a few days. I’m not sure if I will have internet there, so there may be a slight delay before I start posting my proper M.P. photos, but they will come, I promise….

 

The first of my recent Madhya Pradesh photographs

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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!

Silent observer

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This photo looks very serious but actually the lady is just engrossed in the dancing and drumming taking place as part of the village wedding that I recently attended in Madhya Pradesh. I deliberated blurred both the foreground and the young child so that the focus is on her. I think this makes it quite an arresting shot.

An Indian bride

untitled-54aI have just come back from photographing a rural wedding in Madhya Pradesh. It was such an incredible experience that will stay with me forever. It was fascinating enough living with a rural Indian family for three days and is the kind of insight to Indian life that most visitors can only dream of. But the wedding itself was just like nothing I have ever witnessed before. There were so many stages, with various intimate religious ceremonies, that just when I thought it was over a new ceremony would start. In fact it lasted all through the night;  finally ending at 11am the next day with the extremely emotional departure of the bride to join her husband’s family, with a truck following their car with all her belongings inside.

As appears to be the norm in rural India, it was an arranged marriage, and she seems to have married into a respectable family (of the same Brahman caste) living just a few miles away. The groom looked handsome and kind, and at 20 years of age is just 3 years older than her. So as arranged marriages go I think she has probably been very fortunate. But it was heartbreaking for her to leave her family (all 30 members of it living in two adjoined houses) to effectively belong to a new family, that of her husband. I observed how close the women were so she was leaving behind dear sisters, aunts, cousins plus young nieces and nephews that she will have helped to bring up. It was so upsetting for everyone to see how distraught she was to go that even the men of the groom’s family were crying and hugging each other.

Of all the aspects of the very long chain of events constituting the wedding;  the sight of this beautiful young bride being carried to her husband’s car, sobbing and wailing, will stay with me the most.