Thursday, 13 February 2014

Omo Valley, Ethiopia

We worry about money, power, status, the way the world perceives us. While we spend all of our energy succumbing to these, there’s people like you and me that are living parallel lives, except in a place where there’s miles of nothingness. The Omo Valley in Ethiopia, home to tribes like Mursi, Hamer, Benna has been one of the most surreal places I have had the fortune of experiencing.

Driving through dirt roads for hours, going deeper into the vastness of the wilderness in Ethiopia, the feelings moving through my body cannot be explained. Never before in my life have I seen a group of people so detached from what you and I call civilization. Yet, while I looked at them through the lens, the intensity of their gazes and the force of existence that they were emitting was almost unnatural.

We didn’t speak the same language, but when they welcomed me into their homes, uttering words would only disturb the calming sound of barren lands.
Photographing the Mursi tribe was the most challenging, temperamentally they seemed heated, with the advent of tourism they have learnt they can make money in exchange of letting people photograph them. With their constant badgering, it was hard to focus on a subject as long as I would have liked to, additionally, every time the flash went off, they believed the stark light was sucking up their blood. It was evident the discomfort it was causing them; the more flashed that went off, the angrier they got. The fact that they were carrying AK-47s further caused me to be intimidated, but our driver and tour guide managed to put me at ease when he pulled out a semi-automatic weapon himself and escorted us away.

While the entire trip was magical, there are some stories that stand out more than the others. The night I saw a young boy perform his rite of passage is one of them. Seeing him jump over the backs of these bulls was an extraordinary display of talent. Before he took the leap, the nervousness hung thick in the air; but it didn’t last long as the women of the tribe inebriated by now, broke into loud, manic chants and cheers to encourage and welcome the boy into manhood.

Our tour guide incidentally belonged to the Benna tribe, and I can safely say, being amongst them was the most peaceful I have felt in a very long time. 

The content they lived with was almost contagious, I remember sitting out and just looking up at the vast stretches of nothingness, when a plane flew overhead. 
The people on the plane had no idea what is right under them, this whole new world where humans exist, in their most raw form. They were the most beautiful people I have laid eyes on, some of them were bare naked, some had adorned themselves with beads, some had painted themselves with ash, yet they all had a sense of regality to them.

And that raw beauty in it’s most natural form is what I want to show the world through my photographs. The people of Omo Valley compelled me to reassess the way I looked at life, rather retold me of what is important. We get too caught up in the rat race called life, Ethiopia reminded me that money is not important to be happy, what matters is the hunt for our own happy place where we see beauty in all things.

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Lath-Maar Holi, Barsana, UP

Last year on the same day, I visited this small village near Mathura called Barsana. It is known to be Radhaji's village. Barsana and a few neighboring villages have this very interesting and traditional way of playing Holi. The females of one village beat the men of the neighboring village who come and tease them in their own village. Thousands of devotees come here every year to see this eccentric Holi. The visitors are mostly from nearby villages and states. And ofcourse the non-Indian backpackers. No one visiting this village is spared. The locals make sure that everyone is colored. No matter what religion, profession or level of society you belong to, at the end of this day everyone looks the same. And feels the same too, I guess. There are no rules and unlimited colors. Majorly attracted by this fact, my passion had to get me here.

I visited this village for the first time in 2011. Loitering in the narrow lanes of Barsana, I was attacked by these little, angelic devils with their water guns, spraying out gallons of coloured water and unbound love. They knew nothing but innocent mischief and happiness. Let alone the children, most of the locals too, made sure there was color all over me and my dearest camera. I was enjoying it and was merrily clicking pictures. While on the colourful, joyous spree, I ended up in this supremely attractive lane. No idea how and when, but I found myself in this narrow, cobbled and hued lane. Something made me wait exactly between these two houses. It was probably the human instinct of wanting to be safe, regardless of the innumerable colour-attacks I had already gone through. I heard some chuckles above me and instantly understood that some notorious monkeys were plotting to colour me yet again. I looked up to see a little boy positioned on one of the two terraces, to splash blue coloured water on this person standing right next to me. I clicked. That shot was just as spontaneous as the registration of its sight in my head. And both probably happened at the same time. I checked my camera- it was the best shot I had ever captured in my life. 

I somehow could imagine myself playing the exact same prank, in the exact same way, if I was a kid in Barsana. So totally awed by his kittenish moves, I asked him his name and he replied impishly, “Sab muje Chotu bulate hain”. I asked him if I could join him on his terrace and click a few pictures. We spent half a day together and I was overwhelmed by the warmth I received from everyone at his place, including his mother. It was one of my most memorable and satisfying experience in more than just one way.

That picture travelled places. It was published in one of the best photography magazines named “Better Photography” in India. I received a lot of appreciation from friends and followers of my work. Good pictures seep into you, but then there are some that define you. Needless to say, this picture is extremely close to my heart for reasons, I still sometimes wonder about.

Its 2012 now, I have come again to this magical place, for the sole reason that I have grown. Grown as a photographer, saw and understood things in a better way, have better equipments to cover the festival in a better way and also because I got connected to the place. This time I am traveling with a very close friend and a phenomenal photographer, Indrasen. We are staying in Mathura, an hour’s drive from Barsana. We reached here early morning on the day of the festival. I was very well aware of how crazy Barsana was going to be that day. Just as excited as we were, I was also cautious to cover our bags and cameras with plastic. Getting our souls drenched would be cool but we could not afford to let the madness seep into our equipments. We reached Barsana around noon. The village was as crazier than what I had experienced and anticipated. It felt as if the sole purpose of these myriad of people was to soak me and Indrasen with colours. Through and through, again and again. We were ceaselessly bombarded with pure gulaal and coloured water. Not one person in the village was uncolored, now including us. We walked a little as I explained to ndrasen how and what I did last year when I was here. We kept on walking and clicking for a few hours.

As we were exploring the place, somewhere deep down my heart, I was hoping to find that lane where I clicked Chotu last year. Eventually, as we spoke to people on our way, and while capturing the festive moments, we reached a lane which looked a little similar to the Chotu lane. My heart started thumping in hope and excitement. The hand pump at the end of the lane confirmed it to be the one I was wishing it was. I wasn't expecting anything more to happen. I just wanted to show to Indrasen where exactly I clicked that super shot last year. I went and stood on the same spot and was waiting for Indrasen to come. My friend was capturing the frolic of this little girl who was happily lost in her play of colors, throwing 10 grams at a go. Her hands were really small and it wasn't possible for her to grab more gulaal.

I suddenly hear this voice above me and I look up. It was an unknown face. I asked Indrasen to rush as that was the exact situation as last year and I really wanted him to feel it. As soon as he came, we saw this man who was holding a similar bucket, filled with pink coloured water, at the the exact same spot at the terrace, splashing it on people passing by down there. Deja-vu. I quickly clicked a few shots and you will not believe if I tell you that I ended up getting an equally amazing picture. 

My emotions were just about to overflow and guess who I saw. Yes, Chotu, looking at me from the exact same terrace giving me a look which I could not help but capture. I clicked and didn’t stop.

I called him down this time. No words can even remotely define the rush I was going through at that point. I just couldn't believe how the whole thing just repeated itself. I never in my life thought, I would meet this little boy again. This little soul because of whom my photograph went places. I couldn't believe I was living through that moment. I literally had to close my eyes for a bit and tell myself, this is happening, Trupal. Everything around you is for real. I guess he remembered me and was obviously unaware of the fact that he got published in a magazine. It's funny how he holds so much significance in my life and hardly knows about it. It’s funny how thousands of people have seen him but he is least bothered about it. It was one of those intense moment when you completely lose the ability to think or react. He came down and Indrasen told him, “tujhe pata hai tera photo magazine me aaya hai”. And he didn't know how to respond to that. He wasn't interested. Not one bit. All he wanted to do was to play with colors and run around. I was still glued at the same spot, thinking how life if full of surprises. How a small moment or a person can make it so memorable. It's impossible for me to forget that instant. I obviously went to his terrace again, spent some quality time with his family again, and captured some inexplicable moments for life, again. This entire experience made me feel rooted, connected- closest I’ve ever been to my god.

कवि के कुछ लव्ज़ों में जैसे,
यादों का असर बस जाता है..
तस्वीर- - कैद लम्हों में ऐसे,
रब का अक्स नज़र आता है. 

I didn't want to leave that place but I had to go. We had a lot of other things to click. We left and started walking back from where we came. Someone from the crowd suggested that we should go to this place where the boys from the neighboring village gather before coming in Barsana to get beaten up. They gather there to drink 'bhaang'. An Indian drink which has the capablity to give you a trip equivalent to LSD or any other hard drug. People say it can make a person hallucinate for 24 hours or 36 hours, in worst cases. I really wanted to try it but thought should be responsible as I was carrying some expensive equipments. We reached that place which was under a tree, outside the village where boys were enjoying themselves over bhaang.

We clicked a few pictures there and headed back to the temple which was on a small hill next to the village. According to the tradition these boys have to come up to the temple, pray and then run down the hill back to the village where the females are waiting to welcome them with the sticks in their hands, obviously to beat them up. We reached the temple and couldn't believe what we saw up there. Thousands of people drenched in colour. It was a different sight all together. Since morning we had not seen so many people together anywhere. Here people were going barbaric on the live music of dhol. Many danced like there was no tomorrow. Many watched and a lot of other people threw water and colours on these myriad of men who were dancing and enjoying themselves.

There was no need to know anyone to dance with, play holi with or to simply sit back and enjoy with. It was an environment which would make any human being go crazy and happy. Uncountable number of people playing holi, together. Even if one didn’t want to play, he/ she didn't have a choice. We were standing within this huge wave of people who were ready to race to get inside the temple as soon as the doors opened. All these people were dancing in the temple’s courtyard that was surrounded by high walls and balconies from 3 sides. Masses were standing on those walls and at the balconies to pour coloured water at others. There was absolutely no chance that one could be spared. We really had to take care of our equipments because we wouldn’t know how and when would we get showered with colour and water.

To add to this madness the authorities arranged for a helicopter which would come every 5 minutes and downpour rose petals on this already mad crowd. Everytime it came, people would get charged up and welcomed it with loud roars and hands cheering high up in the air. I had never before this day seen anything so insane. Not even the previous time I came here. I remember this one time just before the doors opened how this huge splash of water drenched me and Indrasen. Before we could get back to our senses, the door of the temple opened, and good god gracious!- we were floating in that wave of almost 700-800 people, being pulled and pushed by a thousand more, who were trying to get inside the temple as soon as possible. It was like pushing a watermelon through a keyhole. I remember how I saved my camera and myself from getting crushed. I also remember shouting to Indrasen “take a left as soon as you get in” because it was impossible to be together in such madness. We entered getting squeezed and thrown around by people. By this time I could premeditate what would be happening inside. And I was right. Hundreds of people were just waiting for the rest to get in. The were ready with unlimited yellow water and colours. As soon as we entered we lost the sense of direction. Our brains stopped working. We didn’t know how to save ourselves and our equipments from this yellow cloudburst that came in from all 8 sides. It was utter madness. I remember this look on Indrasen's face which was confused and lost.

 I was sure he had never seen something like this ever before. We were drenched and so were our cameras. It was a million dollar opportunity to click this madness but our brains stopped functioning. It took us quiet some time to get back to normal. We couldn't even see each other, let alone figuring camera settings and clicking pictures. We were clicking blind(colour)-foldedly.

In this hysteria, no matter how crazy and bad it became, it is only our souls and hearts that know this to be the ultimate happiness. This is what life is for me- crazy, mad, unpredictable, full of colours and happiness. There was so much energy. Everywhere my eyes could see, I saw untapped excitement. Each and every human being was lost in iving to the fullest. Enjoying to the core. That is exactly how I’d choose and expect my life and of the ones around me to be.

I and Indrasen together had the best photography equipments one could dream of. From the most expensive cameras to the most amazing lenses ranging from wide angles to 50 mm to zooms. We were skilled and had enough knowledge to get good pictures. A photographer could not have asked for a better view. The place was full of subjects, energy and life. We spent 15 mad minutes inside that temple and the irony is that both of us, together, could not even manage to get one decent picture. The message was very clear that equipments hardly matter. It is all just in the moment. We probably got too lost in those magical minutes. Every second was worth it. It felt like we travelled all this way only because we were destined to feel those maddening minutes of bliss.

We got out and decided to walk down hill. Exhausted, confused and puzzled what just happened with us. We were surprised at the sight we saw as we were coming down. It was this gang of guys who came running down only to tease these females and to get beaten up. The entire village went mad. The crowd from all around the village gathered in those lanes to witness the crazy beating. I still don’t understand the logic behind this tradition, nor do I wish to find out why they beat and take the beating. There are a lot of things I would love to witness/ feel and just enjoy without knowing why. I think I leave it as soon as I get happy. All that matters is happiness. For them is beating and for me it’s clicking. Haha

I and Indrasen kept on walking towards our car which was only a couple of miles away. Not to forget the streets were flooded with people. 10 people were standing on a platform which could religiously accommodate only 5. I knew that walking down those 2 miles was going to be a mission. I was actually enjoying while I walked clicking and saving myself from getting hit by these crazy females. Soon I realized I didn’t have to put in any efforts to walk at all. I was floating amidst the crowd. The mob literally was transporting my, luckily in the same direction that I was supposed to go in.

I was lost in my thoughts as I lost Indrasen too and was walking alone and suddenly I could feel this gush of people behind me. I knew I was going to be pushed by those thousands of people behind me. Before I could think much, that little push started getting converted into a rage. I was lucky enough to be on the side of the road and decided to sit on this really small platform with exactly 10 inches of place to rest my butt. I thought I was lucky till I realized that what I simply thought could be a stampede was actually a bloody STAMPEDE. Imagine this. I was sitting on a small platform like wall on the side of the road, there are thousands of people and a stampede on the road and I sort of forgot my legs in that stampede. Yes, my legs were a part of the flow with my butt resting on that platform. Trust me and excuse me for my language, but I had my balls in my mouth when I realized that I am being pulled by the fucking bull like people. I felt as if I was going to fall and die in this madness. I was on the knee level of the rest of the people who were actively IN the stampede. I really flipped. I remember piercing my nails in someones thighs who was standing on that platform. I shouted and kept on shouting “ (bhaiya muje khada karo)3 “. It was a feeling of being swallowed by this huge blind and deaf mad crowd. I thank god and that man who felt the pain of my penetrating nails and realized that there was a man who needs to be rescued. He pulled me up. I was shivering and was completely blank. I swear it is impossible to even begin to express the feeling of almost facing death. It was scary. All this while I had my video on and somehow I have managed to capture the fear in my voice. Check out this video.

After the man pulled me up I stood in those 10 inches for more than 30 minutes. I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t want to reach the car. I didn’t want to move from that place. I just wanted to be there and feel alive. I just wanted to be there and acknowledge my existence. I saw that entire stampede pass by. I saw people fighting. I saw the females with the sticks hitting the people around them randomly. I saw a man with a stick in his hand gone crazy and was hitting anyone and everyone in the crowd. I was shivering and I completely zoned out. I just couldn’t think and felt zombified . I stood still with my video on and kept talking videos of that hysteria around me. It was after 45 mins that I dared to step down on the road and walk back to my car. I met Indrasen near the car equally blank and zonked. It was like someone punching you on your nose and then drowning you in the water. Yes I swear it was a bad. I will never ever forget those last 2 hours I spent in Barsana.

We were dead by the time we reached home. But the ride back was fun. There was this local boy called Kaluaa, who was sitting with us on the back seat of this long jeep called Toofan. Haha.He entertained us so much on our way back that we forgot all out tiredness and mental shocks. I am sure he was tripping on the bhaang. He kept on cracking dirty jokes and passing 'ghati' comments revolving around this female who was sitting on the front seat of our Toofan. It was hilarious. Loads of uncontrollable laughter- a peaceful end to the mad/ blissful/ colourful/ traumatic day.

One of the major reasons why I love traveling so much is I can meet so many people. It doesn’t matter what cast or level of society they belong to. They become my best of friends. He still calls me quiet regularly. I love such bonds which only share happiness. You know whenever you pick up calls from such people all you'll hear is happiness. Lot’s of it. With every trip that I make, I get closer to my unison with the universe. And every person I meet, plays the role of a piece in my cosmic puzzle- even one block missing and I’ll be incomplete. At the end, everything begins to feel one- like my life’s jig-saw is being completed.