I have been following the progress of Mr Rajesh Kumar Sharma’s School Under a Metro Bridge in Delhi since 2012 and I thought I should share some of my colour work to complement the earlier all black and white images in the original post and do have a look at the school’s Facebook page, meanwhile enjoy the pics below!
Getting around to making my new website was something I’d been putting off for ages, then, largely due to the encouragement (AKA hectoring!) of Stuart Freedman, I finally buckled down to doing it as a result of productive mentoring sessions with him. I’d forgotten what hard work it is but also how rewarding it can be and although the digital world rules in most areas of life it was interesting to find that when it comes to sorting the sequences of images for a website or a book, – physical prints on the floor is still the best way to go.
Editing your own work dispassionately is extremely difficult and having an independent, experienced colleague to hand is essential when it comes to hard calls of what stays and what goes, many ‘robust’ (but always good-natured) conversations were had!
Regarding the website construction itself I found working with the Photoshelter ‘Beam’ templates to be more difficult than I’d anticipated. This is because the way the individual templates work and how they differ from each other is not set out in a detailed enough way (for me and that I could find) so I had experiment with one template after another until I found the one that met my needs best this wasted a lot of time and there was hair-pulling..
However now that its done I’m really pleased with it and if you missed the subtle link to my new website above here’s a blatant one: Simon de Trey-White’s new website please have a look and let me know what you think in the comments or on Twitter where I am ShootIndia.
Sohan Lal’s tiny bird-like frame shook with emotion as he fumbled a series of passport-sized images from a pocket to show us. The first were simple portraits of his daughter Murti and niece Pushpa, I asked him to hold them in his scarred, stained hands that spoke eloquently of a hard life as an agricultural labourer at the bottom of India’s caste system and took six frames quickly. The next images showed the same girls, one dressed in green, the other in vibrant pink, hanging from a tree on the edge of the village. The girls’ heads tilted slightly downwards where the nooses fashioned from their own scarves dug into their throats. It was truly shocking and by far the most disturbing image I’ve seen during my 7 years in India.
One can only guess then what Sohan had felt shortly before sunrise on Wednesday 28th May 2014 when he was taken to the orchard of 13 mango trees and shown what had befallen his daughter Murti and niece Pushpa.
“We had gone there at 4.30am,” said Sohan. “The police had said they were dead and hanging. The police would not let us take the bodies down. We did not get them until 4.30pm.”
India is once again reeling. Eighteen months after the gang-rape and murder of physiotherapy student in Delhi reverberated around the world and set in motion an unprecedented debate about the safety of women, the country is confronting more horror.
At around 7pm on Tuesday 27th May, Sohan’s daughter, Murti, and his niece Pushpa, the two of them aged between 12 and 14 though the family said they could not be precise, had gone to the fields to relieve themselves. This was the usual practice, said the family; like hundreds of millions of Indians, Sohan’s family had no proper lavatory and they visited the surrounding land under the sliver of privacy provided by darkness. A woman would always be accompanied by a sister or friend. But on Tuesday, the two girls did not return. When the family reported them missing to the police, they were told to go away and may even have been abused about their low-caste status. Finally, they were directed to the spreading mango trees a few hundred metres from their home. The girls had been seized, gang-raped and hanged. A post-mortem examination concluded they had been alive when the nooses were put around their necks.
The village of Katra Sadatganj is located in Uttar Pradesh (UP), about 150 miles south-east of Delhi and it took us around 7 hours to drive there from Delhi due to the (mostly) poorly constructed and maintained roads. We arrive in the 45 degree heat of the middle of the day to witness a full-blown media circus and to swell its ranks. Dozens of mobile broadcast vans from India’s numerous TV news channels encircle the grove of mangrove trees where the girls had died while seemingly the entire (mostly male) population of the village milled around in their thousands generating a choking cloud of dust as they watched the TV anchors doing pieces to camera.
The community of farmers in Katra grows vegetables, wheat and mint, there are almost no amenities and the village receives just one hour a day of electricity. During the week of the attack the transformer was broken so there was none.
Sohan’s family belongs to the maurya caste, which sits close to the very bottom of India’s traditional social structure. By contrast, the three accused attackers – brothers Pappu Yadav, Awadhesh Yadav and Urvesh Yadav – and members of the police force, are from the Yadav caste. While technically also a lower caste, the Yadavs are powerful across large swathes of northern India and in Katra Sadatganj they are considered the dominant group. Lower-caste villagers said whenever there was a dispute with a Yadav, the police would always side with the Yadavs. The Yadavs have powerful patronage from the party which runs the state government in UP, the Samajwadi Party. During India’s recent election campaign, the head of the party, Mulayam Singh Yadav, sparked controversy by saying rapists should not receive the death penalty because “boys will be boys”.
An uncle of the two girls, Babrao, said he had been in the fields when the girls went out and heard them screaming. Flashing a torch in the direction of the noise, he said the beam fell upon the face of Pappu Yadav, who was one of several men grabbing the girls. He said he scuffled with him until Mr Yadav raised a pistol. At that point he ran home and raised the alarm.
“They are Yadavs. They are the dominant community. They are goons,” he said.
The attack has drawn attention to the dark reality of life for millions in rural India – a place where caste still remains the dominant determiner of how someone will live, work and marry. Like the family of Sohan, an estimated 620m Indians – around half the population – are every day obliged to participate in so-called open defecation because of the lack of proper sanitation. Campaigners point out the huge social and economic costs to a country where girls are dissuaded form going to school because there are insufficient lavatories and the stigma and dangers confronted by those obliged to squat in the dust. They say lower caste families are even less likely to have a toilet.
“The [lack of] toilets is a problem We have to go outside,” said Om Vati, a mother of six from a lower caste family, who lived close to the home of Sohan. “Only the upper castes have toilets.”
The very next person we speak to is from the Yadav caste and when asked if his family has a toilet, says “We have two bathrooms.”
Beena Pallical of the National Campaign on Dalit Human Rights, said police routinely refused to investigate cases of sexual assaults against lower-caste women. Often, she said, attacks would take place after a young woman from a lower caste community took up a place in college or something else a dominant caste considered inappropriate.
Down narrow alleys and past open sewers we navigate to Sohan Lal’s humble home that he shared with his wife and extended family. There, after battling through a press of onlookers we find Atul Saxena, a senior police officer telling the still-stunned family that two officers had been fired and were being investigated for both negligence and conspiring with the accused. He said he had never before handled such a brutal case.
Yet asked if caste had played a role, in either the crime itself or the response of his officers, he said it had not. He claimed that according to India’s constitution, caste discrimination had been outlawed. “Everyone is equal.” However Sridevi, mother of Murti and Sohan’s wife tells a different story.
‘When we went to report our daughter missing the first thing the police wanted to know was what caste we were, when we told them they sent us away and told us to stop bothering them’
Five men were quite quickly arrested for the crime, three from a local Yadav family and the two policemen. Recent reports say defence attorneys are now making counter-claims accusing the girls’ family’s of some involvement.
Later, after the crowd dispersed a little and we could sit with the family members quietly, I noticed a fan made by Pushpa that she’d written her name on.
All to soon we had to think of leaving but in the last five minutes I noticed a rare group of women standing in quiet vigil below the mango tree in which Murti and Pushpa had been hanged.
On a personal level it was one of those intense and eventful days that will linger long in the mind. The heat, the dust, the raw grief and the crowds – everywhere we went in the village we were trailed by a minimum 30 or 40 men and boys interested to watch us. Though it was not threatening the fact that they were wondering what all the fuss was about spoke volumes about what had happened. On our long, slow return journey to Delhi we encountered the same storm of biblical intensity that had swept through Delhi earlier killing several people. Strong winds whipped up a blinding dust storm, downed trees fell onto the road like skittles then thunder, lightning and heavy rain followed. Coming upon a motorcyclist badly injured by a fallen tree we ferried him to a hospital for treatment.
The Dongria Kondh tribe’s struggle against Vedanta Resources began in 1997 after the first agreement was reached between the Odisha government and a subsidiary of Vedanta for a mine to extract 78 million tonnes of bauxite from beneath the Niyamgiri mountain forests. The plan was the brainchild of Vedanta boss Anil Agarwal one of India’s richest men who started his business in Mumbai in 1976 as a scrap-metal dealer. When Vedanta started to build a vast aluminium refinery at the foot of Niyamgiri to process the bauxite, protests erupted after many Dongria were forced to leave their homes and their traditional lifestyle to make way for the construction. The evictions infuriated the Dongria who feared for their way of life that was inextricably linked with ‘Niyamraja’, the sacred hill they worshipped as their provider and deity. The protests led to a series of legal challenges to halt the mining plans which culminated with a Supreme Court order for the villagers themselves to decide on the £1 billion mine investment in a series of votes. The Daily Telegraph commissioned me to accompany their journalist, Dean Nelson, to Lakhapadar village in the Nyamgiri Hills on the 7th August 2013 to witness the final vote at the tenth and largest of 12 village council (Gram Sabha) meetings. The several hundred Dongria Kondh tribespeople who attended the meeting confirmed the trend of earlier polls and unanimously voted to reject the mine plan and in January 2014 India’s environment ministry officially rejected the proposal by Vedanta Resources to mine in Niyamgiri. It was a privilege to be present at this final stunning victory and I can only agree with Michael Palin who was quoted later as saying “I hope it will send a signal to the big corporations that they can never assume that might is right. It’s a big victory for the little people.”
On the day of the vote we trekked through the thick forest along with several hundred heavily armed paramilitary police there to protect the judge appointed to record the decision after the government alleged the area had become ‘infested’ by Maoist insurgents. The tribesmen say the claim is false and the government has used it to justify a campaign of intimidation against them. This accusation appeared to be corroborated when the Telegraph reporter and I were detained by police intelligence officers and a local campaigner was summoned to their headquarters in Bhawanipatna for questioning and denounced as a ‘foreign agent’ for assisting us. Happily the detention was not for very long and we were finally allowed to leave.
Thanks are due to Dean Nelson for his kind permission to borrow from his report which can be found here and below are more images from the day.
Kumti Marji (60), head of Niyamgiri Suraksha Samiti (Association for the Safeguard of Niyamgiri Hills), in Lakhapadar village
Villagers made fun of former postmaster Faisal Quadri when he first began building a Taj Mahal replica on the land next to his house but no more, now he commands respect in the sleepy village in rural Uttar Pradesh. He refers to the monument as ‘yaadgaar’ meaning ‘in memory of’ and he built it to honour the wife he loved for 60 years, Begum Tajmulli, who died on the 23rd September 2011 aged 73. Quadri, a retired postal clerk began work on the tomb resembling a miniature Taj Mahal, 5 months after Begum died, in February 2012. He has so far spent 9 lakhs (approx £10,000) on it which he has largely funded by sellng a parcel of land. There’s more to do to complete the structure and Qadri, 77, admits that it does not stand comparison to Shah Jahan’s marble mausoleum. But his heart is surely the equal of the 17th-century Mughal ruler in its devotion to his late wife.
Given the routine, callous abuse and abandonment of many women in India who fail to produce a son, its heartening to report for a change on the opposite. Faisal and Begum’s marriage was arranged, she was his cousin and they wed while still in their teens but their love flourished. Their bond was sealed when he refused to bow to family pressure and take a second wife after a tumour removed from her uterus left her unable to have children. It was only when she lay dying from cancer that he began to worry about an absence of heirs.
“Who will mark our deaths when we are gone?” I told her: “Don’t worry, I will make sure you are remembered not just on your death anniversary but for many years to come.”
Armed only with a dog-eared brochure from a visit to the Taj Mahal many decades earlier and a few rough sketches, Mr Qadri began working on his own scaled-down version in the field to the rear of his modest home four hours drive from Delhi. Though made of concrete and unfinished (he says it will cost a further 600,000 rupees to clad the structure in marble) the place has real presence and is remarkably reminiscent of Shah Jahan’s monument in an affectionate thumbnail sketch kind of way.
“He was a king,” he says of Shah Jahan, who built the Taj in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal.
“I have to build according to my capacity. Also he used government money to build it — I have taken money from no one.”
Progress is therefore limited by his income, he says he can spend only 100,000 rupees a year. But, brimming with spirit and good humour, he’s adamant that he will live to complete the project and be buried in the space he has left at Begum’s side in the monument’s basement crypt.
The final stone will bear the inscription. “This is not the Taj Mahal but it is the memory of love.”
I was commissioned by The Times (London) to shoot this story, the full article can be found here by Francis Elliot to whom I owe thanks for his permission to borrow from the same.
Their classroom is outdoors in the heat and dust, its roof a rumbling metro line, blackboards painted onto a rough concrete wall but for some children of Delhi’s migrant population its the only school they have. I became aware of this humbling story through a report by photographer Altaf Qadri who re-discovered it in 2012 and brought it back to prominence. In fact the school’s founder, forty two year old Rajesh Kumar Sharma began to teach under privileged children in Delhi in 1997 and this is the third incarnation and location of his jugaad (makeshift) school.
The idea to open a school came to shop owner Sharma on a morning walk along the Yamuna river when he saw some children weeding and picking flowers. “I asked them which school they went to and they looked at me with no answer, it had not occurred to me before that not every child has access to a school’ he said. This resonated with Sharma who himself had been forced to drop out of college in his third year due to financial constraints so he decided to to offer free basic education to the children of the local labourers and farmers.
Surprisingly it was not easy convincing the children’s parents to let them attend a school and it remains one of his biggest and constant challenges today. Because they are poor and mostly illiterate they often see no need for their children to be educated and prefer to put them to work at home and also worry about possible costs involved. Despite this at the current school up to 70 children between four and fourteen years old turn up early each weekday morning, sweep the floor clean and put down foam mats to sit on. Mr Sharma arrives around 9 am having left his shop in his brother’s hands, and with his friend Laxmi Chandra teaches them for two hours, – mainly elementary reading, writing, arithmetic and some geometry.
Rajesh Kumar Sharma (left) and Mr Laxmi Chandra teach children mainly from migrant families in Delhi
The first time I visited the school I found it quite a moving experience to see such a thirst for knowledge, such concentration and happy tolerance of difficult conditions. Then there was a matter of fact statement from one of the children which brought a lump to my throat, “I prefer it at this school because we learn things, at the government school we just get beaten”. Then, after a pause ” Though I wouldn’t mind the beatings if they taught us too”.
After the government enforced the 2009 Right to Education Act last year, which guarantees free schooling for children between the ages of 6 and 14, Mr Sharma decided to focus on preparing the children for admission to government schools and helping them to cope with the curriculum. Parents need only accompany their children to a government school to enrol but most migrant workers are fearful of doing even this as many live in illegal settlements and are therefore loathe to interact with authorities.
After the RTE push, enrolment in state schools has increased from 193 million to 199 million, and the government has invested more than $11 billion extra dollars in upgrading the school system. Despite this schools appear to be getting worse. There remain at least 700,000 teacher vacancies, and many of those who are employed don’t have the proper training and absenteeism is rife. When teachers do turn up to the packed classes children complain they just write a problem on the board and leave. Contrast this with Mr Sharma’s school and you can see why the kids keep coming back.
Initially Mr Sharma paid all of the costs of the children’s textbooks, pencils and exercise books himself but over time donations, sometimes anonymous have started to trickle in though as with the volunteers who come to help, more are needed.
Sharma says he takes each day as it comes as, operating on railway property, he could be told to stop at any time. Until then the school is a beacon of hope for marginalised children with few options, in Mr Sharma’s words:
“To change the future of these children, education is the only weapon. If they go anywhere in the world, if they have education, they can achieve anything. And without education, they can do nothing.”
I was first commissioned to shoot this story by The Times in London (see here) and later by The National (see here). Sources: due acknowledgement to Suryatapa Bhattacharya’s article in The National (mentioned above) and the AP article by Ravi Nessman here.
After a gap of two years I went back to the Pushkar Camel fair (see my earlier post here) and found it little changed. The event still presents spine tingling opportunities for photography, – if you can get a clean shot through hordes of like-minded ‘lensmen’.. The National have published a selection of these images on their National View blog.
After doing a guided walk to some of Delhi’s ancient baolis (stepwells) I decided to explore more of them. I’d been living in the city for 5 years and though I knew of one in Nizamuddin near where I live, I had no idea there were so many and that they were so beautiful. I was particularly astonished to find one hidden so close to Delhi’s high-rise financial district, Connaught Place, presenting a classic collision of old and new. At the turn of the last century Delhi had more than 100 baolis, now many of them have caved in or dried up owing to the declining water table as this was what kept them full rather than rainfall. If you look at pictures from the 70’s they used to be almost full with water. The fact that most are dry now* is indicative of India’s burgeoning city populations and the relentless demand for water, much of it siphoned directly from the water table through illegal boreholes by the populace. This in turn is indicative of the Indian governments failure to provide sufficient water to its own people. Currently their number has shrunk to about 15 according to the ASI (Archaological Survey of India) and sadly today most are neglected, overlooked or locked to prevent accidental drownings. Still, the ones that remain are as magical as they are majestic and frequented now mostly by occasional tour groups, school children, lovers, pilgrims and others seeking a rare place of peace amid Delhi’s madding crowds.
Baolis are examples of the many types of storage and irrigation tanks that were developed in India, mainly to cope with seasonal fluctuations in water availability. Most common in western India, they may also be found in the other more arid regions of the subcontinent, extending into Pakistan.The majority of surviving stepwells originally also served a leisure purpose because the base of the well provided relief from daytime heat. Stepwells also served as a place for social gatherings and religious ceremonies. Usually, women were more associated with these wells because they were the ones who collected the water and it was they who prayed and offered gifts to the goddess of the well for her blessings. This led to the building of some significant ornamental and architectural features often associated with dwellings, it also ensured their survival as monuments. Stepwells usually consist of two parts: a vertical shaft from which water is drawn and the surrounding inclined subterranean passageways, chambers and steps which provide access to the well. The galleries and chambers surrounding these wells were often carved profusely with elaborate detail and became cool, quiet retreats during the hot summers. The National published a selection of images from this story in their Review (hard copy) and on their National View blog here.
4th February 2016 Note: After a desilting project ordered by the High Court that reportedly took 10 years, Rajon Ki Baoli now has water in it again as can bee seen by the photograph above. This raises hopes that some of the other dry baolis in Delhi might also be able to be restored to life and that the dwindling water table might not be the only reason they are dry.
Australia’s four month Oz Fest in India kicked off on Tuesday night with an opening concert that dazzled and moved those lucky enough to be there. The biggest Australian cultural festival ever staged in India has been painstakingly designed over the last two years and celebrates the meeting of Australia and India with a series of events and concerts featuring leading artists from both countries with the aim of connecting two unique, contemporary cultures grounded in ancient tradition. Three mesmerising performances marked the night beginning with didgeridoo virtuoso Mark Atkins playing that most atavistic of instruments to spine tingling effect, – you feel as much as you hear. Aboriginal Australian singer Gurrumul Yunupingu came next followed by Indian sitarist Anoushka Shankar with other distinguished Indian musicians. In fact to be fair there was a fourth bravura performance, that of the prosaically named AGB Events, producers of Sydney’s Vivid Light Festival. Their 3D projections onto Purana Qila’s Sher Mandal Observatory brought it to life in a gorgeous, subtle and moving way perfectly complimenting each performer and providing an Indian touchstone even when imaginations were transported deep into Australian dreamtime. Which brings me back to Gurrumul Yunupingu accompanied beautifully by his band. His voice was quite simply a revelation, I’ve never heard anything quite like before it and I say without shame that it brought a lump to my throat while shooting the performance, it didn’t feel like a concert it felt like therapy. Without understanding a word (except for the one song that he sang in English which did not work so well) I was deeply moved. I think Sting put it best, no mean warbler himself he once described Gurrumul’s voice as that ‘of a higher being‘, I know what he means, deadly.
A few days later I travelled to Bhubaneswar in Orissa for a the second Oz Fest concert. There was another gorgeous backdrop, this time in the form of the beautiful Rajarani Temple in the city. Mark Atkins and Gurrumul and his band preformed once more and this time were joined on the bill by traditional Odishan folk artists.
For any book lover within striking distance the venerable Hardayal Library in Old Delhi is a fascinating reliquary worthy of pilgrimage. It houses one of the country’s finest collections of antiquarian books including gold illuminated translations of Hindu and Muslim religious works as well as a 1677 edition of Sir Walter Raleigh’s History of the World. In all there are over 8,000 rare books – potentially worth millions – from a stock of 170,000. The library began in 1862 as a book club for British officials who donated volumes they’d brought and read on the long sea voyages from home. The collection was initially kept in the Lawrence Institute in Old Delhi’s town hall, then in 1916 it relocated to the current building off Chandni Chowk and was renamed the Hardinge Municipal Public Library. It was only some time after independence that the “Hardinge” was replaced with “Hardayal” in 1970 – after freedom fighter Lala Hardayal, who had flung a bomb at Lord Hardinge’s elephant procession in December 1912. Ironically, the present building was built after the failed attack with contributions from Indian royals and institutions of the time to commemorate Lord Hardinge’s escape.
The nearly century-old building is full of character preserving the tall arches, wooden spiral staircases and tall doors. A precarious, narrow iron staircase leads to the first floor that houses books in Hindi and English. Flooded with natural light during the day, you need to watch your step walking on the frail, creaky, plywood floor. Students throng the air-conditioned reading rooms to study or take a break from the hurly-burly of Old Delhi but despite the value of the library’s collection there’s no controlled environment for the books which are gradually succumbing to damp and coated with dust. Modernisation would be a priority you’d think and yet the current prospects for the library continuing to exist at all are bleak. Funding has been frozen and the staff who loyally continue to turn up have not received their wages in 7 months. The reason? It seems with the trifurcation of the MCD (Municipal Corporation of Delhi) early in 2012 the library has fallen victim to an inverse turf-war. Each MCD office seems to be vying with the others to distance itself from any liability to support either the head office in Old Delhi or any of the other 31 branches spread across the capital. I hope they soon come to their senses it’d be a scandal if this valuable public resource and national treasure were allowed to simply fade away. A selection of my photographs have been published to accompany Dean Nelson‘s Daily Telegraph story here and on The National’s photography blog, here.
Method: all natural light with the exception of a bit of fill flash of the oldest book: Nikon SB900 on an SC29 extension cord hand-held to left, all shot with a Nikon D3s
In 2008 I began working on a story about India’s fieriest and most regal breed of horse, the Marwari in the Jhunjhunu district of Rajasthan. I was shooting at a stud farm near Dundlod Fort in the early morning, trying to get some nice shots of the scene with the sun coming through the dust as the trainer lunged the Marwari stallion, Dilsher, in deep loamy soil. Little did I know I was about to capture something far more dramatic..
The above sequence of photos shows an incident that occurred 22 minutes into the lunging session. During the session Om Prakash seemed to have trouble keeping Dilsher on the move, – he actively seemed to resist doing the exercise which I put down to ‘stroppy laziness’, after all I reasoned, I would quickly get bored and angry if continually forced run in circles in deep soil! Indeed there were several stand-offs when Dilsher refused to co-operate and a battle of wills ensued culminating in the application of the whip to get him to resume. It was during a final stand-off that Om Prakash approached Dilsher to calm him down and then (to my untrained eye) Dilsher appeared to deliberately knock Om Prakash down and trample him. Looking on from a distance, horrified, I reflexively held the shutter of my Nikon D2X down for the 2 seconds that it took to rattle off these 5 frames. Then I rushed forward expecting Om Prakash to be seriously injured or worse, dead. To my amazement and relief he rose gingerly from the ground in a shower of dust, still grimly holding the lunging line. After carefully dusting himself off he reeled the skittish stallion in, re-established control and tight lipped with pain led him quietly and slowly back to the stables. I preceded them hoping to get the attention of another stable hand who could take over from Om Prakash but to no avail. Once back at the stables Om Prakash was quickly rushed to a nearby hospital for a thorough examination while I waited anxiously, feeling somehow to blame and sure serious internal injuries would now come to light. But happily, much to my relief he was discharged with nothing more than extensive bruising, it seemed little short of miraculous.
When contemplating this piece for the blog I happened to mention it to my horsey sister who rubbished my anthropomorphic conclusion that the stallion had been fed up of the tough exercise and attacked the man to get out of it. ‘Horses don’t get angry like that’ she said, ‘there will be another reason’. She then referred a much larger edit of pictures (covering 20 or so minutes of the exercise) to horse behavioural expert Sarah Fisher who said ‘ There is always a reason that accidents happen and the majority of horse owners and handlers don’t understand the link between posture and behaviour. There is no way the horse had an issue with the person – just the situation – otherwise he wouldn’t have walked so calmly back with the man’, and she went on to add ‘if the horse wanted to attack the handler he would and could have done and the handler in all probability would be dead’. On the causes of the accident Ms Fisher opined ‘It would appear to me to be a question of discomfort, confusion and some basic errors that triggered it.’ She identified various possible contributory factors to the stallion’s discomfort like the loose footing, the choice of a Pelham bit, an ill-fitting bridle, and on some occasions the lunge line being clipped to the wrong side of the bridle for the way the horse was working. ‘Pain causes a horse to run blind and when the head is up as it is in the frames where he makes contact with the handler the horse cannot see anything that may be immediately in front of him’ she said. But she also acknowledged that it was impossible to be sure of the exact cause of the mishap as I’d not shot any frames for 45 seconds immediately preceding the accident and so she did not have a full picture. Whatever the cause I’m just happy the result was not tragedy for man or beast.
The Rathores, traditional rulers of the Marwar region of western India, were the first to breed the Marwari horse in the 12th century, crossing native Indian ponies with Arabian horses and possibly with some Mongolian stock. They espoused a strict breeding programme that promoted purity and hardiness. Used throughout history as a cavalry horse by the people of the Marwar region, the Marwari was noted for its loyalty and bravery in battle. The Rathores believed that the Marwari horse could only leave a battlefield under one of three conditions – victory, death, or carrying a wounded master to safety. Yet despite once being revered as divine beings above the status of their riders the breed deteriorated badly in the 1930s as a result of persecution by the British who refused to use ‘native breeds’ preferring instead to import less well suited animals. The knock-on effect of this was poor management of the Marwari’s which resulted in a reduction of the breeding stock and this only began to recover with the formation of the Indigenous Horse Society of India in 1999. The Marwari is a perfectly adapted desert horse. The coat is fine and silky to keep them cool, they have exceptionally hard hooves to deal with the rocky terrain and they can travel great distances on scant water. To cope with sandstorms they have developed long eyelashes and perhaps their most easily recognisable feature – their unique lyre shaped ears which can rotate 180 degrees individually or together.
My first encounter with the horses was at Dundlod Fort where I met the delightful hereditary owner, Kanwar Raghuvendra Singh Dundlod (‘Bonnie’), founding Secretary General of the Indigenous Horse Society of India. In 1982 when the producers of The Far Pavilions came to Dundlod they hired Bonnie as a coordinator and afterwards he bought a dozen of the best horses that were used in the film and turned the family fort into a Heritage Hotel as a base for Sheikhawati’s first horse safaris. Later he established the Marwari Bloodlines stud with his partner Francesca Kelly to promote the breed that was dangerously close to dying out. Bonnie’s society is dedicated to the preservation and international recognition of the indigenous horses of India and to define the ideal characteristics of the Marwari in particular it has produced a ‘Breed Standards’ book for it.
The restrictions imposed by the policies of the Indian government on exports of its primary indigenous breeds, including the Marwari, is a great obstacle in popularising and breeding this horse overseas. Another damper on the health of the Marwari is that India falls short of the EU’s acceptable disease-free zone standards, which makes export of the horse to countries like the USA impossible. Making the best of this situation and working on getting the Marwari better health and constitutional policies, both Dundlod and Kelly are taking the Marwari to the grounds of Windsor Castle, England for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Pageant in May 2012. It seems the Marwari’s star is rising again.
Method: all natural light with the exception of the portrait of Bonnie on one of the balconies of Dundlod Fort. This I shot using a Nikon SB800 Speedlight attached to my monopod and flown outside the fort by an assistant and connected to my D3 camera with an SC29 Flash Extension cord. This gave nice catchlights in his eyes. The portrait of Bonnie on his horse in the magazine was also lit with fill flash via a similar method.
Holi, also called the Festival of Colours, is a spring festival celebrated by Hindus, Buddhists, Sikhs, Jains and others. It is primarily observed in India, Nepal, Srilanka, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and also other countries with large Indian populations. In India, it is in the Braj region of Uttar Pradesh that Holi is celebrated with the most fervour, – in locations connected to the god Krishna: Mathura, Vrindavan, Nandagaon, and Barsana. These places have become tourist destinations during the festive season of Holi, which lasts here to up to sixteen days. The main day, Holi, also known as Dhulheti, Dhulandi or Dhulendi, is celebrated by people throwing colored powder and colored water at each other. Bonfires are lit the day before, also known as Holika Dahan (burning of Holika) or Chhoti Holi (little Holi). The bonfires are lit in memory of the miraculous escape that young Prahlad accomplished when Demoness Holika, sister of Hiranyakashipu, carried him into the fire. Holika was burnt but Prahlad, a staunch devotee of god Vishnu, escaped without any injuries due to his unshakable devotion.
Method: the main challenge when photographing Holi (aside from remaining stylish!) is trying not to destroy cameras and lenses during the process. The tactic of choice is wrapping everything 3 or 4 layers deep in cling film and re-doing it a couple of times a day. The problem then is that you can’t make adjustments, so you cut small notches through to the control wheels and hope not too much water and dye will penetrate the cameras – as in the religious fervour, you will have entire buckets of dye-loaded water emptied over you and your kit… You can forget about zooming too so its best to use fast primes. Wear old clothes you can discard afterwards and slather coconut oil through your hair and over exposed skin so that the dye (some of which contains toxins) cannot adhere as well. And keep smiling!
Faced with India’s seemingly all-pervading endemic corruption one could be forgiven for beginning to lose faith in human nature. So it was really refreshing recently to cover an inspiring story of bona-fide philanthopism right here in Delhi, not from a well-heeled do-gooder but a 75 year old disabled man, Omkar Nath, who lives in a slum. Three years ago rather than taking it easy in his retirement Nath took it upon himself to begin collecting unwanted medicines from Deliites to give to the poor. Omkar Nath pounds Delhi’s pavements and roads 5 days a week gathering pills and capsules in plastic carrier bags mainly from middle and lower middle-class neighbourhoods. These are the best areas, – he rarely receives donations from wealthy areas he says. On the remaining two days he catalogues his haul and passes it onto several clinics with whom he has built up a relationship. These clinics then distribute the medicine free of cost to impoverished patients. One clinic says Mr Nath supplies up to 10 percent of the medicine they prescribe. The inspiration for Mr Nath’s mission was witnessing a construction accident in 2008 and seeing that injured patients were being discharged from a government hospital without medicine, due to a supply shortfall, ‘ It struck me then that if I could obtain medicine, it could be distributed free of charge’ he says. Initially, Omkar Nath’s family were unhappy with him apparently turning into a beggar but have now come to accept it. ‘Medicine Baba‘ as the Indian media have dubbed him has even become a minor celebrity in Delhi and been featured on television news bulletins. Unfazed by the attention, Mr Nath in a bright orange smock emblazoned with his contact numbers continues his gruelling 5 mile a day marches with quiet, dignified determination paying no heed to the difficulties his legs – skewed by the impact of a car at 12 years of age – must cause him. Truly humbling.
Method: natural light except for the shot of Omkar Nath sorting the medicines. This featured some fill flash courtesy of my SB900 held off to camera right by a VAL (thanks Dev!), connected to my Nikon D3s via an SC29 flash extension cord. Aperture Priority with +1.3 exposure, F5.6, 1/800th, ISO 320.
Working with great natural light for portraiture is difficult to top and capturing people at ease in their own homes where they feel most comfortable often yields the best results. But if you want or need your portraits to show more of the environment you’ve got to move outside. Early morning and late afternoon are favourite but sometimes the midday sun -with attendant Mad Dogs and Englishmen – is unavoidable.
Natural light can work beautifully outside too if its dull and even, but if you have to shoot on a sunny day when its very bright (as above, from a recent assignment in India) then fill-flash can be a life saver as, subtly used, it will allow you to preserve detail and colour in your subject and the environment at the same time. I’d already photographed Sudari and her baby (see first photo at the top of this post) just inside the doorway of her home in rural Rajasthan and was pleased with the result. But I wanted to get another shot of her outside, for a couple of reasons. Firstly its always best to give your client a range of shots that they can use in different ways and secondly I wanted to convey the remoteness of her location as this was important for her story.
As always seems to be the way (!) time was at a premium and I could not spend too long on the shot. So after a very quick scope of the views on offer I positioned Sudari with her back to the picturesque nearby hills and, more importantly, facing away from the strong sun so that she would not be squinting too much. I also liked the framing provided by the tree to her left and the pieces of wood on her right. I would normally shoot in Manual mode on the camera for this kind of set up as this forces you to think more about what you’re doing because you have to make all the inputs. For example, keeping the shutter speed within the flash sync speed is advisable in bright light as it gives the flash gun a fighting chance of filling in the foreground from a distance. If you shoot above this magic figure and venture into the realms of the Auto FP High Speed Sync flash mode (explained here) the range of the flash will diminish drastically and re-cycling times will increase too, often resulting in many shots underexposed in the foreground during a shooting burst. This is especially true if you are using a medium or longer lens as the further from the subject the camera is the harder the flash will have to work.
But on this occasion for whatever reason my fevered brain chose Aperture Priority which is my one of my favourite exposure modes. Something must have sparked in the grey matter though as I had the sense to choose an aperture (F18) that gave me an outdoor ‘flash-gun-friendly’ shutter speed of 1/160th of a second with ISO 200. Then I used an obliging VAL (Voice Activated Light Stand – AKA a friendly person who is willing to hold stuff, thank you Keith!) to hand-hold one of my Nikon SB800 ‘s a little above Sudari’s eye-line off to the right by around 30 degrees or so. This I triggered with an SB900 flash gun mounted on the hot shoe of the camera via the Nikon Creative Lighting System. This unit was simply commanding the SB800 and not contributing to the lighting. Initial exposures showed that the remote flash (with no compensation) was not illuminating Sudari’s face sufficiently from the closest range (5 – 6 ft) that Keith could stand without appearing in the frame, – because with such a small lens aperture it needed a power boost. So over the next few frames I bumped up the flash output by a stop and a half and zoomed the head out to 70mm. This then produced the semi-spotlight-ish effect you see above. I’m quite pleased with it as the flash illuminates Sudari’s eyes and face well giving a nicely modelled, three dimensional light. It also makes her stand out from the background and the colour of her clothing pop. All in all it took about 5 minutes. It’s by no means perfect I admit, with more time I’d have liked to have used a second light to illuminate her lower half for a more even effect. I could also have tried a ND (Neutral Density) filter on the 50mm lens I was using to reduce the amount of light entering the camera, this would have allowed me to use a wider aperture with a reduced depth of field to further separate Sudari from the background though personally I think the DOF is fine as it is for the intended use of the image.
Another good tactic is to move your subjects into the shade, as above. This will help them relax as they will be more comfortable (especially if its very hot) and they won’t have to squint, meaning you will get the chance of putting catchlights in their eyes. Here I also put down a handy charpoy for them to sit on with my chosen view behind. The shot was taken just a few minutes after Sudari’s portrait and this time I reverted to Manual mode on the camera using my 17-35 lens at 28mm, F5 at 1/400th of a second on ISO 160, – instantly breaking my own ‘keep it under 250th of a second’ rule I know, but then I always like to make life hard for myself! The wide angle lens gives much more depth of field than the 50mm, so F5 was appropriate to give a detailed but not distracting background. Fill-flash was needed here to make up for the wide exposure discrepancy between the sunlit background and the shaded foreground. My generous VAL, Keith, assisted me once more standing camera left with the SB800 held high. This time I refitted the dome diffuser to provide the wider spread of light that the wide angle lens required. A bit of plus EV flash compensation was required once more before I got a nicely lit series of shots of the family. Ideally a third light with a grid attached, to camera right and behind the couple and out of shot would have given a nice bit of rim-light to the couples hair and separated them more from the background but time had run out, we really had to go. When I queried the urgency of our departure with a field worker, he said that due to the enthusiastic consumption of locally brewed ‘country liquor’ in the area, the road became ‘unsafe’ in the late afternoon due to ‘dacoit’ (bandit) activity, so, discretion being the better part of valour we beat a hasty retreat!
Sadly, the Indian media still reports with dispiriting frequency on horrific accounts of so-called ‘honour killings’. These occur mainly in the Northern states and are virtually unknown in South India. One recent study estimated that there are more than 1,000 honour killings in India every year. The killings occur as a result of people marrying without their family’s acceptance, and sometimes for marrying outside their caste or religion. Incredibly, close family members are prepared to kill their own flesh and blood rather than suffer the social stigma of an unsuitable match, – as decided by themselves or the chap panchayats. These are the notorious village caste councils that rule on who can and cannot marry and regularly pass sentence of death on those who refuse to accept their diktats on caste or gotra (another subdivision based on lineage). Alarmingly, honour killings that were once confined to the ultra-conservative hinterlands are creeping into the nations’ capital as old and new India collide. An example of this that stunned Delhi occurred in in June 2010 on the outskirts of the city when a teenage girl and her boyfriend were tortured and murdered by the girl’s family, who objected to the relationship . I covered this for The Independent (see image below and Andrew Buncombe’s excellent full report here). This incident sparked an unusual amount of outrage due to the brutality of the offence and the fact that it had occurred in the city that was feverishly gearing up for the Commonwealth Games and keen to show its best side. Only a couple of weeks later there was a triple ‘dishonour killing’, again on Delhi’s outskirts, that involved three young perpetrators acting alone without direct sanction from community elders.
It was then something of a relief to shoot a positive story on honour killings in the shape of the Love Commandos. The organisation started as a group of like-minded friends protecting canoodling couples who were facing persecution while celebrating Valentine’s Day in India, as public displays of affection are still generally frowned upon here. But the spate of horrific killings in 2010 caused the group to expand their remit to helping India’s amorous couples who were falling foul of their own families. The Love Commandos were officially launched in July 2010 and rapidly became a national movement, with a reported 2,000 volunteers across the country and more coming forward every day.
Now a year into their “mission of love”, the Commando’s helpline is flooded daily with dozens – sometimes hundreds – of calls.”When we started we never expected the problem was so big,” said Sanjoy Sachdev, the organisation’s founder. “The effort has left many of us penniless and jobless, but we are the only ones in this country giving a voice to the youth of today so we will not give up.” But money is an issue. The Love Commandos rely on individual donations of 100 rupees (£1.40) a year from their volunteers to keep going. “We need places where the khap panchayats can’t come and kill us,” says Sachdev. “We are appealing to everyone who appreciates love to help us. We are branded people. We have had death threats and our effigies burned.” Sometimes when lives are at stake the Love Commandos mount daring rescues from caste violence that sound like scripts of Bollywood films. One such involved a Brahmin girl from Faridabad, a Delhi satellite town, who wished to marry a boy of lower caste. According to Sachdev she climbed through the window of her college classroom, negotiated a 15 foot perimeter wall and made it into a waiting getaway car just in time to evade capture by her angry brother in hot pursuit. In another, more gruelling case, the mother of Aarti an Agra girl who’d set her heart on a lower-caste boy made three attempts to sell her daughter to suitors to get her away from her love, Sanjay. The first of these sales was to a couple who bought Aarti for 10,000 rupees (£140) “as a slave for extramarital relations”. But Aarti protested so much that the couple called her mother to take her home, where regular beatings started again. Aarti eventually escaped and made her way to Delhi with Sanjay where they were taken to a safe house by the Love Commandos, – Sanjay had seen a news report on them just days earlier.
But the majority of Love Commando cases stem from the much more common tradition of parents approving their child’s partner.”The problems cut across all barriers – not just caste, but also religion, educational background, economic status,” said Mr Sachdev. “The stories are different, but they are all about freedom of choice, which is supposed to be guaranteed in our constitution. Where do these parents derive their right to prevent that freedom?”. On assignment for The National (article here) I heard directly about one such case from Asmita (18) and Kapil (22) a Christian couple who had eloped and were married in a secret. I met them at the Love Commando’s modest HQ in a warren of tiny streets in Old Delhi. While there were no caste issues there was an old inter-family feud that made the match unsuitable in their parents eyes and Asmita’s were disappointed that she had not waited to finish her studies before getting married. When they heard about the marriage they became ‘very angry, very aggressive’ said Asmita. ‘So we came to the Love Commandos for safe refuge and financial support but we hope to leave soon’ she concluded.
Also staying at the safe-house were driver Rajveer Singh (21) and Madri Devi (20). This Hindu couple eloped and married across castes. Rajveer’s caste is Thukur while Madri’s is Teli which is lower. After the marriage Madri’s family tracked them down and beat Rajveer unconscious using sticks and chains. “I was unconscious for two hours. They wanted to kill me. It took two months for me to recover,” said Mr Singh. “I got in touch with the Love Commandos, and they brought us here.”
Sanjoy Sachdev is surprisingly philosophical considering what he must go through “It is not the individual parents,” said Mr Sachdev. “It is the society around them that tells them their honour is at stake. Still, we hope that day will come when love prevails over the whole universe.” I can’t help thinking that until that day comes the Love Commandos will always be busy.
If you are an Indian needing the help of the Love Commandos, you can call their helpline on 09313784375.
The organisation, which is entirely run by volunteers, is in dire need of financial support, so if you can help, please contact the same number.
Method: for the first image I used two flash guns to provide fill-flash in the harsh light of the afternoon. I use fill-flash a lot for environmental portraits so that I can retain detail in the sky and background while simultaneously getting well-lit subjects in the foreground. If I was to expose just for the background then the people would be under exposed – in particular you’d get dark lifeless pits where their eyes should be. If I exposed just for their faces or eyes then the background would be blown out. By using balanced fill-flash you can, ideally, get the best of both worlds. In manual exposure mode I metered off the sky and under exposed by 0.7 of a stop. Then I asked Eric Randolph to kindly hold one of my Nikon SB800 flash guns off to the right to light the right-hand side of the group while I triggered this from an SB900 (via the Nikon Creative Lighting System) that was connected to the Nikon D3s via an SC29 extension cord and hand-held by me off to camera left. I took a few test frames and the speedlights were not quite lighting the group enough so I zoomed the SB800 to 50 mm from its default 24mm to give it a better throw and bumped the power up to plus 2 stops. I also boosted the more powerful SB 900 by a stop for the frame you see here. I could not shoot any longer as the subjects were getting restive in the 36 degrees of heat and constantly wiping sweat from their eyes. Its not perfect but not bad for a two minute set-up! All the other frames were shot in natural light.
The Indian festival of Kartik Poornima,is celebrated with particular fervour annually in October or November in Pushkar, Rajasthan. Its held in the honour of god Brahma, whose temple stands at Pushkar. The mela commences on Prabodhini Ekadashi in the Hindu calendar and culminates on Kartik Purnima which is the full moon day and the most important. On the morning of Kartik Poornima thousands of devout Hindus take a ritual bath in the Pushkar Lake which is considered to lead one to salvation and the mela attracts over 200,000 visitors and pilgrims. Running concurrently with the Pushkar Festival is a huge cattle and camel fair. Semi-nomadic tribal people with hordes of cattle, camels and horses descend upon the town setting up a vast camp on the outskirts of the ancient town. Serious cattle trading takes place before the official opening of the mela between farmers, breeders and camel traders. Events begin four to five days before the full moon and include camel and horse races, a tug of war between Rajastanis and foreigners, a Sari fashion show and competitions of horse and camel ‘dancing’. Jugglers, acrobats, magicians and folk dancers abound while salesman of equestrian and camel-related merchandise do a roaring trade in the bustling camp. A visit to the fair is an essential Indian experience especially for a photographer. The images here are a small edit from those I took during recent visits to the fair.
Method: all natural light as befitted the subject matter. I used Nikon cameras throughout: D700, D3 and D2X
Just reaching the Druk Gawa Khilwa (DGK) Buddhist Nunnery atop the lofty Druk Amitabha Mountain near Kathmandu in Nepal was a challenge in itself. Firstly the taxi driver and I had to find the right tiny road that ascended the mountain and then pray the rickety car would not expire half way up. This seemed quite likely given the daunting series of ever tightening hairpin bends with increasingly perpendicular and loose inclines. Not for the first time in the developing world I marvelled at the gutsy performance of a totally unsuitable vehicle in the hands of an experienced driver to conquer terrain that most Chelsea Tractor owners would baulk at.
I had come to the nunnery to photograph the nuns practicing Kung Fu. The leader of the 800-year-old Drukpa – or Dragon – order, to which DGK belongs, his Holiness Jigme Pema Wangchen, the present Gyalwang Drukpa instigated Shaolin Kung Fu training for his nuns in 2008 after a visit to Vietnam in the same year. Here he witnessed Vietnamese nuns practicing the martial art. He was told that it helped the nuns concentrate better and made them more self-reliant. Recalling how some of his nuns at the Khilwa nunnery had been harassed while travelling up and down from the mountain alone he decided to incorporate defensive Kung Fu training at his own nunnery. This was in keeping with his desire to empower his nuns “As a young boy growing up in India and Tibet I observed the pitiful condition in which nuns lived. They were considered second-class while all the privileges went to monks. I wanted to change this.” So unlike most Buddhist monasteries where the nuns only carry out household chores the nuns of DGK, who come from places as far apart as Assam, Tibet and Kashmir, are taught to lead prayers and given basic business skills. They run the guest house and coffee shop at the abbey and drive DGK’s 4X4s to Kathmandu to get supplies. But its the Kung Fu training which has proved most popular and since word spread enrolment at the nunnery is up. 200 nuns are taught Kung Fu at the abbey ranging in age from 12 to 25 (its considered too demanding for older nuns) and there are currently 3 sessions a day starting in the early morning. Their teachers who have come from Vietnam are several nuns and their 29 year old Kung Fu Master Dang Dinh Hai, on whom His Holiness bestowed the title of ‘Jigme Gudrun’ which means ‘fearless practitioner’ in Tibetan.
As with many location shoots not everything went perfectly to plan! The first problem I encountered was easily solved – the nuns were used to training inside their sports hall for their morning session but I asked if they’d mind training outside (for the much better background) and this was readily and graciously agreed to. What they understandably refused to alter was the timing of their practice as this would have a disruptive affect on the rest of the days routines. The problem was that they began the morning session in the dark and finished it 20 minutes before the sun came up, thus I was forced to shoot in near total dark to begin with which ‘improved’ only to the dull flat light of pre-dawn! That the light became gorgeous tantalisingly soon after can be seen from the image below of nuns on gardening duty .
To make some of the pre-dawn shots more interesting I used slow shutter speeds combined with flash to give a sense of movement, see below.
The nuns also had an afternoon Kung Fu training session but it was mostly in shade and not very attractive light again. After one session ended I persuaded a couple of nuns to do postures and kicks on their own (see below) and this was going well but had to be cut short when they had to go off to their next scheduled activities.
I wanted to show the more usual side of the nuns activities at the abbey too and so took the following images before and during the morning puja.
I was made very welcome during my visit at the abbey but the nuns were mostly quite reserved and serious although many were very young and little more than children. I often wondered how these youngsters coped with the lack of visible fun though of course the Kung Fu would give them a great outlet for any pent up energy. But the nuns did let their guard down occasionally in my presence and I was pleased to capture the shot below of a group of young nuns relaxing with lollypops!
It was a great story to cover despite the difficulties and The Guardian took it up in 2011 and published one of my images here.
Durga puja celebrates worship of the Hindu goddess Durga. It refers to all the six days observed as Mahalaya, Shashthi, Maha Saptami, Maha Ashtami, Maha Navami and Bijoya Dashami. The dates of Durga Puja celebrations are set according to the traditional Hindu calendar and the fortnight corresponding to the festival is called Devi Paksha (Bengali: ‘Fortnight of the Goddess’). In 2011 the evening of the 6th October corresponded with the final day of Durga puja and having missed this event in the past I was determined to attend this time. Convoys of lorries carrying the idols along with their retinue of joyous devotees jammed the roads near Kalindi Kunj in South Delhi in a slow moving boisterous column as I approached the river at dusk. At the top of the river bank cranes waited to lift the heavier idols down to the waters edge while the more manageable idols were carried lovingly down to the water by groups of devotees chanting ‘Bolo Durga mai-ki jai’ (glory be to Mother Durga’). Teams of yellow-shirted volunteers organised the immersions on a rough first-come-first-served basis and kept the process from decending into total chaos whilst also providing much needed muscle to shift the heavier tableaux that didn’t quite warrant a crane.
I was able to shoot with natural light initially but soon it became much too dark and then flash was required. Above image 1/30 th @ F4, ISO 4000.
The atmosphere was charged with emotion as the worshippers bid tearful farewells to the deity after five days of prayers, feasting and merry-making at marquees across the city that housed the idols of the goddess and her five children. I like to shoot with quite long exposures in situations like this as this allows the scene to partially emerge from the low ambient light while the flash at the end of the exposure (rear-curtain) adds light and sharpness to the main focus of the image.The above frame was shot on ISO 4000 at 1/2.5 at F5.
Above: ISO 2500, 1/10th @ F5.6
The above image was shot at ISO 1000, 1.3 seconds at F5.6. I personally like these impressionistic ‘arty blurs’ that come with quite long exposures though not everyone does! It was an enjoyable, challenging shoot and as usual I experienced nothing but goodwill and kindness from the folk of Delhi.
Method: I used one Nikon SB900 Speedlight with dome diffuser in place, hand-held and attached to my D3S via a SC29 extension cord. I varied my ISO and shutter speeds in response to the falling light levels and to alter the amount of blur and ambient light I wanted to see in the images. I also varied the output of the SB900 – keeping it mainly in minus EV so as not to over-flash the scene.
In May 2010 I went to photograph 65 year old Mammu Singh who was at that time one of India’s last official hangmen. This was in the context of an Indian court having just convicted Ajmal Kasab the sole surviving gunman from the 2008 Mumbai attacks to death on four counts. Singh’s home was in a small colony next to railway tracks in Meerut and while still trying to locate his house my driver and I passed a man walking the other way who was hunched over with something strange on his back. Turning in my seat to get a better look I saw that it resembled a weird stuffed animal, possibly a calf. I immediately asked my driver to stop quickly got out of the car and managed to get off a couple of frames with my Canon S90 as the man crossed the railway tracks and disappeared into an alley on the other side. It was such a macabre, unsettling sight that I remarked to my driver ‘I bet that was Mammu Singh’ and of course it was. When I met Singh he was an executioner of 30 years standing following on from and to begin with assisting his father Kallu Ram Jallad. He performed his first execution in 1973 and had notched up a tally of 15. He was permanently employed as a hangman in 1998 and has been stationed at Meerut’s Abdullapur jail ever since on a monthly sallary of Rs 3000 (around £40). Together with his father he executed the assassins of the late Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Before becoming a hangman Singh used to work as a rickshaw puller and also sold cloth in neighbouring villages. On the Kasab question he was emphatic about the prospect of pulling the lever ‘ it will be a great service to the entire country, the noose should be tightened around Kasab’s neck. Only then will the souls of those who died in the 26/11 attacks rest in peace. It is my ardent desire to be the one the Maharashtra government calls upon to execute Kasab’. But his wish was not to be as he died on the 19th May 2011 and along with him perished the explanation for the uncanny burden he was carrying that day. The New York Times used one of my pictures from this photo session to accompany a story by their correspondent Jim Yardley here.
Fast forward to Summer 2011 and hangmen are once more back in the news as, in May, India’s president unexpectedly rejected a last-chance mercy petition from a convicted murderer in the Himalayan state of Assam. Having no hangman in the state to carry out the sentence, prison officials were compelled to issue a nationwide call for a hangman. Mammu Singh’s eldest son, 48 year old Pawan Kumar put himself forward. He now awaits certification as a hangman and if successful Kumar will be the fourth in as many generations of his family to hold the post and just possibly might fulfill his fathers grim desire regarding one Ajmal Kasab.
Method: 1/ Mammu Singh – one Nikon SB800 Speedlight with a CTO gel attached shooting through a brolly commanded by a Nikon SB900 Speedlight on the hot shoe of a D3s. For the outside shot I used one SC-29 extension cord to get the SB900 (also with a CTO gel fitted ) off the camera and hand-held to add some balanced fill in the left of the frame while still commanding the SB800. 2/ Pawan Kumar first two frames shot in natural light; third frame (above)- one Nikon SB800 Speedlight shooting through a brolly commanded by an SB900 on the hot shoe.
When I first saw this story reported in the Indian press with a headline something like ” Get sterilised and win a car!” I initially thought it was a joke but soon after I was on my way to Rajasthan with my good friend Andrew Buncombe of the Independent to cover the story for real.
India’s population is colossal, still growing and UN estimates predict that by 2050 it will have overtaken China to reach 1.5 billion from its current 1.2 billion. Experts warn this will present immense challenges and further intensify pressures on already scarce resources. The country’s efforts at tackling the problem have had mixed and sometimes deeply contentious results. The most infamous of these involved Sanjay Gandhi, son of the then prime minister Indira Gandhi who during the State of Emergency in the 1970’s imposed forced sterilisation on countless men and women. Despite the outcry against this policy, sterilisation remains the preferred and often only form of contraception especially in the poorer rural areas.
While paying people directly to undergo the operations is illegal the Ministry of Health has side-stepped the issue by compensating participants for “loss of earnings”. Men receive 1,100 rupees (£15) while women receive 600. Additionally anyone who brings willing patients to the camps are dubbed “motivators” and receive 200 rupees. Other methods of contraception are little known and in some communities still not socially acceptable. Low status and lack of education among women compounds the problem.
One couple I photographed at the camp was Devinder and Rekha Kumar . After the birth of their second child they realised they could not afford more children with the steeply rising prices of basic commodities. The fact that they would receive cash plus the chance to win a brand new car among other items sealed their decision to go ahead with the sterilisation. In fact, even though officials explained it was clearly not necessary for him to undergo the operation now that his wife had, Mr Kumar insisted he would return to have the operation later too saying “I have the right to have it done and to collect the money”. This highlights a major objection to incentivised sterilisation by concerned NGO’s – that the approaches are coercive and target the poor and disadvantaged.
While camps making people aware of family planning and offering free sterilisation are nothing new in Jhunjhunu the incentivisation is. Sitaram Sharma the Chief Medical Officer of Jhunjhunu said there is a statewide target to sterilise 1% of the population (21,000 this year) and when considering the slump in participants during monsoon months (from July to September) they came up with the incentivisation tactic to try to encourage take-up during this time. Sharma says they are doing nothing wrong and that the prizes have all been donated by a local university. Read Andrew Buncombe’s full article here.
Krishna Janmashtami, is a Hindu festival celebrating the birth of Krishna, an avatar of the god Vishnu. Janmashtami is observed on the Ashtami tithi, the eighth day of the dark half or Krishna Paksha of the month of Bhadrapad in the Hindu calendar, when the Rohini Nakshatra is ascendant. The festival always falls within mid-August to mid-September in the Gregorian calendar. In Delhi one of the most popular temples to observe the celebration for Delhiites is the Sri Sri Radha Parthasarathi Mandir, better known as the ISKON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness) temple in South Delhi. I went down there on the evening of the 22nd August 2011 to take some photographs. The above image shows a general view from the east side of the temple bedecked in lights. Devotees watch from the rocky hillside outside while others inside queue to enter the main temple complex. The atmosphere was joyous as befitted a loved ones birthday celebration.
Method: all natural light of course and the brilliant D3s’s low light capabilities coming to the fore again.
In 2009 I had a great 3 week assignment for the WWF (World Wide Fund for Nature) in Nepal. The aim of this was to highlight WWF’s work with Nepalese communities as they confront the very real impacts of climate change – which threatens people and wildlife alike – while coping with poverty and minimal resources. Beyond the extensive specifics of the brief was a further entreaty to ‘shoot everything, we want quality and quantity!’ …. so no pressure then!
Firstly we did a week of strenuous trekking in theLangtang National Park to reach the foot of the receding Langtang Lirung glacier at 4500 metres. Along the way we passed through many villages and small settlements occupied by the Tamang people, an ancient Nepalese race. This presented many great opportunities for portraits documenting elements of everyday life.
On the approach to the glacier we found fresh Snow Leopard pug marks and scat, very exciting but the beast itself remained typically elusive.
Next, a total change of scenery and climate, from the chill of the mountains to the steamy jungles of Chitwan National Park south west of Kathmandu. Here we bore witness to the alarming Mikania (‘Mile A Minute’) plant. This invasive, alien climbing weed is not indigenous to Nepal but an American invader running rampant in the park killing native plant species. Young Mikania plants can grow as fast as 3 inches in 24 hours and it has so far covered 20% of the park. We also observed the abundant fauna in the park from elephant back and visited a WWF sponsored Bio-gas village. Nearly 90% of the village now cooks with biogas which is methane produced from cow dung and human waste. The villagers are happy – no more chopping and carrying wood from the forest – and the park has less pressure on its precious resources.
A male Asian one-horned Rhino, Chitwan National Park
The final third of the trip was spent in the far south west of the country in and around the little visited Bardia National Park. Here WWF has been providing long term assistance to help farmers to grow menthol (mint), as an alternative crop to rice. Its a win-win situation as mint is more profitable for the farmers and far less attractive to rhinos and elephants as a food source thus significantly reducing human-wildlife conflict.
Method: first image SB900 camera right, high, mounted on a monopod triggered via SC29 sync cord from D3’s hot shoe. Second image, – similar but SB900 hand held to camera right and zoomed to just lift closest woman’s face. Kids in water – fill flash on high speed sync using SC29 and SB900.
One of the most fascinating assignments I’ve done in India was for the Independent newspaper with their award winning South Asia Correspondent Andrew Buncombe and concerned Ishamuddin Khan, a man who claims to be the only person in the world to have performed a version of The Indian Rope Trick in the outdoors. His first public performance was a small one in 1995 at Delhi’s Qutb Minar but the major debut came in 1997 on a beach in Udupi in Karnatika in front of a reported 35,000 people. This should have catapulted a man of such obvious ingenuity, showmanship and talent to worldwide fame and fortune but despite the slew of headlines that ran around the world lasting recognition has eluded him.
The trick is a Western phenomenon and little known in India itself these days. Historically the versions of the rope trick reported are, in the simplest version, the magician would hurl a rope into the air. The rope would stand erect and his boy assistant (jamoora) would climb the rope and then descend. A more elaborate version would find the magician (or his assistant) disappearing after reaching the top of the rope, then reappearing at ground level. The “classic” and much gorier version, however, was more detailed: the rope would seem to rise high into the skies, disappearing from view. The boy would climb the rope and be lost to view. The magician would call back his boy assistant, and, on hearing no response, become furious. The magician then armed himself with a knife or sword and climbed the rope and disappeared. An argument would be heard, and then limbs would start falling, presumably cut from the assistant by the magician. When all the parts of the body, including the torso, landed on the ground, the magician would climb down the rope. He would collect the limbs and put them in a basket, or collect the limbs in one place and cover them with a cape or blanket. Soon the boy would appear, restored.
What I find fascinating is that all these stories and ideas of this miraculous trick appear to have grown from a hoax report in an American newspaper and not an ancient Indian tradition at all. The idea of the trick itself was brought into being largely due to a fraudulent article in the Chicago Tribune in 1890. In a recent book on the topic (The Rise of The Indian Rope Trick), a writer called Peter Lamont exposed the trick as a hoax created by John Elbert Wilkie while working at the Chicago Tribune. Under the name “Fred S. Ellmore” (“Fred Sell More” …), Wilkie wrote of the trick in 1890, to boost the Tribune’s circulation, it worked and generated wide publicity. About four months later, the Tribune printed a retraction and proclaimed the story a hoax. However, the retraction received little attention and in the following years many claimed to remember having seen the trick as far back as the 1850s. None of these stories proved credible, but with every repetition the story became more ingrained. Lamont also notes that no reports appear before the 1890 article. Marco Polo’s supposed viewing was only offered after the article was published. Ibn Batuta did report a magic trick with a chain, not a rope, and the trick he describes is different from the classic Indian rope trick.
So in a way Ishamuddin Khan invented the trick, – as he spent 6 years working out how something that started out as fiction 121 years ago could actually be performed authentically. “ I only heard about the trick fleetingly as a boy’” he says “I came to know more only in the 1980’s and then began my serious research”. He is convinced that it is a relatively recent tradition as neither his father nor grandfather (both magicians) performed it or knew how it was done or witnessed it being done.
Uniquely, Khan performs a version of the Indian Rope Trick in the open, with an audience on all sides and no stage or sets in which to hide apparatus to lift the rope. However, Ishamuddin makes no claim to magical powers “its a combination of street magic and illusion” he says. In his version he makes a thick rope rise into the air as he plays a flute and a child is invited to climb it, then once the child has descended again the rope collapses miraculously to the ground on command. Since his debut he has performed the trick only a further 6 or 7 times in India but many more times in Europe and Japan to great acclaim. Why the imbalance? “ Rich people in India are offended if you talk about street performing. They are only interested in computers or software. I am poor but I am suffering not so much from poverty as I am from the attitude of the Indian government. I am happy in my poverty but I would like people to respect me as I am . I would like recognition.”
Ishamuddin is an Indian ‘madari’ (street performer), and a member of the “Maset” – magicians caste. “Indian magicians have been performing 15-20 tricks for around 3000 years but no new ones are being thought up as there is no living to be made in the trade.” he says ruefully. Indeed to supplement his rare performances he sometimes works as a conjurer at McDonalds. Sadly, rather than celebrating the cultural heritage of it’s performing artists India has turned it’s back on them preferring to embrace all things modern, so Ishamuddin’s undoubted skills continue to go largely unrecognised in his homeland.
For each performance of the trick Ishamuddin needs a week to prepare and a fee of around 30 – 40,000 rupees (4 – £500). Understandably the magician would not reveal the secret of the trick and though we were free to examine one of his magic ropes it steadfastly kept its secrets. Ishamuddin can be reached for bookings of the rope trick and other performances through his email address here.
Method: Nothing fancy, for the first two images: one Nikon SB900 hand-held on SC29 off-camera flash cord. Thanks to Andrew Buncombe.
62 year old Dr Anil Kumar Jhingan, seeing me perspiring freely as I worked, graciously apologises that the AC unit is not working due to a power cut. I ask him not to worry and he welcomes another patient into his consulting room in New Delhi as I continue to set up. Dr Jhingan is a diabetes specialist who fell into matchmaking for his patients when he saw the difficulties they faced getting married and also afterwards during their married life. In India many myths surround diabetes the most critical being the belief that a diabetic cannot produce a child and even if they do the disease will be inherited by any children. Its also erroneously believed that a diabetic will not live long and cannot have a normal life.
These attitudes can make the experience of marriage miserable for diabetics in India. Even though the disease is found equally in both sexes, socio-economic dependency means women suffer more and It is sadly common for wives to be rejected by their husbands once they discover they are diabetic.
So the good doctor has been implored by patients or parents of patients to match either themselves or their diabetic children with similarly afflicted patients to make unions between equals. After running the service on paper from a drawer of his desk he launched a website in 2008 that now has 750 members and receives 50 to 60 hits a day.
Method: a horribly dark room to shoot in so best to overpower the ambient light. One SB 800 into brolly, high camera left ; another behind him to right with a quarter Honl grid fitted to provide texture and depth, zoomed to 105mm; one SB900 as commander on the hot shoe. For the wide shots the dome diffuser was on the brolly SB800, on the close-up portraits it was removed and zoomed to 105mm to give a harder, more focussed light. All TTL via the Nikon Creative Lighting System.
Thanks to my marvellous photographer friend Simon Jacobs who played lighting assistant for the day and to Suryatapa Bhattcharya Foreign Correspondent for The National, see her full article on Dr Jhingan here
I’d noticed the rusting carcass of a scooter in the road outside my Delhi flat even during the moving-in process last year. But as it was tucked away it barely registered with me as now into my third year in the country, I have begun of necessity to assimilate Indian ways of thinking about rubbish and dirt.
Over time I watched with amusement as the scooter wreck moved from place to place seemingly of its own volition as I never saw anyone touch it. Then finally to my annoyance and incredulity it moved inside the entrance yard to my block and it dawned on me that it must belong to my landlord who owned the building. But why was something so unsightly and worthless worthy of keeping I wondered? I began asking politely if he would mind disposing of the eyesore and he always said it would be done ‘this week’ but weeks passed with no change.
The scooter had by now fallen in half and lay in two rusting chunks. My mild annoyance turned to fury and moral outrage when Shanti, my lovely kabari (rubbish) lady sliced her forearm open from wrist to elbow on a ragged edge while sweeping the yard. Shanti who must be in her 70’s bled profusely from this nasty injury, nearly fainted and required multiple stitches at a local hospital and it was all so preventable I ranted at the landlord, now would he see sense and dispose of it this rubbish please! He seemed unconcerned about Shanti’s injury and the ex-scooter remained.
Days later I remembered an article from TheTimes of India on Indian attitudes to rubbish and dirt. Anthropologist Mary Douglas famously clarified that dirt was simply ‘matter out of place’. So food on the plate is fine but it becomes dirt when it lands on the floor. Shoes on the feet are OK but not on the table. Nobody can deny that Indians are themselves fastidiously clean so how does the paradox arise that India as a country is so incredibly dirty? In fact two of its metropolises, Delhi and Mumbai, even made it onto a recent Forbes list of the 25 dirtiest cities in the world. Wild horses might be needed to drag an Indian away from bathing every morning but just outside Indian homes rubbish accumulates and multiplies like a force of nature.
The much touted (and erroneous) Hindu ‘other-worldliness’ cannot account for this duality as Hindu’s cannot best Buddhists in this regard and yet Thailand, Burma and Cambodia are nowhere near as dirt-happy. Nor can poverty explain things as many other poor neighbourhoods of the world look positively pristine by comparison. It is rather a case of how Indians define dirt, or ‘matter out of place’.
Hindu conceptions of dirt are based on deeply ingrained notions of caste. According to caste principal all routine substances that come out of ones body are polluting even to oneself. Even hair is polluting which is why a ritually correct tonsure is a shaved head. Traditional roles have been established in the forms of barber, washerman and scavenger to dispose of various pollutants so that members of the upper castes could remain ‘clean’. And whatever can be expelled from the body must be and this is behind the Indian dawn chorus of gagging and retching noises that accompany the process of clearing sinuses and bronchial passages across the nation. It is also unthinkable for a non-westernised Hindu to to use a handkerchief to blow his nose into and then pocket it as this would be recycling pollution and would cause ritual self-harm.
The Hindu home then can be considered analogous to the Hindu body in that once substances or items are out of the home they are quite in place, no longer dirt and can be skirted around and blissfuly ignored. Feeling slightly smug and clever I thought I now understood. But a chance conversation with one of my neighbours revealed a more human explanation for my landlords stubbornness and devotion to the scooter remains, – it belonged to his recently deceased father and he cannot yet bear to let it go. For my part I no longer mention it to him and Shanti no longer sweeps the yard.
(With due acknowledgement to an article in The Times of India by Dipankar Gupta, Professor of Sociology at JNU.)