Rajasthan: Photography as Connection

By Raphael Shevelev

A largely harsh desert in Northwest India, Rajasthan has been, for most of its history, a land of ancient princely fiefdoms, chivalric traditions and a hardy people surviving and practicing their customs in a hostile physical environment. Under both Mughal rule and the British Raj, the kingdoms of Rajasthan maintained a high degree of independence. Much of this distinctive culture remains even as Rajasthan moves into the future as an integral part of modern, democratic India.

On my several journeys to Rajasthan, I have been drawn to documenting the interactions of people, animals and the omnipresent monuments o the region's feudal past. I've been intrigued by how traditional and contemporary lives adapt and flourish in this semi-arid region under the weight of a turbulent history. It was a surprise to see a camel herder speaking intently on a cell phone and to meet rural folk musicians who had performed before audiences in Washington, DC, Moscow and Buenos Aires. The descendants of the Rajput princes and lords, now deprived by law of their titles and special privileges, have transformed themselves into entrepreneurs, often using their palatial homes as luxury accommodations for tourists. While the majority of Rajasthanis still live as agriculturalists, their work is gradually becoming more mechanized and some of their children aspire to attending the new engineering colleges being constructed in the desert.

Signs of the global economy make for amusing juxtapositions: the Pepsi advertisements nest to a shrine in the temple town of Eklingji, the MasterCard and Visa sings behind a group of village women shopping in Jodhpur and, below the eighteenth-century fortress-palace of Devigarh, satellite dishes and adjacent spires of a Hindu temple vie for heavenly attention in the village of Delwara. In Jaisalmer, on the festival of Teej, beautifully dressed college girls, fasting, go to the Shiva temple to pray for good husbands. A few yards away an old man slowly and painfully makes his way along an alley toward an internet cafe.

Much of Rajasthan is a dun colored and level expanse, relieved by dramatic elevations such as the ancient Aravalli Range and the hilltop fortress city of Chittaurgarh, where so many historic battles were fought. It was here, I assured my grandson David, that the light sabers of Jedi Knights were stored; by the time he becomes old enough to travel there, I may have to arrange for them to be moved elsewhere. Chittaurgarh is also where I witnessed an unexpected and charming phenomenon: as the sun set over the valley below, monkeys, who moments before had run around chattering, became silent as they sat on a wall and watched the beauty of oncoming evening.

In the far west of Rajasthan, close to India's border with Pakistan, the golden sandstone citadel of Jaisalmer rises from the surrounding desert like a medieval mirage. Here and there human-made bodies of water relieve the desert landscape. Gadisar Lake, in Jaisalmer, is a reservoir fed by the great dedesrtifying project known as the Indira Gandhi Canal. In Udaipur, the fabled two hundred and fifty year old Lake Palace seems to float in exceptionally scenic splendor.

As a striking contrast to the landscape, the people of Rajasthan costume themselves in brilliant colors. To this powerful visual stimulus they add a warm receptiveness that encourages photography as an act of social connection. Among the Bisnoi people out in the desert near the village of Rohet, a gentleman offered me my first and only taste of a solution of opium, but sadly, it had no effect. I confess that my contacts with people were made much easier by the presence of my Indologist wife Karine Schomer, who is fluent in several Indian languages and has specialized knowledge of Rajasthan's history and culture. Our conversations had an undoubted effect on the way I photographed. Her humor (apparently at my expense) triggered the gloriously warm smile on the face of the Rajput guard at the great Mehrangarh for in Jodhpur. Her presence made it possible for me to interact with veiled women drawing water from a village well, where modesty meant a covered face and a bare midriff. Of the faces I photographed, none matched the cool hauteur and the startlingly grey-blue eyes of Sakar Khan, one of the most famous of the Manganiyars, a Muslim folk musician caste who also perform at life passage events for Hindu clients.

Many have some familiarity with images of classical Indian architecture, whether of intricately carved Hindu temples, peacock arches, or Mughal tombs, of which the Taj Mahal is the most spectacular example. I was, however, particularly intrigued by two structures that live side by side on the grounds of the City Palace of the Maharaja of Jaipur. The Hawa Mahal (Palace of the Winds), built in 1799 by Maharaja Sawai Pratap Singh, is really a false front close to the Zenana (women's quarters). An element structure in pink sandstone that faces out to the busy streets of Jaipur, it has no construction behind it save for staircases that allowed the ladies of the court to ascend to various levels and look out to the city without exposing themselves to the sight of commoners. Fascinated by astronomy, Jai Singh II, an early eighteenth century ancestor of the present Maharaja, constructed five astronomical observatories in central India, one in the City Palace grounds. Each, known as a Jantar Mantar, is a complex of gigantic astronomical instruments, including an equinoctial sundial known as the Samrat Yantra.

Coming from California, the new world of the New World, I was impressed by the apparent ease with which farmers, camel-herders, children, students, business people and others relate to the symbols of the historic past. In Chittaurgarh, a young girl in brilliant yellow sits at the foot of a thousand-year-old structure, which in the west might have become condominiums or a theme park. Occasionally on a wall one may encounter somber reminders of a darker aspect of the past: the decorated handprints of ancestral widows immolated on their husbands' funeral pyres in the now long outlawed practice of Sati. Other walls have hapiper messages, such as a bridal house welcome in Jodhpur's Brahmapuri.

Indians have a sweet and close relationship with cows. I generally don't mix with very large animals, but I found Rajasthani cattle well socialized to humans. In Eklingji, an especially appealing cow followed me around, stopping to scratch her head against an outdoor tabletop. In the old city of Jodhpur, a magnificent bull gave me the eye as he calmly passed between me and a veiled woman. In Chittaurgarh, I held on to the green-painted horns of a while cow long enough to detain her until a group of colorful schoolgirls approached, then I stepped back to photograph the cow and them.

The full moon night in the Hindu month of Kartik (October-November) is the culmination of a great annual festival and camel fair at the lakeside town of Pushkar. This religious and commercial event attracts huge numbers of villagers, devotees, traders and performers from all over Rajasthan, as well as many visitors from around the world. Among the thousands of camels was one princely specimen who seemed to embody the legendary pride of the Rajputs. So I gave him an appropriate name, Raja Unt (Camel) Kumar Singh, and in return he posed graciously for me.

Cameras often create social distance, even alienation, especially wne the photographer appears as an anthropomorph with a piece of machinery stuck to its face. Willingness to engage, even sometimes without a common language, tends to diminish that distance. The attitude of the people Rajasthan helped to dissolve it altogether.

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© Raphael Shevelev. All Rights Reserved. Permission to reprint is granted provided the article, copyright and byline are printed intact, with all links visible and made live if distributed in electronic form. This article was originally published in LensWork.

Raphael Shevelev is a California based fine art photographer, digital artist and writer on photography and the creative process. He is known for the wide and experimental range of his art, and an aesthetic that emphasizes strong design, metaphor and story. His photographic images can be seen and purchased at www.raphaelshevelev.com/galleries.