Jan 25, 2013

What makes a bad blog post?

When I don’t post for a couple of weeks, I imagine that my regular readers are thinking, “you’re on the other side of the world, you’re in in India, surely something interesting must be happening everyday.” And that, the merely interesting, is what I think makes a bad blog post and a bad photo—pages of illustrations.

(Yes, because I'm quite content with my last two posts I'm taking the risky step here of drawing aside the curtain and showing you a rejected post that includes what I believe are some successful photos. And trying to explain the difference between the two. This is an “inside baseball” post for the photographers and bloggers in my audience. If I hear that all this background is merely annoying I will do what I haven't yet done, and delete the post.)

In India a wedding parade brings the groom to his marriage ceremony. Here (photo #1) a gas powered generator is wheeled on a bicycle powered cart; the electricity is used to amplify the band member that is playing inside each of the bicycle driven cages (photo #2) . Beyond the fourth cage you can see a wall of speakers (photo #1) —behind these the groom’s friends dance. 

My picture of a dancer (photo #3) is out of focus because it’s my style to use wide angle lenses that requires me to get close to the action. Here the dancers were having none of that. If I was close enough to dance, I was dancing. They were grabbing my camera hand and thrusting into the air while they engaged in this very physical contact dancing. I had no intellectual context for this experience. It felt like what I imagine it would feel like to suddenly find yourself on the dance floor of a gay disco.

Traditionally, the groom would be dressed up like a maharaja and riding a white horse. Here he’s in the back seat of a silver car (photo #4).

Wasn’t that as interesting as it was inadequate? When you come out of your way to read my blog I feel you should take away more than facts, however curious.

Yet more interesting inadequate photos, but with the much more evocative lighting of a night-time wedding parade. Here there are fireworks, behind which is a similar bicycle wheeled power generator. This time the power is used for light rather than sound—the LED colored lights and the odd hand-held table lamps strung behind that and carried by poor women hired for the occasion. The music here is from a brass band marching behind the women. The woman holding the lights is well-lit and lovely (if slightly blurred), but uninteresting because she is posing conscious of her good looks. She comes off as just a pretty face. She wanted her picture taken and then she asked for payment after I took this picture.  

I wouldn’t have started this post unless I also had photos of the wedding parade that I believe get beyond the merely interesting to the expressive—by that I mean suggestive of a world beyond the frame of the photograph.

I am very much aware that here the subject’s discomfort with being photographed is enhancing the resulting image (although I realize some will hold a differing opinion about the first of these images, I don't think there is any doubt about the effectiveness of the latter two). I don’t know what to say about this except that one of the most famous sayings about photography is, “If your photos aren’t good enough, you’re not close enough.” (The photographic proverb gains extra meaning if you know it was said by Robert Capa, a war photographer, perhaps most famous for landing in occupied Europe with the troops on D-day.) When you get this close things happen. Sometimes you get evocative uncomfortable images like this or in more delightful ways something magical happens, sometimes you get yelled at or the subjects turn away, and sometimes you get forced into some strange Hindu male bonding dance that takes place at the trailing end of every wedding parade.

Jan 23, 2013

Surf, Saris and a book review

My consistent readers will not be thinking that I have spent almost a month lazing on the beach. The faithful know that I’ve been recovering from some serious ailments and regaining my strength for the upcoming convocation with the naked sadhus and their 70 million devotees. (Kumbh Mela has already begun, but it begins for me with my arrival on the seventh of February.)

In order to better understand what I’ll be getting into at Kumbh Mela I listened to Paramahansa Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi as I walked along the beach searching for surf and saris. Harper-Collins listed it as one of the 100 most important spiritual books of the twentieth century.

Autobiography of a Yogi  presents a world of super-sadhus who levitate, teleport, materialize objects, heal the sick, raise themselves from the dead, or (at their most troubling) routinely render themselves invisible to photography. Yogananda writes of holy sadhus who meditate alone in caves that they leave just once every 12 years to attend Kumbh Mela. I was intrigued by this chapter until I learned that Babaji, one of these swamis, looked to be in his late 20’s, but was reputedly 500 years old. Yogananda calls Babaji India’s ‘age-less master’. This again troubles a photographer for whom appearances matter. I don’t want a thousand year old temple to look like it was built last week. 

Born and raised in Calcutta and trained right here in Puri, Swami Yogananda spent much of his life in America establishing the Divine-Life Fellowship. He writes with simple clarity, “Disbelieve in the reality of sickness even when you are ill. An unrecognized visitor will flee.” 

A wise man knows which unrecognized visitors will flee and which will take possession of his home. In my mid-winter beach retreat I have had to deal with representatives from each of these two categories of unwanted company. Antibiotics are my antidote for those that would take possession. Surf and saris was my remedy for those sometimes more troublesome guests that only delight can shake off. 

Every morning women wash their saris in the surf and dry them on the beach


The first report from Kumbh Mela came from a Chinese traveler about 1,380 years ago. It took years for his report to reach his homeland. You should not have to wait that long, but I do not expect to have the both the internet access and the time necessary to post much from Kumbh Mela. My full report should reach you by the beginning of March when I’ll have had time in Delhi to prepare my reports


Jan 9, 2013

Happiness in Puri is a bowl of muesli.

Just after dawn, dressed in splendid saris, the women stroll into the ocean.

They walk a few feet in, turn around, sit down and laugh. Their religious experience lies elsewhere. Puri’s Jagannath temple is ranked the 4th most holy site in India. What makes it unique is that a pilgrimage here can be a package deal that includes a stay at a beach resort. As a result of this unique circumstance Hindi pilgrim/vacationers outnumber us westerners by about a thousand to one, and this crazy over-built pilgrimage/resort town seems strangely unspoiled. 

Away from most of the resort hotels, but right where the handful of backpackers stay is a fishing village. The beach is their public toilet, but it is also where they change their fish into money. Here the fishermen bring their catch in. They drop their fish into the wet sand.

A huddle forms around the catch. The two men with their arms on each other’s shoulders are fishermen watching to see what profit their labors will earn. The fisherman in the light blue shirt has been calling out prices for the fish starting with the higher prices he would like to receive for his catch but he has to keep naming lower prices until one of the buyers shouts “Ha!” (yes) and the sale is made. The buyer with the light orange sleeved arm on the left is pointing towards the caller of prices and and has just shouted, “Ha!”

The man in the trousers and white shirt is another buyer. The fish he has bought will go to fine restaurants in Mumbai and Delhi. The fisherman wearing the traditional lungi is expressing his anger about the low sale price.

A village woman moves the fish to her metal bowl.

With a little assistance the bowl is lifted onto the coil of cloth on a woman’s head.

The purchased fish starts its journey to a plate in Mumbai.

The men who have been fishing from the darkness before dawn bring their net into the village.

In this typically narrow village lane a fisherman brushes his teeth in the back (one of the village pumps is out of sight just to his left). In the middle ground a young man makes chai and in the foreground children play while their mother fixes their hair.  

A fisherman’s wife and son pose on their porch. All of these pictures of the sale of the fish and the village were taken on the same morning walk and I’m thinking it’s time I head to the Peace Cafe for breakfast.

This is where the backpackers in Puri gather. As my guidebook states, “the muesli fruit curd is the biggest you’ll ever see and this alone attracts a keen following.” That is what this young woman, her two friends  and I, at my table, ordered.

Watermelon, grapes, pomegranates, nuts, orange sections and yogurt along with just a few bran flakes-- enjoying it while thinking about my morning’s catch is enough to make me happy.

Jan 5, 2013

A museum that could have been in a museum

 [Just  before I took the night train to Orissa I visited Kolkata's Indian Museum.]

The animals look like they've had enough. 134 years is a long time to hold a pose. The indian Museum began in 1814 under the name The House of Magic. The animals in the natural history halls were added in 1876.

The leopard has almost lost his spots. They remain mostly on the top of its head.

Still, the kids are as wide-eyed as kids in any museum. 

What is different from American museums is that it is not the dinosaur, but man that is the chief wonder.

Jan 2, 2013

that Coffee shop is best that changes least

The Indian Coffee House is a chain of coffee shops whose chief virtue is that they still look more or less like they did when they were established in 1936. In the 1950's, when the corporation that owned the chain wanted to close it down, the workers successfully petitioned the government to be allowed to take over the operation of the coffee houses. In Shimla (where I fell for the brand) the Indian Coffee House clings to a misty mountain ridge. From the well aged darkness of the shop you look out into the mist and feel like you’re sipping your java at edge of the world. In each coffee house the waiters wear the same curious hats.

The legendary Indian Coffee House is the one seen here, the one in Calcutta (Kolkata). Since 1876 a coffee shop operating here has been the haunt of the city’s artists and writers. As Calcutta is the intellectual and cultural capital of India, the country’s seminal revolutionaries, writers and artists all met here. When the company that owned it tried to close it, the government was petitioned to keep it open by the president of the adjacent college. It re-opened as a worker owned Indian Coffee House. When Allen Ginsberg traveled to India in 1962 this is where beat poetry was introduced to Bengali literature.

After coffee I walked a few blocks to the family home of Rabindranath Tagore. In 1913 Tagore became the first non-European to Nobel Prize for literature. He was this coffee shop's most celebrated customer and remains India’s most revered poet. In addition to being a poet, Tagore was a renowned author, composer and painter. A larger than life photo of him dominates the back wall of the cafe.

Tagore was the first great poet to write in colloquial Bengali. He translated some of his poems into English and many of his lines, even out of context, have a lovely aphoristic clarity:

“I cast my own shadow upon my path because I have a lamp that has not been lighted.” 

“Every child comes with a message that God is not yet discouraged of man.”