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03.15.2012

India at the SUN

Two New Mexicans share their views of India

Woman hangs sari; Jaisalmer, Rajasthan; India. Many women wear a traditional outfit called a ‘sari’; it is made of a long piece of cloth, which is then wrapped around and pleated to fit to the woman wearing it. All of the laundry was hung outside to dry, and it’s fun to see the saris drying, long strips of gauzy color hanging down the sides of the buildings.


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India at the SUN

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n 1955 Swiss photographer Robert Frank traveled across the United States on a Guggenheim fellowship photographing life in America as he saw it. The book that resulted from this body of work became ‘The Americans’, an iconic, seminal work that defined a style of photography that Frank seemed to invent. A shoot-from-the-hip, gonzo photojournalistic, sometimes blurry, sometimes slanted, style that had an immediacy and forcefulness, an in-yourface look at his subjects. Mike Martinez (roots in Truchas) and Emma Eckert (Coronado and UNM graduate) spent all of January in India, and took many photographs. When one looks at a lot of these, you can’t help but be reminded of some of Frank’s images. A number of the resulting India images are going to be on display in the SUN office for the next month and a half. The following are some notes and thoughts on their India travels and, perhaps, some insight into the photographs that will be on display. Martinez says,

In Jhunjhunu, during a tour of the havelis (big old houses, usually shared by two rich merchant families, now mostly abandoned or turned into hotels), I got to see some nice street scenes showing everyday living. Women working, carrying goods, doing laundry, etc. I shot this with the camera down at my side, even though the women had their backs to us - shooting in that manner had turned into a habit at this point.

Two New Mexicans share their views of India

“What did we do in India? Well... We explored the Taj Mahal, museums, mosques, palaces, havelis, forts, Jain temples, monkey/langour temples, rat temples, roadside shrines, Maha Raja pleasure rooms, royal latrines, market shops, government shops, small villages, big cities, deserts, jungle mountains, garden parks, and cremation ghats. We visited giant statues, small statues, homes and poop huts. We saw art, agriculture, architecture, musical performances, cow parking, water bison crossing, continued on page 6 >


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India at the SUN

Taken at Mata Karni Devi Temple, the rat temple. The rat temple was one place I was so looking forward to photograph, and of course my camera battery was just about to die. I decided I needed to conserve the battery and only take some really awesome pictures of the rats. And then this woman walked out into the sunlight in her bright yellow sari, and I just had to snap the photo.

Mostly any water source had multiple uses. In this case, the women are washing their clothes and bathing in the lake.

cow pie campfires, peacocks, Siberian cranes, lots of birds. We saw funny English spelling and wording on random advertisements everywhere. People and animals living everywhere, like on medians and other high traffic areas. We saw public roadside toilets and barber shops. We saw poverty, sickness, happiness, healing, swastikas, ritual, trash, vomit, fruits and veggies. We saw overloaded bicycles, motorcycles, cars, tractors, buses, scooters, and tuk-tuk rikshaws. Not to mention the overloaded camel, donkey, elephant, ox, and people-pulled trailer carts. We were touched by the untouchables, we met Bollywood stars and ancient civilizations with cell phones. We met high donation pressure holy brahman, real and fake sadhus. We were attacked by all four castes in the caste system. We rode elephants into forts, and camels on the dunes near the Pakistani border. We took boats and bridges into tourist traps and across the sacred Ganges. We survived black cobras and cobra snake charmers. We survived monkey attacks and the insanity of India driving with the chaos of the no lane system.� Eckert: “Traveling in India is like no other experience. If you are talking about traveling by car, there are lots of differences - some of the roads are pretty run-down. Consisting of one (sort of) paved lane, where you drive faster than maybe you should and the right of way is given to whoever is bigger of the


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two meeting on the road. You honk your horn at kids, bikes, cows, dogs, when you’re passing, when someone is passing you, if you want to pass, if you think the person who passed you was driving dangerously, etc. You can expect to see: overloaded motorcycles and scooters, cars, rickshaws, elephants, donkey/ horse/camel/people-drawn carts, bicycles, kids, and trucks at any given time on any road. You will see your laundry, and everyone else’s hung along the roadsides in the city.” Martinez notes an interesting aspect about traveling with another person or other people; that although you might be standing and looking at the same subject, you come away from it with differing impressions. Martinez, “Well, the experiences come across in a very overwhelming demeanor, because there are layers of action going on, like you took a picture, and another picture, and another picture, and layered them in a clear background. Like printing multiple pictures on top of each other; you can only focus on one scene at a time. So, although you and someone else may be looking in the same direction, you can see a completely different scene depending on your perspective.” Both Martinez and Eckert came away with experiences that enlivened them and experiences that depressed them. Both talk a bit about that rollercoaster effect. Martinez, “The best thing about this trip was the experience of a culture with roots that go possibly as deep as 10,000 years. These roots are still in touch with the trunk, and the branches are like modern and western society, all is part of the same whole. And monkeys. Real monkeys! And the worst? Being exposed to that same culture, and the reality of the poverty, and the reality of the spirituality. In India, most people understand the concept of “that’s life”.” Eckert, “There were so many amazing things on this trip. I tried to prepare myself beforehand, reading as many articles as I could

Woman carrying water; En route to Jaisalmer, Rajasthan; India. We had stopped on the road to see a huge resting area for cranes migrating from Siberia. As we got out of the car, this woman approached me with a water container on her head, and asked, “Photo?”. I learned early on that people who asked you to take their picture also wanted to be paid for giving their portrait. Sometimes I just didn’t want the picture, or sometimes I didn’t have small bills to give, but in this case, I wanted the photo. I took her picture, and I only had a 100 rupee note (you can see clutched in her hand). The first photo I took was a bit further away, and I didn’t like how it turned out. Being that I had given her roughly $2, which was a lot of money, I asked for one more photo, and took this one, and she was also a lot happier in this one; you can see her smile underneath the veil.

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India at the SUN

Shoe maker; Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan; India, 2012 After our haveli tour, our guide took us to see some shops. We soon realized that every tour would end a some type of shop. Mike told the tour guide that he wanted to get some sandals, so he brought us here. It was a tiny shop, probably eight feet wide, by maybe 12 or 16 feet deep, all the walls covered with shoes. The old man was at the entrance making more shoes, while a younger man was helping us with the shoes.

find, and we watched lots of India documentaries and movies, but really, there is no preparation. Things are not going to be as you envisioned them. I really liked the amazing architecture, the huge, intricate carvings and statues, and the people were fantastic! We met so many really nice people, and saw so many great things! It seemed that everything was decorated, from the roadside shrines, to the huge trucks, to the houses... I loved all the bright colors. I think the best thing about this trip, for me, was seeing so many people having so little, and still being so happy with their lives. There were hard things to see, in India. People live just about anywhere. Some would set up tent houses with a tarp and some poles, others would live on the medians between the lanes in the road. I saw children playing in their median yard. The kids were sometimes difficult to think about. They are some of

the toughest kids on the planet, living in the conditions that they were, and begging for survival. Really young kids would come up to you and ask you for money. Sometimes they would run out in the street to knock on your car window. We would mostly give the kids bananas or tic-tacs (given to us for the trip; the kids (and our driver!) really liked them). Sometimes women with little crying, skinny babies would come up and beg for money. That was hard to see. It really gave me a sense of deeper appreciation for what I do have. India really opened my eyes.” Since India is so populated, traveling there immerses you into the people. Martinez and Eckert comment on a couple of memorable experiences. “The people were what really made the trip. There are people that stand out, both for good

and bad reasons/experiences. Like the kids, dirty, dusty, tearstained kids. Kids that probably the only English word they knew was “money” following you around chanting their request at you. There were the high pressure sales-people. You get used to it, but initially it can be off-putting. Then there were the people who would welcome you into their home to see how they were preparing the meal for the day, and offer to share it with you, despite having very little. The people who would go out of their way to be friendly with you, to talk with you, just to find out what your life is like. I was constantly reminded that we were the foreigners there, and people would come up to take pictures of us, or have us pose with their family, or take photos of Mike’s tattoos and piercings. As fascinated as we were with them, they were with us. Abdul Shakoor, owner of the Heritage

Kuchaman Haveli (one of the hotels we stayed at). He was kind of like an older Muslim from northern New Mexico. He approaches you, hands you his card, and says, in a very thick accent, “My name is Abdul Shakoor, and this is my Haveli, but tonight, this is your Haveli.” Also all the endless hawkers, with bulging eye adrenaline rush of money.” A lot of times when one travels, you find yourself comparing the country you are in to the United States, whether intentionally or not. Both our travelers comment a bit on this. Martinez, “Well, since India got cell phones about 8 years ago, they are rapidly becoming “at one” with the western culture. As a US yoga teacher, going to India, to see a bunch of American hippies dressed in robes, it continued on page 11 >


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Above: Indian tourists inside Meherangarh Fort; Jodhpur, Rajasthan; India. Below Left: Camel guides; Jaisalmer, Rajasthan; India. This man and the two boys worked as camel guides; they made their livelihood from taking tourists on camel rides through the dunes near the border of India and Pakistan. Below Right: Boy with Taj Mahal; Moon Garden, Agra; India. We had the great luck of being able to see the Taj Mahal up close, and then going across the river to see the back side of the Taj, without the crowds. This was the site where the Black Taj Mahal was to be built, but only the foundation was completed. This boy hung out with us for quite a while; he spoke very little English, so our guide translated for us.

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India at the SUN

seems as though the west has embraced the Indian culture. Thanks, The Beatles.” Eckert, “India is becoming very westernized, for better or worse. It was kind of funny, because I chose the clothes that I was wearing to try and blend in, to look a bit more “Indian” (it didn’t work, by the way), and so many of the people living there were trying to dress more like Americans. I saw lots of knock off brands that they would wear, like “Abibas” and “Redok”. In rural areas, people tended to dress more traditionally, the women, anyway. Saris were very common everywhere for women to wear. We did have some interesting runins with the ‘holy men’, who would high pressure you into making ‘donations’, like they would tell you that there was a ‘minimum donation’, and it had to be made in US dollars, etc. We were wizened to the fact that just about everyone was looking to get money from

us, that was a way of life, so we just had to be strong about it. We did witness our drivers involved in yelling, or being yelled at, to move vehicles out of the way, but that seemed to be a common thing, too, and seemed to be forgotten as soon as it was over. Sometimes, if I was taking photos in a temple (only when it was allowed - you usually had to buy a camera ticket), people would tell me not to shoot there - even though I was told it was ok when buying the ticket. When you think about it, it is that person’s place of worship, not some tourist attraction. I can see where they were coming from. We did have slight misunderstandings when it came to speaking English but for the most part, it was not bad.” In Robert Frank’s project, he often shot quickly from the hip, surreptitiously. Eckert found this a technique to which she gravitated.

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03.15.2012 “I soon found out that if you took a photo of someone and they saw you do it, or if someone asked you “Photo?”, or asked to take a picture of you with your camera, they would also ask you for money for that service. Sometimes I would pay people to take their photo usually 10 rupees or so (about 20 cents), and most people were more than happy to pose for a photo, especially if money was involved. (We joked that when we were asked for our photo that we should ask for rupees afterwards.) I figured that I would quickly run out of 10 rupee notes, and the trip would turn into an expensive photographic venture if I paid for every photo I took (over 8,000 - that’s 80,000 rupees, or roughly 1,600 USD), so I took to shooting without putting the camera up to my face. It was kind of exciting - I was never sure if I would get the shot that I wanted, or if I was aiming the camera correctly. I did end up with some nice surprise shots, though. It was kind of a nice feeling, seeing shots that turned out well from randomly sticking the camera out the car window and shooting, or trying to aim at something with the camera sitting on my lap. Some people were a bit uneasy about having a camera around, so it made it a little bit more comfortable without me having the camera glued to my face all the time.” In a number of the photographs the duo brought back, you find yourself looking at very elaborate buildings which seem to be deserted. With all the people living on the streets you find yourself wondering why there would be buildings —

many very beautiful buildings — not being used. “These are the havelis, which are mansions that one or two large merchant families would live in, mostly in the times when they still had camel caravans for the trade routes. These are huge, elaborately decorated, multi-story houses, that have been painted with murals and designs all throughout. Since the paints used were vegetable based, and much of the area had been exposed to sun and rain for decades, much of the painting is now worn away, leaving a black area instead. You can still see some of the paintings, though, in areas that were sheltered from the elements, and some of the indoor rooms. Most of the families moved to the big port cities like Mumbai and Calcutta, because it was better for business, and sometimes they will come back to use the havelis for weddings or other celebrations.” And did the two travelers have any final thoughts on their trip? Martinez, “I would say, accept your fate, and surrender to whatever the universe hands you.” Eckert, “Be appreciative of what you have. Always share what you have. Always assume the cow is going to walk in front of the car.” Sounds like good advice, be it in India or Northern New Mexico. This exhibit will continue through April with the initial twelve images being exchanged with new ones periodically.

Top Photo: India scooter people; En route to New Delhi; India. Taken by Mike; this was towards the end of our trip. From the very beginning, we had seen these incredibly overloaded scooters and motorcycles, with dad driving, one or two kids up front on the gas tank and/or handlebars, one or two kids behind dad, and mom riding side-saddle in her sari, with various amounts of luggage placed strategically around the bike. We kept trying to get a photo, but were unable to for most of the trip, until now. Bottom Photo: Woman in blue windows; Jhunjhunu, Rajasthan; India. This was also along the same haveli tour; I looked up, and the color of the windows caught my eye, and when I saw the woman in the middle window, I knew it would be a good shot. I like those that you think will be a good shot, and they really turn out that way. It was a quick shot, though, and I wish I would have framed the windows a bit better, but you have to live with what you get.


Article INDIA AT THE SUN