Overcoming the Fear of the Subcontinent
"Shocking pink is the navy blue of India.'' Diana Vreeland
round, peacock feather fan is pushed in my face; shimmering in the sunlight,
its multiple, iridescent, blue-green eyes gaze into mine. "Nay, nay!"
I say to the hawker as I sweep past him and wend my way through the tuk-tuks,
cows, cars, and bikes to meet my photo group in Old Delhi. Ten paces further
along a barefoot, beggar boy pulls theatrical faces and plays my arm with
sticky fingers for financial consideration.
Reconvening by the Red Fort after our first foray into Shahjahanabad on day one of my 1995 photo tour to northern India, the jet lagged, first time photographers to the subcontinent are initiated by assorted touts and beggars. A pushy vendor attempts to apply a "tikka" or third eye to all the women. Another chap hard sells a ludicrous, bogus, black beard to the men. "Be a Sikh", he suggests. A snake charmer tests at close range everyone's tolerance for lengthy, lethargic reptiles. A raggle-taggle, gypsy mum wielding a bare-assed baby palms the group. As we board the bus to return to the hotel, a pretzel legged, street person hand propels his way to the door importuning for alms.
All this visual and social stimulation occurs on the first afternoon of a twenty-day tour through Rajasthan, including the Pushkar Fair. Safely back on the bus, I take everyone's emotional temperature; no one is unhinged so far. Those who went with my husband Landt and the guide through the Red Fort reported taking pleasing warm up shots of embodied saris sweeping through the rosy sandstone structure. Those who followed me, wheedling our way behind the scenes at the circus across the street, told amazing tales of caparisoned elephants and cooperative mahouts posing for us. In a matter of mere hours, the phantasmagoria of the Indian experience had taken root in the group's collective, creative consciousness - far outweighing the initial wave of unsettling sights of beggary, and the harbinger of unrelenting commercial hassles to be endured throughout the trip.
Anyone suffering from incipient Indiaphobia left their excess, emotional baggage in New Delhi as we set off the next morning for Agra, Udaipur Jodphur, Bikaner, Mandawa, Benares, Jaipur and the ultra-exotic Pushkar Fair. On balance, despite daily testing of social patience and challenges to other sensibilities - including individual vicissitudes in tour participants' stamina on a day-to-day basis - the scale remained tipped toward the positive for the duration of the trip. The group had fast bonded through mutual experience - by surviving physically and emotionally, as well as thriving photographically.
Stateside Indiaphobia engenders various arguments for not committing oneself to the greatest photo-opportunity on earth. "I couldn't possibly deal with India! The crowds - all those people touching me! The poverty, the smells, the filth! What they do to the children! The death defying drivers! Those dark, impenetrable eyes! I don't trust those people! What if I get really sick?" And my all time favorite: I couldn't travel in India; I like clean sheets!
Like so many mysterious djinns emerging uncontrollably from the solar plexus of the subcontinent, all of these issues and concerns are palpably real aspects of the Indian experience. Nevertheless, unchallenged Indiaphobia frustrates me no-end. After five trips to Rajasthan and knowing how otherworldly, creatively expansive and personally transporting the Indian journey can be, I can't imagine withholding oneself from this land of photo-opportunity and spiritual transcendence. In an effort to help people exorcise their Indiaphobia, I have tried to excavate a deeper strata of concern. Over the years I've queried Indiaphiles and Indiaphobes alike on the subject, getting the same, aforesaid stock responses. However, a friend recently back from studying with a yoga master in Mysore suggested that the underlying issue is loss of control. "India is not for control freaks", he said. I agree - it's the subconscious fear of losing emotional, physical or logistical control over one's personal destiny in the land where pigs fly, and beings levitate before your very eyes. Those often voiced, Indiaphobic comments are simply covers for control concerns.
The control revelation caused me to revisit one of my favorite quotes on the subject of creativity from Bill Moyers' TV series, The Olympics of the Mind. Moyers states, "Creative intelligence possesses what John Keats called 'negative capability'. It is being comfortable with uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without irritable reaching after fact or reason. It questions what seems on the surface unquestionable, it tolerates perplexities and rushes to no judgment".
It is the very suspension of personal and cultural dogma that is required to become swept away by Indian phantasmagoria - a suspension of intellectual control. I believe it is possible to pull this off without sacrificing our own individual belief systems. We simply send our conventional, western wisdom on holiday - give it a rest for the duration of the trip. There's no point in clutching up or succumbing to emotional blackmail over a culture we cannot control. Especially at the expense of blinding ourselves to the mystery, miracle and majesty of arguably the most complex, colorful, dense, decorative, multi-layered, mercurial, and spellbinding culture on earth.
In an article written for the New York Times, "India's Gift: The Discovery of Each Day", A.M. Rosenthal reveals, "I did not go to India to search my soul, but Just to be a foreign correspondent. Somehow from the beginning, I understood in India, as never before, that virtue lies in rushing toward each day with its joys and adventures - and even its pain - and that the only real sin is demeaning God's gift of each day by turning away".
The participants on my photo tour met the Indian day wide-eyed and head on. They accepted the fact that twenty days in India was going to be the original "go with the Ganges" adventure experience. In an evening get together, we discussed the difference between pragmatic, temporary tolerance of the dark side of the Indian condition and the offhand condoning of it. Again, the sub continental karma was out of our individual control.
Only five days deep into the trip, some members of the group suffered creative karma. A woman said to me, "I've been in tears twice so far over this incredible spectacle. What's next"? Another person reported waking in the middle of the night, her head "dancing with design". No chemicals necessary. A man reveled, "You ask five Indians if you can take their picture and you get ten people posing for you. This is the greatest people place I've shot in".
Another guy grouses, "There's nothing to take pictures of here; I've only shot six rolls today". Someone else blames me for not telling him to bring enough film; held come with eighty rolls. At the Pushkar Fair swirling with women swathed in rainbow saris and men topped with sorbet turbans, a shooter exclaims, "Wowzer. I'm paralyzed! I simply don't know where to point my camera".
In thank you letters for the trip I read from a husband and wife, "India was truly a life altering experience for both of us.'' A world traveler writes, "I'm sitting surrounded by dazzling slides, wrapped in the colors and glowing in the memories of a stupendous trip! I'm truly grateful to you and Land for seeing me through my most exciting and growth producing journey. The increase in photographic skills is but a small fraction of my learning".
At our farewell dinner back in New Delhi, the group agrees that India is like a pool with no shallow end. You can't test the water with the proverbial India phobic toe. You've got to take the full body and soul depth plunge into the liquid land of djinns.How seldom we allow ourselves the luxery of time; taking time is a gift we grant ourselves. Only time teaches us that a little stillness goes a long way creatively -- enabling the invisible, interior world to manifest gracefully through our destination photography.