Friday, 28 October 2011

Kolkata's Cult of Durga: Verdict & Epilogue

Photo © 2011 Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
I wanted to write this post earlier, but I needed intervening time to be more objective and allow my thoughts to settle. Few if any photo workshops leaders take the trouble of publicly posting their verdict on their workshops...but I've always done that, and will continue to do so.

"Few if any photo workshops leaders take the trouble of publicly posting their verdict on their workshops...but I've always done that, and will continue to do so."

Planning the Kolkata's Cult of Durga Photo Expedition/Workshop, I knew full well that setting a photographic trip and workshop in a congested urban center such as Kolkata would be fraught with difficulties, and I was right for two main reasons. The congestion, traffic and the crowds (especially during the Durga Puja week)  in that quintessential Indian megapolis certainly exceeded my expectations, and occasionally took me by surprise with its severity. The prevailing weather was also a factor that I had to consider when planning the duration of the photo shoots, especially when leading a group of people unaccustomed to such high degrees of humidity and heat. For the first time in all my photo expeditions, I recommended to the group that drinking fluids with electrolytes was a necessity and not an option. It's very rare for me to schedule an off day during my workshops/expeditions, and yet I did on this one. Shooting all day for almost a full week in such humid and hot circumstances made me rethink our pace, and I was glad to see that a day of respite was welcomed by the group.


Photo © 2011 Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
But let's start from the top. Despite my travel agent's assurances to the contrary, I was somewhat apprehensive about the Lytton Hotel where we stayed for the two weeks in Kolkata, having read some negative reviews on a travel forum. My reservations turned out to be unfounded. My experience (and largely, that of the remainder of the group) was satisfactory. Sure, there were some minor hiccups here and there, but the staff were generally professional (especially Beryl at the reception, and Nicholas in the restaurant) and helpful. The Lytton is on Sudder Street right in the heart of Kolkata, and we couldn't ask for a better location. Whenever we felt the absolute need for a luxurious and posh restaurant, we popped in the next door Oberoi Grand, where we grumbled about its prices.
"If I had the luxury of rescheduling the photo expedition/workshop, I would have started it two days earlier, and ended it three days earlier."
If I had the luxury of rescheduling the photo expedition/workshop, I would have started it two days earlier, and ended it three days earlier.  It would have given us more time at the outset of the Durga Puja week to document the potters in Kumartuli more thoroughly, while they finalized their effigy making. As it happened, we only had a day and a half to document both the potters at work as well as the transporting of the effigies to the pandals, which didn't didn't give us space to photograph that particular chapter of the festival at a more relaxed pace.

Photo © 2011 Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Transportation was somewhat of a drag. Kolkata's traffic is notoriously bad, and while we had a van for a number of days during the festival itself, we relied on taxis for the rest of the time. Taxis were not difficult to find, but with no ac they were uncomfortable in Kolkata's heat. In retrospect, I should've jacked up the price of the workshop to cover the cost of the van, even if the seasonal price gouging seemed unreasonable in comparison.

That being said, I am gratified that my photo expedition/workshop was held during the appropriate week. I heard that another photographic workshop had mistimed the Durga Puja festivities by about a week, and its members arrived when it was winding down!

We had tremendous photo opportunities; some planned and many serendipitous. Being invited to a private home to witness and document the puja and rituals revolving around welcoming the effigy of Durga, and to another large home involving return of the effigy to the Ganges were serendipitous to a very large extent, and speak volumes to the hospitality of the Bengalis. On another occasion, leaving a cluster of Jain temples, I saw the perfect backdrop for a staged photo shoot, and quickly convinced a nearby rickshaw puller and a woman to spend half an hour as models.
"These slideshows were as good as those I see submitted by seasoned photojournalists!"
Along with Chhandak Pradhan, a freelance photojournalist in Kolkata who assisted us on the photo workshop,  contact was made with a Baul singer (a Bengali wandering minstrel) who treated us to a private demonstration of this ancient skill, and allowed us to record his musical prowess.

There were big time misses as well. Kolkata's Chinatown (at least where we went) wasn't worth the time, nor were the tanneries. Photographing in the Kali temple is prohibited, and the authorities kept a keen eye on us all through our brief visit. That again wasn't worth the trouble. However, the whole area around the Kali temple teems with photographic opportunities. Another area that I found fascinating in the Muslim area of Chitore...also teeming with tremendous photographic opportunities.

Photo © 2011 Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
I don't know any other photographic expedition/workshop whose members were such media stars. We were featured in The Hindustan Times, along with some of our quotes. I was also glad to be featured in The Indian Express where I explained the objectives of the workshop.

Finally, a photo expedition/workshop is as good as its participants. I was very pleased by the quality level of the final audio slideshows. I knew the participants were all accomplished photographers, but I underestimated their quickness in mastering the techniques of slideshow making and audio editing.  Consequently, when I saw their multimedia work in progress, I was extremely gratified. These slideshows were as good as those I see submitted by seasoned photojournalists who attend my class at the Foundry Photojournalism Workshop.