Sunday, 1 April 2012

Verdict: The Oracles of Kerala Photo Expedition-Workshop

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

"...the uniqueness of this photo expedition-workshop..."

That's how one of the group members started to express his satisfaction in having attended The Oracles Of Kerala Photo-Expedition-Workshop while bidding goodbye to me and the rest of the group.

Uniqueness! It's precisely what I strive for when I structure my itineraries and programs for my photo expeditions/workshops. Are all of those based on unique itineraries? Of course not...but most of them are. The Oracles Of Kerala Photo-Expedition-Workshop was based on two main Hindu religious festivals: Thirunakkara Arattu Utsavam, a 10-day temple festival, and the Kodungallur Bharani, a wild and unusual localized religious festival near Kochi. The former is a Hindu religious extravaganza with elephants, while the latter surpasses the famed Kumbh Mela in intensity. To my knowledge, no travel photographer has ever dared to conduct a photo trip/workshop covering these two festivals. 

This uniqueness of this photo expedition-workshop, as well as the positive group dynamics among its group members, certainly places it amongst the top three I have ever organized and led so far.

Spice Godown-Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Now cutting to the chase, here are the planned photo shoots that worked well:

1. The Fishermen of Punnapra. 
2. The Vedic School in Thrissur.
3. The Thirunakkara Arattu Utsavam Festival. (Drummers & elephants galore)
4. The Shadow Puppets near Cheruthuruthy. (Excellent!)
5. The Kathakali performance at the Kerala Kalamandalam. (Superb!)
6. The Kodungallur Bharani aka The Festival of Oracles. (Incredibly Intense).

Vedic Gurukul-Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

Although the group members liked the photo shoot at the Mattencherry spice godowns, it was rather mundane, at least from my perspective. The photo shoot at the Kochi Chinese nets was passable. The photo shoot planned at the oldest mosque in India known as the Cheraman Juma Masjid was a total failure from a visual standpoint. Nothing of its original structure remains, and its artefacts are copies of the originals (lost or pilfered). I can add to this that no one can make non Muslim visitors feel more unwelcome to mosques as blinkered Islamic clerics. The short visit to the adjacent Islamic school was, in contrast, a pleasant experience with delightful young students.

I fault myself for not having double checked the information provided by our guide which resulted in our being late in attending the last day of the Thirunakkara Arattu Utsavam Festival. The local policemen saved the day by getting some of us through the throngs of people. They were very helpful, and wanted us to get to the best vantage points, and as close to the elephants as possible.

Logistically, the photo expedition worked well. All the hotels were of high standard (mostly in the 4-star category), and their staff were very helpful. I must mention here Mr Bijou, the restaurant manager at the ABAD Whispering Palms Resort, who is an encyclopedic source for Keralite religious festivals. I wished he had joined us on the trip. 

Temple Lighting-Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

It was a little disappointing that the ABAD Whispering Palms Resort in Kumarakom didn't have an alcohol license, but we nevertheless managed to procure the bottles of beer so necessary for our well-being after long photo shoots. That said, the hotel provided us with a conference room where we met daily to work on our slideshows, and edit our it more than made up for its lack of alcohol license!

The vehicle used to transport us was more than adequate, and was driven with skill by Haris Aziz, a delightful and reliable young man with a good sense of humor. He quickly became our group's go-to-man for whatever we needed. In contrast, the guide allocated to us by the local travel agent was ineffectual, and was out of depth. He was more suitable for elderly tourist groups interested in museums and history, not for a bunch of gung-ho travel photographers. I couldn't find it in me to fire him, but I should have. 

Lastly, it was immensely gratifying to witness how seriously all of the group members worked at their multimedia projects; often while exhausted. Two of the 7 photographers in the group had already attended my previous Kolkata workshop, so had a substantial head start but worked as diligently as the rest. One of us had an extremely uncooperative laptop that crashed frequently, but who never lost his sense of humor nor his interest in learning multimedia. 

To be assured that the 7 group members were fully familiar with SoundSlides and Audacity, I suggested they completed a 2-3 minutes multimedia project in less than 3 hours.

They did.