Tuesday, 28 May 2013

Sufi Saints Photo Workshop: The Verdict

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
"Toto, I've a feeling we're not in Kansas anymore."
That was the line that came to my mind the most frequently during my two weeks Sufi Saints of Rajasthan & Kashmir Photo Expedition-Workshop...and I had to remind some of the group members of it as well.

In comparison to the 10 days or so spent in Ajmer attending the death commemoration of the Sufi Saint Moin'Uddin Chisti (aka Nawaz Gharib), the initial days of the workshop were spent in Srinagar; the capital of Kashmir, and the experience was virtually placid. The group interacted with and photographed people of all walks of life during the walk-abouts the streets and alleys of the city, during the visits to the shrines and mosques, and with about everyone...from the shikara boatsmen to the flower vendors and even the elderly religious clerics who wanted to salvage our souls. I can confirm that the Kashmiri people are amongst the nicest and most hospitable people I've ever met...and if you haven't been already, just go. 

Seven of the group stayed in the stellar luxury of the Sukhoon houseboat (a truly magnificent houseboat which only had 5 bedrooms), while I and another group member stayed in another nearby houseboat...far from having the same quality of accommodation as the brand new sleek Sukhoon. I imagine Onassis' yachts would be of the same luxurious standard.

Traveling on Indian Railways from Delhi to Ajmer was a cinch, and was a pleasant experience...albeit one that took 6 hours to complete. I was looking forward to settle in the luxurious setting of the Ananta Resort near Ajmer, but was shocked to find it didn't have rooms for us because it had accepted the booking of an Indian wedding with literally hundreds of guests, and we had been moved to the Pushkar Resorts...an oasis of calm within 15 minuted drive. Having vented my spleen with the choicest of epithets directed at the Ananta management, I bowed to the inevitable and we moved to the Pushkar Resorts (in retrospect, a much better choice) for a few days until the wedding ended. We did get complimentary meals as compensation, which soothed our feelings a little. In case you seek hotel accommodations near Pushkar, do not go to the Ananta...it's more of a convention center and principally caters to noisy Indian weddings. 

As for the photographic experience during the Urs (Moin'Uddin's commemoration), it was mixed. Mixed not because of the lack of incredible subjects, but because of there being too many, and after a day or two, our eyes got used to them...and we became blase. We became understandably more choosy in what and who we photographed, and the buzz and the novelty decreased. That is the main difficulty in attending and photographing such events...after a while, it becomes repetitive and it becomes a struggle to find "new" angles.

The first few days at the Urs were enjoyable and full of  photo opportunities that most of hadn't ever seen.  The fakirs and the Sufi ascetics (the real and fake), the charlatans, the flag-waving pankiwallahs,  some maimed and others healthy...the vagabond self mutilating malangs, the venal khadims squeezing every paisa from the poor and gullible, the eye-popping rituals...some based on Hinduism, Buddhism and even on paganism,  the disturbing self-induced trances by mostly schizophrenic women and their attempts to exorcise jinns, the disparity between Sunni and Shi'a Islamic traditions, the welcoming kindness of pilgrims towards foreign visitors, and our being interviewed on Indian national television all made for exhilarating initial days.

I was thrilled my choice of Tahoor Chisti ( a khadim and descendant of the Saint) as a facilitator for the event proved to be extraordinarily fortuitous. He was instrumental in procuring camera permits for us, got us replacements when we need them...and was the go-to-man whenever we needed to. A dignified and an extremely affable and helpful young man...and certainly an asset to our photo workshop. Shuchi Kapoor, a freelance photographer and writer, who joined the workshop in Ajmer as my assistant, is also to be commended for her help and skills.

One of the highlights of the Urs was having our very own guelaf (a large velvet sheet embroidered with verses from the Qur'an) which we placed on the saint's marble tomb, along with a basket of sweet-scented roses. Doing so exposed us to the most chaotic part of the event since we shared the tight space with hundreds of other pilgrims/supplicants; some of whom gripped with a religious frenzy.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the failed attempt of my being being pick-pocketed. Surrounded by a mass of pilgrims, and sensing my iPhone had been lifted from my pocket,   I grabbed the nearest man next to me...shook him out of his wits and yelled "thief" at the top of my lungs.  A policeman swiftly grabbed the fellow and as if by magic, my iPhone was returned by some other guy claiming it had fallen from my pocket! Another highlight was to meet a bunch of transgendered hijras in their rooms overlooking the main street in Ajmer.

What would I do if I had to repeat the workshop? Well, I'd extend the Srinagar part of it for a couple of days  and attend the first half of the Urs...and skip its latter part with its claustrophobic-inducing crowds.