Thursday, 27 March 2014

The Sacred Cities: Varanasi & Vrindavan Photo Expedition | The Verdict

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
I don't know if other photographers who lead similar tours do it, but my readers probably know, I self-grade my photo expeditions-workshops, and go public with my verdict. From experience, I'm usually more critical than group for those with limited time to read all about the what worked and didn't work, here are two short paragraphs that summarizes it:

My overall grade for The Sacred Cities: Varanasi & Vrindavan Photo Expedition-Workshop is 65%. Visually, the photographs of Holi events are mouth-watering, however the festival has lost its original religiosity to a great extent. It was only within the courtyard of Banke Bihari temple that I saw -and photographed- authentic and immersive devotion, and religious fervor. Otherwise, Holi was as religious as La Tomatina festival in Valencia.

My camera usage: Canon 5DMk2 with 17-40mm (75% of the time). Canon 7D with 70-200mm (10%). Canon 5DMk2 with 24-70mm (10%) and Fuji X Pro (5%).

For the detailed review:

Yes, my overall grade is lower than my expectations by about 20 basis points. So why such a low grade? Let me start with the Vrindavan negatives first:

1) Holi as a festival: The mix of Holi as a chaotic festival that called for precautionary measures to protect (as much as possible) ourselves and gear from over-the-top color powder and water throwers, the huge unpredictable surge in crowds, and an utterly useless local guide, all contributed to lowering the grade.

Having to protect our gear with various iterations of rain cover (whether common Zip Lock bags or more sophisticated products) made it difficult to compose and choose appropriate least when we were in the midst of the activity. It was therefore frustrating to some of us to rely on "grab-shots"...which success percentage rate is understandably lower than if we had enough time and space, and weren't threatened by fiendishly accurate goswamis armed with  "military-style" water cannons or well intentioned revelers with gobs of powder color aka "gulal" smearing our faces with it.

Yes, it's what Holi is all about...but it ends up affecting the quality of the photography. While the scenes at Banke Bihari Temple, the epicenter of Holi devotional revelry in Vrindavan, provide incredibly compelling photographs of devotees covered in color (see top photograph and the raw unedited movie clip below), these were also repetitive and most of us hit the point of diminishing returns after the second or third visit.

There were occasional crowd surges which, if one was unsteady on his/her feet, could've been a problem. On two occasions, we were in the midst of these surges but survived to tell the tale.

Photographically, unless we were in what we called "the mosh pit", the photographs made from the side of the temple, or from its side balcony were uninteresting, and repetitive. How many photographs can one make of the crowds throwing pink or green "gulal" at the deity...even if using a 70-200 to capture expressions, and photogenic top of heads? Not many.

However, the groups of Asian photographers did try to monopolize the balconies and largely stayed there, merrily click away their camera like machine-guns....subsequently perhaps enlarging and cropping their resulting photographs. But we are not wired that way...and we preferred venturing in the courtyard where the frenetic activity was...where the photographs were...but also where we were most at risk from the Holi weaponry.

At one point, having secured positions (notice the military-like language) on a raised platform to the side of the courtyard, one of the priests chased us away with his high-powered color water-thrower, soaking us all. So the safety of our gear was a preoccupation, and we were somewhat restricted in how we photographed. I don't think our photography suffered that much, but it could've been better if there weren't water nor powder...but that wouldn't be Holi.

We greatly enjoyed street photography in Vrindavan during Holi, and had to remain on the alert for the young boys who ambushed us with water balloons and water guns...however, when we told them we had cameras, the large majority of them understood and let us through...dry.

2) The Local Guide: I'm not going to waste a rant about this fellow...beyond saying he was totally useless beyond getting us to where the various festivals were....and that's being charitable. We were had a couple of reliable drivers, and one of them acted as an impromptu guide when we needed support.

3) Widows: I photographed the widows inside their ashrams some years ago, but we were unsuccessful in getting access to photograph this time. The widows themselves vituperatively shooed us out when they saw us walking in with cameras. It seems that some High Court in India prohibited photography inside the ashrams...probably because of the negative coverage that circulated then.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved

4) Cluster F..ks: This is slang for the clustering of photographers surrounding a subject....shooting all at once, and shouldering each other to get a better vantage point. We had many of those in various temples...especially if a spectacularly colored person or groups appeared on the scene. Asian photographers met on this trip seemed to have a different understanding of personal space...and thought nothing of taking my place if I moved an inch away from it. It also appears from my on location observations that these particular regimented Asian photographers "chimped" in unison.

The above photograph must appear in at least two dozen photographers' inventory of images from Holi. I was surrounded by that many of them, each yelling directives to these men to hold their hands is such a way, etc.

Seriously though, most of my photo expeditions-workshops are to religious or secular events that are either unknown to photographers or uninteresting to them...and that's the way I like it. Holi is such a widely known event (perhaps more so than the Kumbh Mela and Pushkar) that crossing paths with other groups of photographers was unavoidable. It doesn't mean that I like it.

5) No iPhone Photography: I regret having been unable to use my iPhone to photograph during Holi events as these were rife with pickpockets. One of my group was relieved of a small amount of money in the Lathmar Holi event in Barsana, and a friend almost lost his mobile phone in the Banke Bihari madness.

6) Multimedia Workshop Verdict: I left this for last, because it was one of the worst results I've had since I added this module to my trips. Only one participant completed the assignments given to the group. The assignments were for 1 minute audio-slideshow from Varanasi, and a 3 minute audio slideshow of Holi. Bob Newman (seen at my right in the above photograph) was the only photographer who graduated from the module with his two multimedia projects on Widows (in Varanasi) and Holi. While most of the rest of the group have produced audio slideshows already (either independently or on my other trips), the fact remains that this was not a success.

In fairness, we didn't have enough time set aside during this trip to produce such projects. I shall restructure my future itineraries keeping this flaw in mind.

7) Illness, Accidents etc. : Aside from minor Delhi bellies and colds, the trip was relatively free of illnesses. Two accidents occurred; a nasty fall in the Varanasi alleys required the attention of medical staff, and a cow or bull in Vrindavan mistook another of our members as an obstacle, and bumped it rather violently out of its way.

And now for the positives:

1) Holi Photography: Unrivaled color (and monochrome) photography is there for the taking. Indians are some of the most welcoming people for photographers, and we weren't denied whatever photographs we sought. I had read reports of inebriated hooliganism, but while there were some young men clearly having had too much, we weren't in the least bothered.

There's no question that the best of the Holi events were those in smaller venues. The Banke Bihari temple and  Krishna Janambhoomi Temple were literally war-zones, and photographers looked and acted like war photographers in a tear gas zone.

2) The 'Yatra' Trail Around Vrindavan: Every day at dawn and even earlier, dozens of devotees and pilgrims walk along the circumference of Vrindavan, muttering prayers with the help of their rosary beads. Some of those devotees are Westerners, presumably belonging to ISKCON or similar, who also take part of this daily ritual. We walked towards Vrindavan's ghats, meeting the pilgrims along the way, and it was particularly misty and foggy. The light was just glorious at this time of day. I devoted a whole gallery of black and white photographs in the gallery Vrindavan In Monochrome.

2) No Cameras Were Harmed: No one in the group suffered damage to their cameras as a result of Holi's powder or water. We were well prepared. That said, most of the alarmist feedback we received from other photographers were just that...a tad alarmist. I saw camera protection ranging from expensive casings to cellophane wrap...and occasionally, nothing at all.

3) Vrindavan Logistics: We stayed at the Nidhivan Hotel & Resort, and despite it being a vegetarian and no-alcohol establishment (Vrindavan is a vegetarian and dry town), it's new, modern...and its staff extremely amiable and friendly. The is where most of large photography tours from Taiwan, South Korea and Bahrain-Kuwait stayed. When we craved non-vegetarian food, we traipsed to the Radha Ashok Hotel in Mathura. Having two vehicles, a bus and a passenger car, gave us some flexibility during the Vrindavan stay.

As for the 4 days in Varanasi, my grade would be more like 75%.

Photo © Tewfic El-Sawy-All Rights Reserved
Aside from the photogenic (but unauthentic) sadhus who grace the Varanasi ghats with their presence, this ancient city offered phenomenal street photography opportunities in its endless narrow alleys (known as gallis). Our group spread out amongst these alleys, capturing the scenes of life of the city.

Our on-site research indicated that aghori sadhus are generally reclusive, and it confirmed my suspicions that the photographs that we had seen of these so-called cannibalistic sect members were, in fact, of "actors"... regular sadhus with dreadlocks holding skulls and other macabre artifacts, and who supplement their meagre takings by posing for photographers.

In summary; would I do Holi again? No. Would I do Varanasi again? Absolutely.