Super Star Circus
Buy your ticket: cheap seats or front row. Wait in line. Find a chair. Wait and wait. The circus starts. Watch as a line of women of various ages parade into the tent, in various mismatched costumes doing an endless display of low-tech acrobatics to a soundtrack of pounding disco and Bollywood music (and the occasional Celine Dion-Titanic tribute). The crowd watches, but barely. Two clowns tell bad jokes in monotone - this is what they do everyday, three times a day. The crowd watches, but barely. The women are done their tricks and walk out the back of the tent - into smaller tents where their daughters and sons are waiting. Their make-up and their clothes are piled up. Their beds are made and their mothers, who are too old to perform, are guarding their other lives - the lives outside the big tent. The crowd whispers about the performers in the big tent and the performers whisper about the crowd behind the curtain. Back in to ride bicycles with no hands, spin from shady ropes by their teeth, jump through hula-hoops and spin plates on sticks. Welcome to the Big Top. click to see more pictures.
Kids with Cameras
Holding a camera gives one the power of a new perspective: that's something that I believe personally - and something that I integrated into the work that I did as Programs Director at Kid Powered Media. Through photography courses, photo walks, and multiple other projects, our students learned how to view their communities in new and creative ways: through a camera lens. They not only learned technical control over the camera, but also how to apply that to knowing more about the communities where they live. They came to see the diversity of their communities, the rich history of the place and the people, the complexities of life there as well as the beauty that surrounds them. Kids have a voice that needs to be shared - and the camera provides a perfect tool. It gives them the distance they need to take a step back; it provides a barrier between them and their subjects; and it results in images that are engaging and easy to share. click here to see more photos of kids with cameras in action. and follow the link to watch a documentary created by the kids of one of Kid Powered Media's clubs about how media impacted their lives and how they hope it will impact others! 'Our media is able to reach much further than we can alone' by the Mannat Media Club
“The TV is Coming!”
After driving along dirt roads, following obscure directions to find the neighborhood "under the neem tree", we would pull up in our battered Wagon R, careful to avoid any raging potholes or wandering cow, to the chorus of hundreds of kids screaming, "the TV is coming! The TV is coming!" We would set up our minimalistic equipment: a big screen, a broken stool and a basic video projector - all run by the extra battery in the trunk of the car and connected to the car stereo speakers. And then we would hit play and, for about an hour, watch as the screen reflected back in the eyes of the children (and their parents and their neighbors). We would watch as their expressions followed the characters they saw. We would watch as, for that hour, they were transformed and entertained. Between technical failures and drunk disruptions, we would laugh as the children laughed and enjoy with them the happily ever afters on screen. And the best part - we played movies made by other kids - kids we had worked with for months and months to learn acting and self-expression, story-writing and communication skills, creativity and facts about social issues. And the movies were not only educational but hilarious and dramatic and romantic and interesting. For us, these local film screenings were a double success - we got to see the conclusion of the growth of the children who made the film as well as the beginning of learning for the children who watched the film. That's the bright side of development - of the five years of work I did with Kid Powered Media. But there is a dark side too. The side that demands impact and metrics. The side that values numbers and growth and products instead of process. The side where interpersonal politics and donor demands overpower collaborative creativity. And unfortunately, it's this side that usually drives things. click to see more photos of the bright side.
This is Life Too
It's the resilience. The determination. The creativity and jugaad spirit. The colors - of the buildings (however crumbling), the clothes and the smiles. Slums in Delhi are complex places - full of assumptions, misconceptions, struggles and joys; these photos are a quick glimpse at everyday life of some of the people who call the slums of Delhi home. Click for more photos. *Most of these photos were taken and edited with an iPhone 5 - rough and on the go - because usually I was too busy living alongside these people, even if just for the minute.
Diyas for Days
Another holiday in the making: clay diyas (candles) used to light up homes on Diwali. Made in a village within a city within a country. Tucked into a corner of Uttam Nagar, without signposts or directions or much fame, the women mix clay and cut pots off wheels and make dirt turn colors while the men spin, spin, spin giving shape to the earth surrounded by generations. There are hand-built mountains with oversized fires to bake what you don't eat and kachcha and pakka creations are piled on rooftops to dry in the sun, as the skin of their makers cracks and crusts like the clay. Rajasthan, Bihar, Haryana, UP and 2 families from Bengal, providing the city with its clay needs - simple to fancy, Diwali or otherwise. Click to see more photos.
From Earth to Earth and in Between
It's becoming a growing fascination of mine: seeing the behind-the-scenes of holidays, the production of celebrations, the making of happiness. These photos are taken in Kumartuli, a neighborhood tucked into a corner of Calcutta, where artisans craft huge clay statues of the goddess Durga for Durga Puja - the most famous and lively of all Bengali holidays. Once completed, the goddess is placed, alongside other life-sized gods, in tents called pandals around the city, decorated and revered by neighborhood children and families who are indifferent to where she came from or where she will go. They listen to music, hang out with their friends, eat the best sweets of their lives, dress in their finest clothes as the goddess watches from her stage...and as the artisans who made her finally breathe deep breaths of relaxation as their work winds down for another season. The celebrations wouldn't be complete without Durga, and Durga wouldn't be complete without the artisans: they see through every detail - from collecting clay from the river to crafting her perfect frame. From layering the mud to decorating the goddess with paint, fabric, and glitter. They even collect the remains after she is immersed in the water at the end of Durga Puja - to be fixed up, pieced together, torn apart and used again. From Earth to Earth the goddess comes and goes, passing through the hands of the men and women of Kumartuli. And of course they don't stop at Durga - they can make any god required, as well as humans - living beside and amongst them in the lanes of Kumartuli. Click here for more photos. (All photos in this series taken with a Nikon FE and 35mm Fujifilm)
Behind and Beyond
It was perhaps one of the most touristy things I've ever done in India: a hired taxi to take a curated tour of villages in the Kutch region of Gujarat. It seemed like a good idea at the time - assured access to places that are hard to reach by public transport, someone else organizing my schedule and time to fit many things into a single day. But I felt trapped and suffocated and distinctly disappointed: things were too beautiful, too picture-perfect, too ready and prepared. I missed the chaos and the roughness and the initiative it takes to figure it all out. And most of all, I missed the humanity. Empty shops designed with a foreign aesthetic, ready to please. Villages that were painted just so with men's faces plastered with smiles and eyes flooding with eagerness. These pictures are instead what happened when I tried to push past all that. When I went behind the shop to talk to the workers hanging out in the back or the women preparing lunch. When I chatted with the children playing in the shade as my other travelers shopped in the craft stores. When I forced the taxi to stop in order to walk through a local market buzzing on the side of the street. I found a glimpse of humanity, but I got out of my dilapidated ambassador taxi at the end of the day wanting more. Click for more photos.
A plastic mold. Plaster of Paris mix. Paint. Glitter. And a god is born - a POP god. With their community constantly under threat of demolition, these families on the road past Akshardam Temple in Samaspur Village hold few things dear: their profession and each other. Click for more pictures.
A Fine Line
Each night, she puts on her own make-up and chooses from a selection of her own clothes, stored in steel boxes along with the family's only other possessions, precariously staked behind the make-shift stage out of sight from the crowd gathering. This is what she has done since she was young, when she watched her own parents perform and learned the secret art of deception. The Water of India - a vase that never empties no matter how much you pour out. The Sword Through the Throat trick. Cutting her assistants in half. As her 6 children play between the stage and the crowd and as her husband controls the mobs of men that pay 20 rupees per head, she doubles checks her eyeliner in the dusty mirror, takes a deep breath and walks on stage to enchant them all with a fake Chinese accent and hastily, though sincerely, performed tricks, the most impressive of which is the fine line she walks between being a strong empowered, self-employed women on a public stage and a show piece for men's entertainment controlled by the watchful eye of her husband. Click to see more photos.
Accountant by Day, God by Night
Tucked into a corner of Lajpat Nagar, past the teaming market, behind the parks and Punjabi houses, is Jal Vihar - a government colony for low level employees in the water scheme. Every year since 1981, the people of the colony pool their money together to put on their own Ramlila, a 10-day reenactment of the story of Ram's rescue of Sita from the grasps of Ravan and the reason North India celebrates Dussehra. Bathed in the divine yellow light of the park lampposts, the neighborhood kids grow up watching their neighbors and peers playing gods - Ram, the hero, and his companion Hanuman, the strong monkey king. Sita, the princess, played by a man of course (no women allowed on stage). Roles are given by looks, not experience - because these aren't actors - they are accountants and sales men and teachers. In fact, they have no acting experience at all except for the 2 months leading up to Dussehra when they meet after work to go through the worn and rugged scripts that have been passed down through the years to learn their lines and practice the play. This is Prabhakar's second year as Ram, a role he has been looking forward to for the past 10 years and which he performs 'dil se'; playing a god is not meant to be taken lightly. Before the festivities start, the actors do a prayer in order to channel the gods and ask them to enter their bodies for the next 10 days - and to forgive them in advance for any mistakes they make. And when the festivities are over, they do another prayer to release the gods from their bodies and give thanks. In between, for those 10 nights, women and children and sometimes men watch the story unfold and live alongside Ram and Sita, Hanuman and Ravan, both literally and figuratively, thinking about whether next year will be their chance to be a god.