Indian odds and ends

My time in Calcutta, India, has ended and I am now in Bengaluru, (formerly Bangalore,) with my wife’s family. Considering how bad the weather is in the U.S. right now, I am particularly pleased to be here where it is warm and dry, working in familiar territory. This trip to India has been a bit of a whirlwind, with five-day stops in both Chennai (formerly Madras) and Kolkatta (formerly Calcutta.) Now I am starting a longer stay in Bengaluru. All this moving about has left me with bits and pieces of things to think about, which will make up this blog entry.

In the decade and a half that I have been traveling to India, many of the cities have been renamed, ideally, to more accurately reflect local history, language and culture. You can read more about that process through a couple interesting web sites, including:
http://geography.about.com/od/specificplacesofinterest/a/indianames.htm and
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Renaming_of_cities_in_India. I would never begin to attempt to parse that renaming process or the politics behind it. What I would say is that it reminds me of how, in India, history is alive and is being continually reshaped. Yes, India has an ancient culture, with lots of history. But as an actual nation, a working political entity, it is fairly new. Issues like the names of places and the choice of languages to use are still in flux here. There is something ironic about all that, especially compared to how many of these issues seem more fully settled in America, which is often stereotyped as a country with a short history.

Photographing in India in general and working in Kolkatta in particular prompted me to want to start an organization to be facetiously called “Photographers for world peace and against environmental destruction.” Of course, there are many groups and individuals who have similar stands. Also, photographers are often major players in promoting world peace and opposing environmental destruction. I certainly support their efforts, but on this trip to India, those same issues confronted me in a whole new way.

India in general and Kolkatta in particular has very polluted air. The entire time I was photographing in Kolkatta, the air was a hazy, smoggy grey, which flattened out the light and prevented the formation of the shadows I love to photograph. Now that I am in Begaluru with relatively clear skies, I am seeing the play of light and shadow once again. As human beings we should all be opposed to air pollution, but as photographers we have a doubly deep stake in clean air that allows pure light and shadow to play out in front of our lenses.

The other thing that has gotten worse in the 18 months since I was here last is the restrictions on photographing in what are deemed as “sensitive places.” The 2008 Mumbai attacks by Islamic militants from Pakistan occurred November 26th to 29th. Those left at least 173 people dead and over 300 wounded. The attacks drew widespread condemnation across the world and I certainly condemn them as well.

On the other hand, so many places that were once interesting places to photograph in india are now, as the guards tell me, “restricted, no pictures, security.” Train stations seem to make some sense as places of possible concern, but in Chennai and Kolkatta, I was stopped from photographing in markets, on bridges, etc. The irony is that the Indians were unfailingly polite in stopping me so it seemed all so pleasant. The worry I have is that these restrictions will become institutionalized in Indian life, as so many rules do. Later, even though the security and political situation may change, the rules will still be enforced, out of habit.

The real tragedy is that Indian security guards are notoriously lax and history shows these restrictions will do little if any good. I know this from extensive reading and personal experience. For example, there were the guards who waved metal detecting wands at me as I entered various shopping malls recently. The waving of the wand was all that appeared to matter because I always set off the metal detectors and no one ever seriously examined my bags. Indian airport security is generally better in my experience, up to a point. I am not trying to denigrate the Indian security workers, but rather to suggest they take a page from the Israelis. Over the years, the Israelis have figured out where to put efforts in terms of security (intelligence) and where not to waste their finite resources (restricting photographing of markets.)

Again, I think all photographers want world peace and a resolution of the hostilities between India and Pakistan. As photographers, the over-the-top restrictions on photography, like the polluted skies, keep us from doing what we do best. The security restrictions, like the air pollution, prompt me to half sarcastically suggest formation of something like “Photographers for world peace and against environmental destruction.” I am only half sarcastic because we now know that history-shaping movements have started over smaller issues than what makes photographers happy. People motivated by the thing they love can be a powerful force indeed.

The last experience that I had in Kolkatta worth mentioning reminded me how important it is to both be prepared and think on your feet. In the short-term rental apartment where we were staying, they locked our upper floor at night, behind a security gate. I was not too excited about being locked in, but we had a patio that we could have used as a fire escape in an emergency, so I put up with the gate. One morning, when we were going out to photograph at dawn, the guard with the gate key was nowhere to be found. We rang the bell and rattled the gate and woke no one up.

We knew that the apartment below us and beyond the gate was where the caretaker stayed. To get out we to had to knock on the door or ring the bell. The door was about eight feet away from the gate so we could not reach the bell. I thought about throwing my shoes at the door, but that only gave me two chances to hit the door, make a noise, wake the caretaker and get the gate unlocked. If I failed I would be shoeless and caged too.

Annu, my wife, was using her Holga film camera that day. She was carrying ten rolls of 120 size roll film, which was still wrapped in foil wrappers. It took me one roll of film to get my aim just right and two more rolls to hit the door hard enough to wake the caretaker. When he opened the door we ere laughing at the bright yellow packaged rolls of film spread across the landing. He was not amused.

After our morning photographing, while eating breakfast, we agreed that this situation was that rare one where film was obviosuly better than digital. A dozen CF cards (or even more SD cards) bundled up together have less mass than one roll of 120 size roll film. Given a choice, I think it is safe to say that most photographers would rather use film rather than flash cards, to throw against a door to make noise in order to wake someone up.

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