I spent three months motorcycling in India. Here are some of the characters I met.The landscape of this country, brilliant as it is, pales in comparison to the beauty of its people.
If you look at something long enough, you will find something beautiful in it. Capture that.
A silver-haired kumar (sculptor) resting in his shop, situated in the twisted alleys of the engrossing and aptly named district of Kumartuli, Kolkata, which is famous for its prolific effigy sculpting.
This photo was taken on the first day of what was to be a 90 day journey. I had rarely taken portrait-style photos at home in Toronto and was terribly uncomfortable with the idea. My wonderful and talented Kolkata host, Harneet, insisted that I shoot photos of the people, as she does, because ‘they are the richness of India’. Thanks to Harneet’s outstanding hospitality I made it through my first week in a new land unscathed and thanks to her photographic coaching I was to both learn and capture what she meant when she spoke of her land’s true wealth.
In the frantic streets of the Barbazar district, a young boy stares me down with big brown eyes.
For about 10 minutes, he and his friends took turns jumping in front of my lens, already being expertly nonchalant street models. After those 10 minutes, the photo session broke into chaos, with the whole gang diving and weaving to gain a prime spot before the camera. Taking these shots was only half the fun, the other half being when I was able to show the kids their photos on my little display.
During my chaotic photo session with the children of Barbazar, this little one was intrigued by the camera and the action but wanted no part of the mob scene. I schemed with Harneet, my wonderful host, and had her distract the other children with her own lens so I could say hi to beautiful Meera.
This beautiful and endearingly shy woman sat outside her friend’s tea stall in the subdued sidestreets of Shobhabazar, Kolkata. When I asked her if she would like her photo taken, she laughed, rolled her eyes, and pointed at each one of her friends, seeming to insist ‘you should take each of their photos instead of mine!’ As to not offend and to develop some trust between us, I did just this. They laughed and pointed just the same.
Once I returned to where I had started and this young woman appeared comfortable with the idea of having a lens pointed her way, she gave me a series of bashful but alluring looks that spurred me on to take ‘people photos’ for the remainder of this trip, and perhaps the remainder of my life.
In response to some observations of the fact that females are grossly under-represented in this collection, I must say that Indian women are very elusive subjects to gain photographic consent from. I assure you that I approached each character I found to be significant or having interesting features, but India’s women, in my experience, are far more camera-shy and perhaps more conservative than their male counterparts. The few photos I was able to snap of this nation’s fairer sex are very special to me and give a small picture of how enchanting these ladies are.
Sitting tough, living the two-wheeled life in her polka-dot dress.
Between duties at the market, these men take a few moments to mess about. Apparently this mostly consists of playfully slapping and berating each other in front of the camera. So long as they are all smiles, it’s fine by me.
At the city’s largest flower market, situated near to the Howrah Bridge, thousands upon thousands of orange and yellow marigold garlands, among other things, are sold each day for the purpose of the being temple offerings of the faithful. This place represented to me a great juxtaposition within the city and perhaps in all of India, with the flowers’ breathtaking beauty and sweet aromas existing in stark contrast to, but somehow in synergy with, the sights and smells of extreme poverty. A direct quote from my journal reads, ‘The beauty of the colourful people and flowers hit you as hard as the stench of rotting flowers and human filth.’
Though these were early days in my Indian travels, I see Mullik Ghat as being an important place to visit if in Kolkata. The quintessence of India’s sensory dichotomy can be experienced here.
The doctor is in for an early morning ear-cleaning.
After these men gave me a head-nod approval in response to my trigger-clicking gesture, I was able to snap part of their morning dental hygiene ritual. Hundreds of men gathered at the ghat to wash and cool off in preparation for the oppressive pre-monsoon heat and humidity of late May.
Whether it was a well-timed itch or his best impression of western hip-hop artists, this young Bengali gentleman greeted me with style on behalf of his small street-dwelling family.
This fellow turned from causing trouble near some Kolkata tea stalls in his rather intoxicated state to being a superstar photo subject in a matter of seconds.
The silver lining.
This man pierced my lens like no one else did on this journey.
Life at the tea stall.
Other images from my trip across India
‘One finds themselves in an undulating expanse of mossy greens, rich earth tones, and peaceful blue breaks in wispy satin clouds when in the ancient Kingdom of Sikkim. No man seeking enlightenment or revelation of personal or universal truth would find the attitude here unwelcoming. Each walk feels like a pilgrimage. Each discovery gives the soul rich material to consider whilst determining its center. Each encounter is a robust entry to the index of the human consciousness. This place is a special place.
‘Yielding to the enormity of the landscape, lives are miniaturized by the scale that defines the Himalayas. What a reducer of human importance relative to our towering neighbours! How humbling.
‘Nestled in the hills a skeletal monastery sits and so do I. With the only soundtrack being the village cows mewing and my slow breaths, I sit. I watch the clouds sink under their own weight as they crest the hills in the distance. I sit. I sit in wonder of this place and of this time I have to sit in wonder.’
In my hapless pursuit of snow leopards, I veered from the main road connecting Leh to Keylong to Manali southeastward, and to Kargil, Srinagar, and Jammu southwestward. Into the plunging foothills topping with thick sediments of auburn and purple I rode, bumping along the deeply grooved tracks of a seldom maintained route. After 30 minutes of driving with the road being my hint that humans had touched this spot, I happened upon a parachute camp that this woman called home. A place called Chiang Sun Do Village.
During my stop to recharge with Maggi and chai, it was suggested to me that I ride toward the mountain-guarded horizon, toward a pass they called ‘Kumara La’ (which I have not heard reported elsewhere) in order to find my snow leopard. I gazed up at the peaks, then down at my Chiang Sun Doian friends, then over to my meager bike. Only with a belly full of noodles, chai, and the obligatory ‘friendship whisky’ did I muster the gall to pursue this endeavour further. I couldn’t disappoint my new friends and turn back! They wanted me to find the mystical snow leopard as well.
With a heroic wave and an over-emphatic revving of my engine, I sped off, toward the unknown. Toward the mystery.
Not 40 minutes thereafter I rode back, bobbing my helmet-clad head with disappointment as I rode back by the village. I gave them a ‘thumbs down’ gesture and a sad face as I rolled by. This was not my day to experience the snow leopard.
During a three month motorcycle journey in north India, I spent some time discussing philosophy of ‘being’ with this wise fellow and his counterparts. Imagine the degree of understanding and the broadness of outlook that results from a lifetime of contemplative practice. Truly amazing.