You can’t restrict photographer Hari Menon into any one genre. Anything that appeals to his soul is his subject. But he has a special focus on Theyyam
Hari Menon pauses mid sentence, looks out of the window and mutters with a sigh, “Wish I had brought my camera along!” This was one of those rare occasions when he came without his companion-cum-everything, his camera. He never, he says with emphasis on never, moves around without it.
He and his camera have gone through a lot. They have been thrown out of temples, been chased by bulls; together seen and recorded almost 320 Theyyams, and as part of ‘lath mar’ during Holi celebrations walked from Nandgaon to Barsana, in Mathura. Hari, a freelance photographer, is a Facebook celebrity of sorts. Hari was among the first Malayalis to have amassed over one lakh ‘likes’ on Facebook (1, 81, 459 and counting). This is a record for a person who is neither a film star nor a sportsperson.
A recent photograph uploaded on his Facebook page is simple and eloquent. ‘A handful of faith’ shows a wet, upturned palm filled with rice grains, offering ‘pitr tarpanam’ on Karkitakavavu. This one image got more than 1,000 thumbs ups within a day of posting.
Ordinary folks, the ones with really huge friends list, may get two digit ‘likes’, but the response to Hari’s photo uploads belong to an altogether different league. The six-footer just smiles at the compliment. “I did not even realise that my Facebook page crossed one lakh ‘likes’ mark. Somebody else pointed it out to me.”
He is the modern travelling minstrel only that his photographs sing, narrate a story or dance. His photographs shot in natural light tell beautiful stories. An almost adamant “I shoot only in natural light,” punctuates his sentences. Travel photography gets him going, literally. But it is ‘photography of the soul, sans genres,’ which appeals to him. His food photography can induce gluttony, his photographs of weddings…are, well, tempting, his travel photography would make one want to take off and catch the sights before they cease to be.
His photographs have appeared in travel magazines such as Lonely Planet, Jade, and in coffee table books like India For A Billion Reasons. Some of his photographs have been used in tourism promotion campaigns like ‘Incredible India’. A coffee table book on Theyyam has been getting ready, “for the last three years.” India For A Billion Reasons had him shoot pretty photographs of India. “Why not? I am not a photo journalist. I will take photographs which show the beautiful side of India. Why should we project the uglier side always?”
To say that Theyyam is a passion for Hari is an understatement. During the Theyyam season, he stays in North Malabar (in Kannur and Kasargode districts) for days together, rarely sleeping and furiously clicking away. He has, probably, the largest collection of photographs of Theyyam. Some of which are rare. He says of the around 540 known Theyyam characters, he has shot 320. “Some take place once in 18 years, so it will take some time shooting all of them.” He lives among ordinary folk who, much to his surprise initially, transformed into Theyyams in the evenings.
He has a ‘deep connect’ with Theyyam. “The faith comes from deep within, it is never a performance.” He doesn’t feel the same about observances in other temples where “it, sometimes, comes down to pleasing the cameras.”
It comes as something of a surprise when he says that photography wasn’t part of his plan. Engineering was. In his second year he quit. He used to ‘click’ and then he realised that is what he wanted to do.
His family, especially his mother, was shocked. He jokes, “My mother still doesn’t ‘get’ what I do for a living.” A brief stint with Stark Communications in Bangalore and in Mumbai saw him return to home, to North Paravur.
He takes his Facebook status in his stride. While some fans are adoring and gushing, others use the medium to show off their superior equipment. “If there is no activity on my Facebook account for a couple of days, I get enquiries asking if I am ok,” Hari says. There are other pluses of his FB status. “If there is something interesting happening anywhere in the country I get to know about it. And of course I take off.” Take off he does, on the spur of the moment. He says that is how a photographer ought to be, for one never knows when the perfect photo ‘happens.’
One of the highs of being on Facebook was being able to connect with his hero, Steve McCurry (who shot the photograph of the Afghan girl for National Geographic). “Those days he wasn’t too busy on FB, so I got to chat with him.”
He doesn’t see travel photography just as clicking beautiful pictures of a place. “The photographs should capture the local flavour. A wall is not just a wall. A wall in Kolkata is different from one in Dubai.” Capturing a ‘feel of a place’ has had its moments.
Like when he was shooting the ‘jallikattu’ in Madurai. “There I was, clicking away. The atmosphere was electric. Charging bulls, people, literally, running for their lives. All of a sudden these guys were waving at me, and I thought ‘they are posing!’ and continued. Then I heard a commotion behind me and turned and saw a bull hurtling towards me…” Hari’s stories keep coming but it is time to sign off and he takes off on another trip.