A 37-year-old bespectacled, jhola hanging former multimedia trainer from America proves how simply giving away pictures and donating cameras can be as worthwhile as clicking them. This, even as journalists from world over jostle to capture exclusive shots of the flavours of the Maha Kumbh Mela.
Nicole Jaquis trains the sadhus and sadhvis of the Juna Akhara-the oldest and largest order of India's yogis and shamans- to facilitate them to document and preserve their life histories through photographs and videos.
It could be recording the footage of their sanskarization or initiation ceremonies, or simply documenting their participation in the Shahi Shans(royal baths). Conveniently titled, "Ascetics with Cameras," the project involves her imparting multimedia knowledge to the sadhus, while also training them to teach each other in production.
In this regard, Nicole has distributed 200 cameras among the ascetics until date. But how did the idea strike her? It happened achanak se (suddenly), as she puts it in clear Hindi.
It was in 2001, when Nicole, a philosophy graduate arrived in India from New York with a bunch of colleagues to film a documentary on the Maha Kumbh Mela. The group produced a 16mm analytical portrait of the event titled "Take Me to the River," shot with music recorded exclusively at the Mela. To mark its 12 anniversary, the documentary will be converted into HD this year.
"It was like the first time that I actually put my philosophy to use," she explains.
She returned to India three years later. At the Nasik Kumbh Mela, "A friend of mine jokingly started a rumour that I was teaching people how to use cameras. This spread around and a Naga Baba approached me. He showed me his photo album and asked, am I good enough to be your student?"
"I got into it naively." A camera Guru now, she started teaching the ascetics how to record videos and take pictures, while also donating cameras and film reels. Naturally, in the beginning the learners were not too sure. "So I tried explaining to them how simple a thing it was. Only when I returned with the photos they started to understand the thing."
Nicole distributed 40 cameras that year and 60 at the 2007 Ardh Kumbh at Allahabad, where the project was further developed.
But who pays for the cameras? "A gift here and a cousin there," to sum up her answer in a phrase. Ironically, over the years, the deeper she explored the Sanyasi life, the less interested she became in filmmaking and exhibitions-the reason for her initial interest in the subject.
"My priorities have changed. I cannot see myself as a photographer or say, an anthropologist any more. It's difficult to be one when you start connecting with the subject. Just the other day, some people came here looking to shoot a documentary in two days. How can you do that? You need time to know the subject. And they didn't even speak Hindi!"
Surprisingly, she does not upload any of these clips on Youtube.
"They do not want to share it with the world. The pictures and videos are for their family and fellows who could not make it to the Mela. The pictures are more personal. Besides the young crop, how many of these sadhus are online or have social networking accounts?"