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'We were seen as yatris, not as firangis'

In her exhibition of photographs, held recently in Mumbai, German diplomat Katrin Simon memorialises two important personal experiences: her participation in the Kumbh Mela, and a remarkable two-month journey down the Ganga. RANJIT HOSKOTE looks at the challenge that she faced — avoiding the visual clichés of Orientalist photography.

"In the City of Shadows, Calcutta" ... stylised yet solemn.

LONG before she set out for the Ganga, Katrin Simon knew that to steer a course down the great river would be to navigate, not only a geography, but also a mythology. The Ganga is a kaleidoscope of migratory traditions, a never-ending epic to which every period adds its account of the efflorescence and decay of civilisation, the human powers of self-invention and self-destruction. This, perhaps, explains why Simon avoids the standard-issue panoramic vistas of nature-worship in her exhibition of photographs, "Ganga: To the Inner Shores of India, A Photographic Journey", held recently at the Centre for Photography as an Art-form, Mumbai. She prefers to invoke the sacred river through the everyday life of its people: a boy wryly minding a row of glasses of water in the gurudwara in Patna; another boy diving into the Ganga at Varanasi, so practised in his art that he twists his head back and smiles at the camera; and a porter at a railway station in Calcutta, balancing his burden like an overloaded ark and yet preserving a sprightliness of gesture. The river maps the feudarchy of northern India, to which their lives are bound; but from the river's culture, also, comes the expressive lyricism that redeems them, however temporarily, from their thralldom.

For the photographer, a German diplomat who has lived in Mumbai for the last five years and travelled extensively in India, often departing widely from the conventional tourist itineraries, this suite of images memorialises two important personal experiences: her participation in the Kumbh Mela, and a remarkable two-month journey down the Ganga, all the way from its source at Gaumukh to its mouth at Ganga Sagar. Simon shared these experiences with her partner, the novelist and essayist Ilija Trojanow, who was commissioned to write a Ganga travelogue by the renowned publishing house, Hanser Verlag. The Ganga was a vital presence for them during the Kumbh, but it was during the journey that it became both subject and vehicle, a trajectory into the myth-encrusted past and a runway into the yet-unfathomable future. The journey was as exhilarating as it was perilous and demanding: Simon and Trojanow followed the river first by inflatable boat, and then by bus and train, punctuated by stretches done on foot. On occasion, they fell off the map and had to find their way back, as when the currents marooned them in a marsh grassland and they had to drag the boat through long grass to the next stretch of river. A week might pass, as they sailed through isolated reaches, when the river dolphins would be the only signs of life they came across. The challenge that Simon faced was that of avoiding what she calls the "dominant visual clichés" of Orientalist photography. "I wanted to find a way of expressing the empathy I felt with the people and places who became my subjects, to show something of India's multi-layered reality," she says, emphasising a spontaneous and emotive receptivity. In the earlier phase of the journey, she responded strongly to the saffron and yellow figures of sadhus, poojaris and pilgrims, marked against the astonishingly diverse blues of the Himalayan range; then came the herders in their browns and greys; and afterwards, the textures of people making their lives in crowded towns and cities, the visuality of posters and graffiti, plastic meeting earthenware, satellite dish antennae taking over from where prayers leave off.

* * *

Simon dreamt of the openness of landscape, as a child growing up in the East German town of Ludwigsfelde, seven kilometres away from the heavily fortified Berlin Wall. The West was as far away as Varanasi and Calcutta, for all practical purposes, to someone growing up in the German Democratic Republic; its citizens were not permitted to travel except to officially sanctioned vacation resorts in fellow Warsaw Pact countries such as Czechoslovakia, Poland or Hungary.

Simon recalls how her family would drive sometimes to East Berlin, from where they could glimpse the island-city of West Berlin, the only interface with the West and a small window on the promise of freedom. "That is another planet," her parents would say. "We will never get there."

Simon was 17 when the Wall came down in 1989, bringing the East German Communist system down with it; in the wake of this epochal event, many people of her generation discovered an amazing treasure, freedom of movement. "I hitchhiked across Europe," says Simon, "and wherever I went, I took pictures." In a visceral sense, the camera guaranteed the reality of these unprecedented experiences; the images she took home were proof of a newly gained emancipation, the liberty to travel, to savour acquaintance with new people and new places without the fear of surveillance or the shadow of borders guarded by sharpshooters and electrified fences.

* * *

The bus is overcrowded and people sit on the roof, shawled against the wind as they pass through an ethereally green landscape in Jehanabad; a rainbow arches across the sky in an ambiguous gesture of covenant. Men squat on the roof of a train in Kahalgaon; perhaps they are the milkmen whose canisters are clamped to the side of the locomotive. In Monghyr, a colonial-era steamboat stands drawn up at its final mooring place. In these images, through which Simon records contemporary Bihar, we sense a pervasive unease, a hopelessness of missed opportunities, a beauty offered to the eye of the distant beholder but blotted out, locally, by suffering and deprivation; we sense a reserve of social energies going deplorably waste.

"Taking a ride in Bihar, near Jehanabad".

In the Gangetic hinterland, Simon and Trojanow came across grass-cutters gripped in the vice of wage-slavery and child-labour in carpet factories; they crossed derelict districts unredeemed by the spark of reform or enterprise. But they also found a warmth and hospitality in the villages. Invariably, they would be invited to meet the sarpanch by people eager to know who they were; many among them were amazed to meet Westerners for the first time in their lives, and to find a woman sharing in such an arduous expedition. Their wonder increased when they realised that Simon and Trojanow could speak Hindi, and they were won over completely when Simon and Trojanow explained that they were doing a Ganga-yatra. "Then they saw us, not as firangis, but as yatris," says Simon.

It is as a yatri that Simon talks animatedly about the close relationship they developed with the Ganga, its bends and currents, as they charted their course; it is in the spirit of the yatri that she records her sadness at the callousness with which the people of the great Ganga cities poison their river with their own wastes even as they worship it with often elaborate rituals at Varanasi and Allahabad.

Hers is the disillusionment of the traveller who has been exalted by the crystalline waters and stony banks of the Ganga's upper course, relished the softer, greener contours of the plains, but then been shocked by the polluted, sometimes dangerously toxic expanses of water near large, densely populated cities such as Kanpur.

The interplay between purity and pollution is a leitmotif of this exhibition. It is best embodied, for the present writer, in two exquisite images of children.

The first occurs in a captivating sequence shot during the Kumbh Mela, and shows two child-actors who have turned, under the make-up man's ministrations, into mythic figures, ready to play out and re-affirm the sacred drama of Krishna's deeds. The second shows two boys playing in a Calcutta street: the gestures of their game, framed within the larger game of evening light and shadow, become stylised and unexpectedly solemn in the act of portraiture, so that this, too, becomes a ritual theatre, belying the run-down alley and dilapidated buildings that form its stage. At such moments, our distinctions between sacred and secular, our demarcations of time, place and identity, are briefly but intensely shaken. For an instant, we catch a fugitive impression of that eternity which lies behind the play of appearances, and which is the promise of the Ganga.

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