Writer and photographer Pepita Seth talks about how her book, the first on the Guruvayur temple, happened.
Sitting in her quiet apartment in Thrissur surrounded by piles of unpacked cases, Pepita Seth is content. She has just finished six years of hard work and research on a book on the Guruvayur Sree Krishna temple. It is work she feels she was fated to do, especially when she looks back and reflects on how she originally came to India.
In 1970, she explains, she “retraced the 1857 march of my soldier great-grandfather from Calcutta to Lucknow after discovering his diary in an attic. That first experience of India initiated a deeper curiosity and two years later I returned to ‘find out about elephants’, which of course brought me to Kerala, to Thrissur and then Guruvayur where the first photograph I took was of Guruvayur Kesavan, the legendary temple elephant. Only years later I realised just what an auspicious beginning this was.”
The book, which includes detailed descriptions of rituals and concepts behind them, is the first such book on the temple. During lengthy sessions with the temple’s officiating priests, she came to admire their patience almost as much as their knowledge. Since almost nothing has ever been recorded or written down, she had to repeatedly check, and counter-check facts, especially when some clarifications appeared to be contradictory.
Though well known as a writer and photographer, Pepita has no formal or academic credentials. “Although born in London, I was brought up on a farm in a very rural part of England. My parents had no time for formal schooling and, in a way, no interest in me being educated; it’s not only India that focuses on The Son! Therefore to a large extent I am self-taught. As soon as I could read, I began devouring books as a way of unconsciously educating myself. Though I would have liked to have gone to university, it was not an option,” she reminisces.
The films experience
She worked in films for many years starting on the lowest rung and working her way up to being a Film Editor. “This heightened my sense of the visual and was of enormous help when I began taking photographs of lengthy rituals. I treated them as a film, which some critics have recognised and described my photographs as having a ‘cinematic quality’. My visits to Kerala increased; with little awareness of what I was doing, I stumbled through the dark taking photographs of Kerala’s ritual universe.”
She continues after a pause: “Of course whatever the downsides of life, my work and life in Kerala has always satisfied a deep inner need, which is why I pressed on. From time to time a miracle would happen; I would have an exhibition here, an article there… just enough to silence those who repeatedly told me to ‘stop this Kerala nonsense’. Then in 1994 I went to Malabar and into Theyyam’s extraordinary universe; an experience of massive importance and a huge marker in my life. I spent five years — five seasons I should say — on that project. Out of it came an exhibition in New York and some lectures that initiated a lot of interest in my work but, more importantly, left me feeling that Theyyam is still unfinished business, something I will eventually have to return to.”
“After an uneasy period” Pepita returned to Kerala in 2000 to ‘settle’. “In 2002, I began this project. It has massively tested me, even as it has sustained me and given enormous personal satisfaction. I had no clue it would take so long, which is just as well. My initial intention, so far as I had one, was to cover ‘everything’ that happens within the temple’s walls. Ignorance was bliss… as I began discovering the layers and complexities of the universe I had entered I repeatedly tried to escape. But even as I became increasingly aware of the difficulties I saw that I had no right to stop. This only increased my problems; at one time I had an almost permanent headache as I struggled to grasp concepts that were almost beyond my comprehension. I finished writing a month ago.”
“I feel that Guruvayur is important on many different levels: it has existed for centuries and sustained devotees while maintaining its complex ritual cycle... There is ‘something’ intangible but deeply felt. People’s relationship with Guruvayurappan is intense and often very moving; He is loved. I could go on but I am sure you know what I mean! And, of course, I am a devotee!”
Nevertheless, she adds “I would never have had the audacity to think I could do anything at Guruvayur. A casual question on why I never did anything there ignited my interest and the fact that I was looking for a project that did not involve too much wandering around in the middle of nowhere in the middle of the night, like Theyyam for instance.” Yet she never followed any specific method. “As always, I just followed my instincts, my gut feelings and my emotions and, as already mentioned, the conviction that I must ‘honour’ the subject I am working on.”
Her aim has been to produce a book whose words and pictures will cover all aspects of life within the temple, not only its myths and history but its rituals, management, priests, hereditary families, devotees, elephants, performing arts and descriptions of all important events. The difficulties she faced are summed up as “my own doubts about my ability and the struggle to understand the ritual concepts. It took me four years to finally — I hope! — get something as basic as a complete list of the balikkals (the small stones around the temple indicating the presence of minor deities to whom offerings are made) and the order in which they are honoured. Perseverance was essential. When I started I was often consumed with fear and blind panic but, as I gradually calmed, I took comfort from the Lord’s presence and the often oblique way in which I was helped. I received help from an extraordinary number of people. I should also stress that I never ever felt I was a foreigner or was being treated as one. Frankly, it is years since I have felt like an outsider.”
The book, Heaven on Earth, will soon be published by the Delhi-based Niyogi Books, something she is particularly pleased about since she feels it is right for it to be produced in India. But Pepita is not relaxing or taking a sabbatical. “For a start there is still a lot of editorial and design work to complete,” she says, even as she admits that she is already working on an article about Muchilottu Bhagavathi, one of Theyyam’s most powerful deities.