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Naked aggression

Yesterday was World Photography Day. K. GOPINATHAN, our veteran photographer, talks of the time when he escaped being stripped by a mob of livid villagers. Others weren't so lucky

News photography is no white-collar job. Many think it's glamorous because the photographer can see from up close celebs and stars who are light years away from the aam janata. But in reality, there is very little glamour in the news photographer's world.

I have seen several riots and lots of blood in my 25-year career. I have had to face mobs, stones, lathicharge, knife injuries and petrol bombs. By my muse's grace, I have managed to save my equipment and myself, and take some newsworthy pictures. But there is one occasion when I failed to get a picture because I had to save my equipment and myself.

The place was Chandragutti near Shimoga, which has an annual festival where devotees worship Yellamma in the nude. Devotees bathe in the nearby river and march to the temple in the buff after smearing turmeric and kumkum over their bodies. In the late '80s the place shot to fame when the media — scenting the spoor of a good story — descended on it. On that fateful day it wasn't just the media people who crowded the place but also NGOs who wanted to stop the worship as well a curious onlookers. A large police force was stationed around the temple to prevent the ritual. My fellow photographers went a day early scouting for angles. Me, and the reporter of the paper I was working for then, went there only on the day of the ritual.

We booked a room at Shimoga and took a bus to Chandragutti. When we reached the village, we noticed that the roads were bereft of buses. Soon ours also stopped and so we started walking. Suddenly a car screeched to a halt in front of us. Its occupants yelled: "Run, run" and sped away followed by many more cars. Soon we also saw reporters and photojournalists fleeing. Clearly something was wrong.

At the time I did not have a telephoto zoom lens so I carried my personal 200 mm tele with a 2x converter. I used the lens to survey the scene and saw faint images of men in khaki. Satisfied the police were there, we ventured further. A car then stopped near us and the occupants told us to jump in quick. I refused saying rather grandiosely I was a photojournalist from a leading newspaper. They riposted: "If you stay here you will be stripped and your camera will be smashed. There is big trouble there and all your men have escaped. You are foolishly standing here and asking for trouble."

Not wanting to run away like a coward, I suggested to the reporter we keep going. But my increasingly nervous colleague told me to wait as he went further to assess the situation. "Don't leave this place, I will be back," he said.

I waited for a long time on a bridge looking through the lens from time to time. In the distance, I could see only the police. Soon I was aware of some chants which I could not quite decipher. Suddenly, a villager who came running towards me exclaiming startled me: "Sir, run. They are coming in this direction." I looked through my lens again, and to my disbelief, I saw a nude man smeared with turmeric wearing a police hat and holding a trishul leading a mob of other nude men. They were walking purposefully in my direction. My helpful villager warned me the mob was stripping everyone, especially the outsiders. "Everything was going on peacefully but you people (photographers and NGOs) disturbed them. You force them to pose wearing a towel, and they could not tolerate it any further. Your people escaped but the policemen who came to rescue are in trouble. They have been stripped. Both men and women police were paraded nude all the way to the temple. There is no law and order. Run and save yourself. Hide your camera first. If you have a lungi, wear it fast," he added, before running away into the fields.

I too emulated him, seeking the sanctuary of the fields, my camera in the bag. But the chants were coming closer. I looked behind and it was all a bit surreal. I had fanciful notions of being an unlucky adventurer pursued with deadly intent by cannibals.

I sped into the bushes and trees, noticing I had company — not angry villagers but terrified trouserwallahs! The nude worshippers scattered to chase anyone they spied and it gave me a chance to take a different direction, which led me back to the row of buses. I got into one and sat trembling, next to a village lad. Sensing my terror, the boy gave me his lungi and hid my camera bag under the seat. He told me to remove my shirt and trousers and stash them away too. Looking most unlike a photojournalist (it helped that I'm dark-skinned), I looked outside. They were all over the place — cursing us photographers and loudly vituperative about the media's take on their age-old ritual. My young friend told me to keep still.

My heart stopped when I saw the mob peeping into the parked buses looking for photographers and those who were clearly outsiders (which was very obvious from their clothes). When they came into my bus, I shakily started singing a Kannada devotional tune, putting my arm around my friend's shoulder. It worked. The mob went away and the bus started moving towards the temple. I could see men and women in the nude marching towards the temple. My hand instinctively crept towards the camera but was stopped by the village boy.

Imagine my frustration: the subjects were so near but I was not in a position to take the shots. I could see police caps, uniforms and lathis scattered all over the road. Then, bizarrely, I saw a police vehicle being driven by a nude worshiper. As for the police — both men and women — were also nude, forcibly of course, and were sitting wretchedly on the bonnet and roof.

The bus stopped near the temple and everyone got down. The boy took away his lungi. I wasn't worried about being stripped but was scared for my camera. I didn't want to get down from the bus but the conductor was forcing me. I signalled him to come near and told him to sit next to me so that I could take a picture. He replied: "Are you mad? You want us to march nude? Sit tight till we reach the main road."

The driver and conductor left the bus for a few minutes to watch the fun and announced on coming back, "Your journalist friends, ladies... They are also nude and inside the police vehicle." This certainly was a new one for me: I couldn't complain to the police; they were in the same soup.

When I reached the main road I saw a lot of policemen waiting for reinforcements. I went to complain about the women journalists and my missing reporter colleague, and I was almost thrown out by the lawmen who accused journalists of being the cause of the problems.

I then called my paper and told them about the missing reporter. They, in turn, called the DGP. I waited in suspense for my colleague to return but could not spot him amongst other journalists who were going back exhausted, one by one, in vehicles. I dispiritedly reached my hotel room only to see my missing colleague fast asleep. Apparently he had already filed the story.

When I came back to Bangalore, my editor was at his sarcastic best: "You are unfit to take news pictures. You missed a nice opportunity."

Editors have no word called "excuse" in their dictionary.

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