A Photographer Confronts His World
Note: This essay was originally published on March 21st. This is an update based on a recent meeting with historian Samira Sheikh who has generously provided me with her research into the legend and contested history of Bahuchara Mata. All updates reflect insights gained from her work.
A continuity of history has been erased at the temple of the goddess Bahucharaji. As I walk into the center of the temple I am surprised to see a dozen or so men busily working at carving and cutting away stone and cement blocks, constructing a new temple where once a classical Indo-Islamic structure had stood. The shrine complex that I had expected to see is no longer. Details »
He is waiting for me in the hotel lobby, but barely lifts his head to acknowledge me when I come down from my room to meet him. His face, decorated with a pair of plastic sunglasses, is perfectly round. An equally perfectly round chin, nose, pair of cheeks and eyes but an incongruously square mouth complete a the face of my interrogator. A mustache covers his upper lip, and his middle age is betrayed by his receding hairline and thinning hair. His police uniform is sharply pressed, its starched perfection suggesting professional dry cleaning. It clings to his frame like shrink-wrap and suggests a tailored fit measured to accommodate the demands of his large frame and without a hint of being ill-fitting. The buttons are well polished. His black, patent leather shoes equally well buffed. A fastidious man, I think, one that may be equally fastidious when he question me about my reasons for being in his city. Details »
It stands there with its veneer of rude decay and abusive repair. Peeling paint, carelessly applied white wash, cracked and broken jalis (screens), gently leaning wooden doors held in place by rusting hinges, and large areas of carelessly applied cement to repair gaps in its walls. Sitting low to the ground, the mausoleum appears to slump towards the earth, a posture reminiscent of soul realizing death and waiting for it. Shanties surround it, and thorn covered bushes garland it from all sides. Refuse and waste dance in the wind on its patios, and bird droppings decorate the perfectly round forms of its nine domes. The angry scars of time and neglect cover its entire surface…and yet it is beautiful. Details »
The diagram below is my attempt to explain the birth and execution of this project I am tentatively calling The Idea Of India. I have been asked to present this work on at least five occasions now and each time I have struggled to really articulate it. The fact remains that I am simply unable to veil under structured thought and organized presentation a work that has largely relied and been inspired by a series of random events, readings and conversations.
You can already see them on the roads leading up to this small town in remote Western Kutch. Pilgrims from as far away as Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat are slowly, determinedly making their way to the town of Naragram in the Banni region of Kutch, Gujarat. Many are on foot and carrying the green flags that define them as devotees to the famous saint known here as Haji Pir. Dozens can be seen resting at night at local gas stations and truck stops.
Towards the end of this work, Yagnik’s words seem to be weighed down by a terrible despair. Though the work is a broad social science study of Gujarat’s political, economic and cultural history, one can’t help but feel that it is more an attempt to understand and explain the state’s descent into cultural xenophobia and anti-Muslim hysteria that mark its political, social and urban spaces today.
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