India's Faiths in New Frames
Dinesh Khanna talks about his photographic journey through India, published in his book 'Living Faith.'
BY: Interview by Vibhuti Patel
A decade ago, photographer Dinesh Khanna set out to record his fellow Indians' everyday lives and the country's kaleidescopic culture. Two collections have come out of his journey: "Bazaar" (2001) and his new book, "Living Faith: Windows into the Sacred Life of India." As religious strife has disrupted India's politics, Khanna was increasingly driven to tell a different story, of India's extraordinarily peaceful religious diversity. Vibhuti Patel interviewed Khanna about his book and his nation.
How did you come to photography and this book?
My father was a photographer. I learned the basics from him. By 20, I had drifted into advertising. After 10 years, I quit. [Advertising is] a collaborative effort, and I had a personal vision I wanted to communicate. That's how this journey started. Working in advertising, which is aimed at the middle-class, I realized there's a whole country I wasn't familiar with. I wanted to find that other India. I was curious about our masses, from whom I felt divorced.
Why did you make faith your subject?
The practice of faith is so out there, so unabashed. People come for religious reasons to a temple or mosque, and a bazaar springs up. Commerce and faith are interlinked. India's political leadership has borrowed alien frames--socialism and secularism--and superimposed them on our economy and on our faith. Secularism in the minds of Indian intellectuals became non-religion, even anti-religion.
Did your own faith shape the book?
I myself am not religious. But in my travels, I came across a clear distinction between faith and religion: Faith is personal, instinctive, it does not need a body, a form, an outward expression. Religion is structured, it has a framework, it is vulnerable to manipulation. The destruction of the Babri mosque by Hindu mobs in 1992 affected me deeply. Later, when the Gujarat riots occurred [in 2002, after Muslims attacked a train carrying Hindu activists], I was so disturbed, I told my publisher, "I don't want to do this book." Luckily, I was persuaded that what happened had nothing to do with faith. Most Indians live peacefully and harmoniously most of the time. The book needed to be done.
Why did you call it "Living Faith"?
Faith is distinctive, personal; yet, in India, it is lived publicly on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment, non-event basis. Religion has rituals, holy days, festivals. Faith just happens: you're on a street, you see a shrine and your head bobs automatically, and you walk on. You don't have to stop, take your shoes off, say a prayer. That's faith. It does not need outward expression, it's internal, instinctive.
Is worship in India always as public as your book seems to show?
Lot of it is, not all. Every household has a shrine or a holy book. I had a Hindu father and a Sikh mother. He had a little shrine in the house where he said his prayers, she read from the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy book of the Sikhs, everyday. Still, they never told us, you must do this.
Were you raised as a Hindu or a Sikh?
I was raised as an Indian. I'm bi-religious but I have no shrine in my home. I definitely have a faith, it's internalized.
You depict India as being tolerant-every major religion has found a home there.
Pluralism is a defining characeristic of India.
Yet there are no Parsis in your book. No Jews...
It's not intentional neglect. The logistics did not work out. I was unable to get permission to shoot in a fire temple, hence no Parsis. As for Jews, I got to Cochin too late.
Religions impact each other in India. There are crossover influences-Hindu-Muslim, Hindu-Christian.
I have a picture of three Hindu women at a Sufi shrine praying alongside Muslim women-I saw that at many, many places. I've seen devotees tying threads [a Hindu practice] in temples, mosques, in churches. It's a practice that has become common to all major Indian religions.
Were you aware of that kinship when you started?
I became aware of it as I traveled. There's a church in South India which draws as many Hindus as Christians. At Mt. Mary in Mumbai, I saw wax models of computers and planes--Christians have adopted the Hindu custom of offering God a model of whatever they pray for. There's a picture of Christians who shave their heads--offering their hair as a sacrifice--a Hindu practice adopted by Christians. In Sufi shrines, I saw Hindus, Sikhs, Muslims praying side by side, as they have for generations. People who convert carry their practices with them. The practices are then internalized in the adopted religion.