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
I wanted to focus on daily life, not on grand events. Even when I photographed at festivals (the Kumbh Mela, Mohurram), I focused on individuals, not on spectacle. I stood watching people at temples for hours and noticed that no pilgrim stopped to look at the temple itself, however stunning. For them, it's a place where they will encounter the god who inspires their faith. The pomp and grandeur of the most beautiful temples did not seem important to devotees.
You captured brilliant colors.
Color is almost a language in India. It's in food, clothes, on walls, in architecture. The color in this book is not my art. I'm paying homage to others' artistry. Color is such an integral part of life that to take it away would be killing a part of the story. As a photographer, I find color challenging. Black-and-white photography is easier because it makes the image alien to the way the mind sees things. Color is always around us. To transcend that, to show reality the way it is, and yet, have an interesting composition or an interesting moment is far more challenging.
Do the religions use color differently?
The most vibrant colors are used by the Hindus. Muslim and Christian places of worship are more muted. But I hope people go beyond color. In [the cover picture], this triangular piece of rock becomes, for the people of this house, a statue of Ganesha. I hope people will take the layers of colors off and see that you can transfer your faith into anything--it could be a tree, a rock, even nothing.
What other challenges did you face besides capturing the color?
Multitudes and congregations. Most of these pictures were shot in crowds, at festivals. You're constantly being jostled or shoved in India. Just when you think you've got the right moment, the right composition, a cow walks past, a scooter goes by, someone pushes you as they got pushed by 20 others. That cover picture was shot on a really busy street. I didn't even realize this child was in the shot until the picture was developed! He was running around, playing with kids in the street. It was his karma and mine that brought us together in the moment when there was no traffic.
You juxtapose armed Sikhs with pacifist Jains.
It's one of the many contrasts in India. Sikhism was the martial arm of Hinduism. Taking up arms, protecting against invaders, is inherent in Sikhism. The Nihangs, a subsect of Sikhs, continue to be horsemen. They carry spears and swords symbolic of their faith rather than real soldiering. I went to a Sikh festival where they held horseriding and swordfighting contests. It's archaic and medieval, but full of energy.
The Jains believe in nonviolence and wear masks on their mouths so not even bacteria get killed. Their nuns are celibate, their earthly possessions are on their backs, they are bald--their hair is plucked out, not shaved.
You included pictures of Tibetan Buddhists.
Ladakh and Leh are stripped down and bare, so elemental in a desert at 15,000 feet. And yet the monasteries are flashy, more colorful than a discotheque. As with traditional Hindu life, where you're stripped down but the symbols around you are extravagant, large, colorful--so it is with Buddhism.
Buddhism was born on the subcontinent and exported the world over, but then disappeared from its home. Now, the Dalai Lama's found asylum in India just as the Zoroastrians had 600 years ago. He's been welcomed now, as the Jews were ages ago.
Buddhism has reappeared with neo-Buddhists, Japanese Buddhism has a following. Tibetans found warmth in India as others have done. The ugliness of religious strife has to do with the political life of a nation, not with individuals. It's about power, not belief.
Will faith in India survive?
Belief about life per se among Indians is so integral, so central to existence that it cannot go away.