2017-07-12

Living Faith Photo Gallery
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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.

In the introduction to your book, Pico Iyer says that novelist Salman Rushdie celebrates India's pluralism, and his fellow writer Rohinton Mistry celebrates its compassion and humanity.

Faith is first of all about being a good human being, it's about humanism. That's what Rushdie and Mistry share.

I was struck by two dramatic pictures: a basket of silvery fish topped with a single bright red chili and, on the facing page, a potato seller's weighing scale, holding a marigold from the morning prayers.

They are typical, almost universal, they cut across all religious boundaries. The chili wards off the evil eye, the marigold was offered, in prayer, for a good sale.

You show tree shrines, rivers that are revered, cobras worshipped...

Ours is an agricultural country, we have a special relationship with Nature. In every village square there is a peepul tree, it's where folks congregate, where the village council meets. It's natural in a hot country--the shade is welcome--the tree becomes important. The Buddha attained enlightenment under a tree, he gave discourses under a tree. Rivers are life givers, societies grew from and around them, people depended on them for everything. And the cobra is an ancient object of worship in India. Why are the grand old temples not represented?

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.

Why are the grand old temples not represented?
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.

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