ROLOFF BENY'S INDIA
A famous photographer's reflections on the sights, sounds and endless mysteries of an ancient land
NOBODY UNDERSTANDS INDIA. It’s as vast and teeming and diverse and beautiful and mysterious and terrifying as all the world and all mankind. I tried to understand it. In the course of preparing a book of photographs on the country, I traveled, with a guide and driver, 15,000 miles by Land Rover last year, and saw more of the subcontinent than most Western travelers have ever attempted. And still the place defies analysis. Instead, I can only rely on images, millions of them crowding my mind, to convey the wonder of the place. What, then, is India? For me, it’s lotus blossoms as big as tea pots. Cow dung, regarded as sacred by some sects, plastered by the faithful on the trunks of trees. Naked children with eyes as black as betel nuts and smiles as dazzling as polished ivory. Women in saris, graceful as Ionic columns, walking with babies clipped to their waists like clothespins. The inevitable taste of curry. Reminders of fecundity: phallic statuary that Western tourists sometimes use as park benches. People everywhere: squatting like frogs in streets and railroad stations, thronging the dusty roads even before daylight, squandering life — yet somehow ennobling it with life’s profusion. Perhaps my photographs will tell a story words cannot convey. For India, in the end, is not a place of the mind. India is what she puts before your eyes.
ou don’t glimpse ■ India — it knocks
S the breath out of
you. Its fecundity is awesome. It’s a total spiritual, sensual happening”
INDIA IS NOT for the squeamish or for the hygienic, air-conditioned, Hiltontrained widows or retired couples en route to indulge their sunset years with a glimpse of the exotic. You don’t glimpse India — it knocks the breath out of you. One inevitably begins by protesting about the living conditions; any roadside motel in Canada is Shangri-la by comparison. But it is impossible for the traveler not to become involved.
Five years ago I traversed the interior of India during the inhuman heat of May and June, photographing for a previous book, Pleasure of Ruins. I swore never to return, since the “reality” was so incompatible with my romantic image of that vast subcontinent. Yet, when I was offered the challenge of doing a book exclusively on India, with the enviable convenience of being a state guest, I embraced the offer without hesitation. vVhy? In the meantime, I had completed books on two diametrically opposed countries, Japan and Canada — the one ravishingly beautiful in miniature and aesthetically sophisticated, the other a vast, empty canvas, unformed but of incredible potential. India seemed the synthesis of these two — vast but not empty, unequaled in history on the globe and yet unformed today as it gains in composure as an independent nation, and of unparalleled variety in nature and art forms. It was and is a total happening on the highest spiritual and sensual level.
India is high adventure on the grand scale and on every level. Peoples have been molding its land for at least 5,500 years. Darius the Great fought his way into the Punjab in 1514-12 B.C., and Alexander the
Great reached northwest India. I remember Prime Minister Indira Gandhi telling me in her garden that the extraordinary phenomenon of India is its survival. For more than 3,000 years there has been something one could call India, which either assimilated and Indianized or threw off every successive outside influence, and now, for the first time in its miraculous history, is able to survive alone.
To take my reader on this second voyage of discovery, perhaps the words written in my diary while
Along dusty roads, in sparse villages, very African-looking, by jade-green rivers the possibility of famine is a fact, not a phantom”
bumping along in my Land Rover over the 15,000 miles and four months of my journey would be the most telling.
Our first night out from Delhi was arranged by the Maharajah of Kashmir, the Minister of Tourism and Civil Aviation. He sent us off with an invitation to stay with his friend, the Maharajah of Bharatpur, who administers one of India’s finest game reserves and inherited one of her most fanciful pleasure palaces at Deeg. We were terribly late, having lost our way. We neglected to dress for dinner, since he said, “As you wish.” To our horror, everyone else did dress. We dined off individual silver trays with butlers in livery and us in dusty leather and khaki. My diary reads:
“Palace of the Maharajah of Bharatpur: Finally, there it was, all fairylike with minarets, balconies, in a private park, with armorial coats of arms and armed sentries — actually, it was a red sandstone Citizen Kanelike Xanadu outside, with a vast interior like Charing Cross Station hung with superb crystal chandeliers as large as dirigible balloons. Each salon was hung with huge oil portraits of ancestral maharajahs, tapestries, rugs, porcelain. On the floor huge divans like baroque bed rolls covered in varied chintzes, endless fruitwood tables splashed with portraits of royalty, bibelots, vast lighted glass cases of ivories and jade.” I slept in the bed not long vacated by the Duke of Edinburgh. It was decorated with seven stuffed, rampant tigers.
This is how the Indian landscape affected me and was recorded in my diary:
“On the road to Khajuraho, the home of the most erotic sculpture of medieval India (or the world), sunset in a lush parkland, green fields and shady trees, sometimes dense thorny jungle, myriads of monkeys, surprising lakes, miniature temples reminding me of north Burma. Dusty desiccated trees with great leaves a foot long, dried and fretted with veins like the pierced-stone screens of the tomb
of Mohammed Ghaus at Gwalior (the fortressed palace city with a Buddhist past). Sparse villages of mud with straw or shale roofing, very Africanlooking, monumental tree skeletons along dusty roads, bumpy hills and cactus, buffalo and ox carts, landscape ornamented with women balancing towering baskets of cow dung, wood, bananas, marigolds and laundry on their heads; emerald - green saris against jade-green rivers. A revolting modern invasion to see Esso signs and telephone wires directly in front of the temples . . .”
Entering Sikkim, this toy fairyland looked like a land locked in a valley of fern, orchids and bamboo crowned by the elusive ice peak of Kanchanjunga — a tenuous link between the lotus (India) and the paper dragon (Red China). We crossed the Brahmaputra, dazzling in early-morning sunlight with graceful sampans gliding along the shores; vast valley houses of timber and plaster squared off in Mondrian fashion with sloping, pointed straw roofs — clean compared to the horrors of Bombay slums, made from tarpaulin, scrap metal and old plastic. There was a surprise halt where an avalanche of earth and snow covered the road, a two-hour wait while a bulldozer pushed trees and boulders over the edge to form a new road. After crossing the Bahinal Pass, the snow rapidly retreats until the flat plains are articulated by the glacial rivers and moraines, where the surface is like a Persian abstract tile.
It is difficult to describe the onelane roads of India except to say that one is lucky to average 30 miles an hour; the maximum we had so far reached was 50, but only for brief stretches. Bullock carts, sometimes 10 in a row, with loads 30 feet high and wheels as tall as a man, must reluctantly give way, or we do; it is a struggle of will. But even more dangerous are the herds of brown, bony buffalo in groups of 10 to 100 which meander along; goats, herds of them, cross constantly; and there is a steady stream of sari’d women, their heads heaped with cow dung, jangling their ivory and silver bracelets.
When I think of India, I first recall the women. They seem to bear a heavier and more active burden in all walks of life. Apart from their function as wives and mothers, they seem to be the ones who build the roads, quarry the marble, dig the iron-ore, make the bricks, carry the water and the dung for fuel, harvest the wheat (the men always seem to be sitting on the straw stacks loaded on the bullock carts — the women walking with heavy loads on their heads). There is
a strong movement for the emancipation of women, changing Hindu polygamy laws, prohibiting child marriages and a hopeful sign to counteract the cataclysmic birthquake. The fecundity of India is awesome. Every young or old woman in the countryside seems to have a baby hitched to her hip; in the villages teenagers are saddled with a younger brother or sister, and even the older babies have smaller babies snapped on their sides. Now propaganda is being slanted equally toward men in the child-planning program. Remarkable, outspoken women such as Lady Rama Rau, whom I interviewed in her birthcontrol headquarters in Bombay, are working without recompense and are enlisting the aid of other society women. Because of improved medical services, older people live longer and infant mortality is decreasing. Thus, the population of India, already 530million, is increasing by the total population of Canada every year. The possibility of famine is a fact, not a phantom.
The women are the workers, but they also provide the greatest joy to the eye, as noted in my diary: “The sari, no matter how faded or ragged, drapes itself to the body in a becoming, sinuous line . . . women with silver anklets, rings on their toes, lacelike harnesses of silver about their waist and hips, heavy chandeliers of silver from their ears and headdresses of beaten chains and coins . . . I’ll never forget the Kerala girls who wear their rich, long, black hair with a tight band high on the back of their heads, their tresses falling loosely to their hips.”
It is ironic that jewelry for men is de rigueur among the purveyors of high fashion in the capital cities of North America and Europe. None that I have seen in the smartest salons in London or New York could outshine the simplest peasants of certain parts of India. I quote my diary: “The men wear remarkable bracelets and collars of beaten silver, a heavy silver anklet on one leg, and turbans made from up to 24 yards of blackand-white, pink-and-orange chiffon. Their dhotis are worn to become a diaphanous pantaloon neatly fixed with the end pulled up between the legs to form a sort of codpiece. A man in the bazaar at Udaipur had pink nail polish on; he also wore garnet earrings and ruby rings . . . Some had ears pierced at top to hold a gold loop and at lobe to hold a diamond stud.”
Men in high government offices are less flamboyant and tend to wear black, tight-fitting jodphurs and beautifully cut Nehru jackets. The maha-
Religion in India
is a spectrum of contrasts — from ritual butchery of birds and animals to the veneration of nature”
rajahs of today are most likely seen in Scottish tweed sport coats and Ox•ford-grey business suits, though at that dinner given for us the Maharajah of Bharatpur wore a floor-length beige brocade robe. At several Hindu weddings I attended, the men outshone the women. In Rajasthan, the wealth displayed in men’s emerald, »pearl and diamond necklaces, rings and turban brooches surpassed Hollywood make-believe.
By great good luck, I was invited to the birthday party for the Chogyl — or king — of Sikkim. He wore a yellow Chinese silk robe intricately emblazoned with peonies in full blossom the color of persimmons, topped with a tri-cornered crown of sable. The party at his Himalayan mountain fortress is recorded in my diary: “Towering bamboo swings, new moon, fragrance of frangipani, the royal lamasery silhouetted on the mountain, white tents embroidered with Buddhist symbols, and Scottish bagpipes. Tibetan and Assam dances by Tibetan princesses and local dignitaries, English bone china rimmed in blue and gold, with royal crest; curious custom of pushing emptied plates under the 30foot table, which was covered with a superb cloth of gold - embroidered leaves. The Dalai Lama’s throne is there, covered in beige damask with the symbol of the phoenix.”
As a violent contrast to this civilized pageantry, I experienced a few weeks later the festival of Basanti. or Spring Festival, in an ancient Hindu temple high on a hill dominating the Brahmaputra River near Gauhati in Assam. Approaching the border of Burma: “Spring Festival at temple 5 kms. on hill above Gauhati. Sacrifice goats and pigeons. How I was able to keep calm and rational enough to take photographs I will never know . . . I told myself I will not allow myself to become involved as goat after goat, bird after bird, was butchered with a great knife on a sort of ghastly guillotine. There was no reaction among the pilgrims, who prostrated themselves at this altar of blood. The children took part in the spectacle like any other game and themselves brought forth the innocent creatures to the slaughter.
“First, the victims were dipped in
he rich eat off silver trays, with butlers in livery. The poor earn pennies. But there is a pride in India's accomplishments"
the sacred vile-green tank containing several jugs of Ganges water, then drums beat as if it were Paris 1796. The innocent aristocracy of animals was brought to the altar-guillotine. The struggling, shrieking goat was held in position by two priests in red, bloodsmeared robes and garlanded with jasmine and marigold. The executioner brought down the great knife and suddenly the creature was denied its head, which was indifferently tossed in a heap while the body went to a concrete pit beyond to be dragged off, still beating its tender legs with life — remembered in the muscles for a last fleeting moment!
“I stood transfixed in this bizarre slaughterhouse for an hour as pilgrim after pilgrim, shaved head painted with yellow and dabbed with blood of their proffered victims and garlanded with flowers, moved in orderly fashion with troughs of bamboo filled with holy oil and grains and holding lighted butter lamps, gave their offerings to the protected cows. How incredible is the worship of the Nandi, which presents a hazard on the road, which strolls into houses, temples and luxury hotels and is assured of never being turned out — even the saffronpink sunset over the lake could not assuage this bloody testament of a religion so deeply pagan. It was a graphic reminder that mortality is a constant with the Indians who, by virtue of their incredible fecundity, are much nearer death as a constant denominator.”
In other temples, animal life is venerated, not sacrificed. Temples are dedicated to monkeys, cows, birds, and one in Rajasthan even to rats. In south India, en route from Trichur to Madura, our first stop of the day was a peacock temple I'd heard about in Madras. Luckily, we arrived at dawn when there was a peacock on almost every one of the 210 steps, the males with their tails full-blown. During the day, they hide among rocks and trees, and vicious monkeys take their place.
Elephants are frequently kept in tem-
ples and are virtually revered as gods (Ganesha, the elephant-headed god, was the favorite son of Shiva), and they are caparisoned and used for ceremonial events in the temples, heralded by trumpeters and drummers.
The Jain sect of Buddhism is so dedicated to the preservation of animal life that the devout will not walk on grass for fear of killing insects, and they wear gauze masks to avoid breathing in and thus suffocating microbes from the air.
The Sikhs, the reformist offshoot of the Hindus, swear never to cut their hair, drink alcoholic beverages or tell a lie. They have migrated the world over. There is a strong community of them in Vancouver. Their most holy shrine, the Golden Temple at Amritsar, is set on a pool of nectar surrounded by a causeway of inlaid marble, which in itself is reason enough to visit India. They are recognized by their elaborate beards and turbans — under which their flowing hair is tidily twisted and knotted. Sikhs deplore the veneration of gods and, instead, worship a book. But the beauty of religion in India is its flexibility. One can equally well do without a temple and worship a tree, snake or the lotus, India's most sacred flower.
My diary doesn’t neglect the poverty of India. As I observed in Bombay from my hotel window overlooking the Arabian Sea: ”1 watched one crippled boy on crutches and a woman with a series of interchangeable rag-doll-like objects (which were children) work over each tourist who arrived by car or taxi from 7 to 11 a.m. Between often-fruitless harassment (like blocking the path from car to hotel door), they chatted and compared notes with the bearers and doorman who seemed in no way surprised by the obvious embarrassment caused. By mistake, I gave the crippled boy 10 rupees (one rupee equals 14 cents Canadian; 10 rupees is a week’s salary) the first evening and he never let me out of sight after that; to avoid him, I was forced to use a side entrance. My sympathy is for the unsophisticated and intolerant traveler, for he can easily be appalled at the confluence of truncated limbs, greasy clutching hands, human fragments in pathetic rags that greet him if he makes the wrong turn or goes near a religious shrine. Equally, one is haunted to the very door of the hotel by. one suspects, professional beggars who must be on a commission basis with the doorman of the hotel.”
In a remote, ruined city in the heart of India, I learned an almost unbelievable story from Nandu, our
self-appointed guide: “One of a family of seven living with parents in one room . . . Father earns four to five rupees per day, if very lucky, as a blacksmith . . . Breakfast is tea, lunch is tea and ehupatties, dinner the same with lentils and vegetables, if lucky . . . Men earn 1.5 rupees per day or road gangs; women, 1.25.”
Equally startling to me were the wages received in the teaching profession in India. The information was supplied by a government guide in Madras, and I am certain that the figures vary from state to state, but these figures are representative: teachers at the primary-school level, 150 rupees per month; secondary-school, 250; university lecturers, 350; professors, 500. Whenever I brought up the subject at embassy parties or with enlightened officials, the topic of conversation was changed.
Mrs. Indira Gandhi, the Prime Minister of India, received me while wearing the plainest cotton jade-green sari edged with plaited gold, wooden beads, and a practical watch on her wrist. She spoke with animated and incisive clarity about India’s problems. Her intense pride in India’s accomplishments makes her critical of those who see only the forces of division and disintegration that threaten India’s gains toward stability. India could not delay a welfare program until an economic infrastructure had been created, so both she and her father have had to make concessions to welfare that were not economically justified but were politically necessary. As a result, there are economic strains on the country and a delay in attaining a high growth rate.
I first met her in the ornate gardens of Nehru’s mansion, now a memorial. She was entertaining dancers who had congregated for the Republic Day celebration, “flying like Mary Poppins from group to group.” She ended garlanded from head to foot with marigolds and jasmine. My last, and most poignant memory of this remarkable woman was when she bade farewell to the Emperor of Ethiopia on the tarmac of the airport at Delhi. She escorted this proud emperor across a ribbon of scarlet carpet to his gleaming jet, emblazoned with royal symbols. She returned alone on this symbolic red carpet through a cauldron of heat to the heraldic tents where the entire ambassadorial corps stood at attention in the shade. She wore a pale-saffron sari and twirled a flowered Japanese paper parasol. This lonely figure, who literally guides the destiny of 530 million souls, is etched forever on my memory. □