It is often said that India is a country of colour and contrasts between the old and the new. As a developing country India is undergoing change in terms of technology, building and new found wealth. These factors can have a massive affect on the people, their way of life and surroundings. Experienced travellers told me the country was rich in opportunity for photography and as a keen photographer, I am always looking for interesting subjects to study and the colour and cultural attraction of the traditional street life in India has always been a fascination. I was keen to discover the ‘real’ India for myself and enjoy the experience before some of that old character and charm is lost.
The ‘Golden triangle’ is a tourist route in India that encompasses the three cities of Delhi, Agra and Jaipur. The biggest attraction being the Taj Mahal in Agra and the fact that travel between the cities can be completed within seven days makes the area extremely popular. Consequently, it was my choice of destination. I utilised the services of Rinkesh, as a guide, to make travel less stressful and allow me to concentrate on capturing the wonderful images that I would encounter on my travels. This was not a straightforward task as natural curiosity on my part became a distraction in trying to understand the culture, history, religion, politics … of the area. Fortunately for me, Rinkesh had plenty of patience as I sometimes spent an inordinate amount of time taking photographs of some apparently insignificant scene and walked extraordinary long distances on foot in temperatures up to 41° often in the midday sun. I am sure though he must have been cursing me as I was not his usual type of client, but was far to charming and polite to comment. If that wasn’t impressive enough, he was a font of knowledge, brilliant at seeking out local markets, attractions, talking to local merchants, negotiating prices for rickshaw rides and discussing points of interest – in fact, he was an all-round ‘Man Friday’.
The city back streets were particularly interesting as I discovered the ingenuity and skill demonstrated by the craftsmen in their workshops, repairing and manufacturing everything from typewriters to window frames. Very few tourists walk about the backstreets and the local people were polite in that they did not stare, but out of curiosity they will look at you if you are not looking at them. The population is made up of a mix of Muslim and Hindi religions in the area. There are issues photographing Muslim women as you might expect and the cultural mix over the years has spread to the Hindi population with many Hindi women covering their faces also, so I had to be respectful and selective when taking photographs in order not to offend.
Delhi is a busy city and at rush hour crossing the streets is a difficult task with thousands of cars, buses and motorbikes each weaving a path through the streets. On one occasion I had to step back between two poles to avoid three motorbikes straddling the pavement as a shortcut! But that is the charm of the city. It is quirky and if you are crossing on foot through traffic, drivers do make an effort to avoid you and will do their best to give you and the group of six other people crossing immediately behind you some space. In Jaipur, a city in the state of Rajasthan, safety helmets on motorbikes are now compulsory and traffic police can clearly be seen enforcing traffic laws as they occasionally wield their large sticks in the air in frustration at drivers infringing ‘stop’ laws at roundabouts. Despite the apparent manic driving and cacophony of horn tooting, I only witnessed one serious accident. Perhaps this is testimony to change, as India is reputed to have the highest statistics for road traffic accidents in the world.
The numerous markets scattered thoughout the city sell anything and everything as you might expect, but most sell fresh produce and spices and the sight is a colourful affair. The riot of colour from the produce is matched only by the colour of the saris worn by the ladies in a range of vibrant orange or yellow. The market traders work long hours and in the fierce heat many can be seen taking a nap or resting in typical Indian pose, squatting or with one foot tucked underneath.
In rural areas life is much harder and people are visibly poorer judging by their living accommodation and can seen working from dawn to dusk in the fields during harvest time. However these rural dwellers appear to be happier and much more content with life, working hard growing and harvesting their crops than their urban counterparts. The older children play and look after the younger children in the village as their parents work hard in the fields. When the sun sets, it is often the older women in the village that prepare and cook the evening meal on wood fires. Vegetable curry and chapattis are served with sweet milky chai (tea). The warm, still air hangs heavy with the sweet smell of wood smoke, polluting the air from the numerous fires in the village and this scene is characteristic of life across India (even in urban areas). The smoke serves to repel the ferocious mosquitoes which appear in number in the wetland farming areas.
It may sound strange but to experience India you need to just go with the flow, live life at a far slower pace and be a bit more open-minded. The experience of bus travel was possibly one of the highlights of my visit as I was amused at the sight of all sorts of goods being carried on the bus and scenes through the window that made me wonder at the impossibly high quantities of cargo piled high on tractor trailers or transported on rickshaws. At one point on my travels I even jumped laden with my luggage on a tractor! However the most efficient mode of transport must be the Indian railway system, famous throughout the world as a legacy of British colonial rule many years ago. Rail travel is extremely popular for locals and tourists to navigate the vast distances of the country, so much so that rail travel has to be booked many weeks in advance to ensure a seat in first or second class air conditioned coaches. The alternative is third class travel in hot cramped railway coaches where most do not have a proper seat. I was pleased to experience first class on one journey, with a very impressive airline style service serving food and hot chai.
Whilst waiting for trains the occasional beggar, often disabled, could be seen tugging at trouser legs looking for money. It’s a harsh reality I’m afraid to say, that these unfortunate people are forced to live their life this way. I must confess I did not feel happy taking this poor chap’s photograph, but I strongly feel that highlighting the plight of these individuals may lead to some sort of improvement by the government for his future way of life.
Life in India can be very hard and my visit to some shanty areas left me feeling much more upbeat than I had expected. Although the people there were obviously poor, I discovered that for some families, their lifestyle was a matter of choice and has been a way of life for many years which is difficult for them to change. Many are happy and content with their way of life, whilst others suffer the usual problems of alcohol addiction and drug abuse that characterise the difficulties of society life and persistence at it’s most basic level.
My photographic travels of Northern India can simply be described as an experience that I will never forget. Much of the charm that I had anticipated was visually fulfilled and I left feeling slightly humbled and content. At no time in my travels did I feel threatened or worried about my safety and I was comforted by a comment my guide made: In his many years as a professional guide he had never been asked to show a client the back streets and ‘real’ life of India. I felt privileged I had witnessed something that few others had seen. My experience was unusual as I chose to visit when temperatures were getting into the hot season and my choice of venues were somewhat unusual but this was my choice. I did also visit many of the top tourist attractions like the Taj which did not disappoint. I discovered the life and the old charm that had been my goal, but also began to understand some of the changes that are rapidly taking place in the country. Wealth will definitely bring an improvement to the living standards of people keen to avoid the poverty trap, but for many change will not always bring contentment and happiness.
To see a video montage of street photography from Northern India have a look at my YouTube video:
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