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Art on the Road: Colors of India

A unique sense of color highlights a photographic journey to the world's second most populous nation.



“Its unique sense of color,” the late Indian photojournalist Raghubir Singh said, was India’s primary cultural contribution. 

Singh was mainly a street photographer who shot color film in the mid- and late-20th century when black and white reigned as the photojournalist’s and art photographer’s choice. He called India “a river of color” and published a book in 1998 with that title. (He died in 1999 at 57.)  He captured the crush of people in a country of 1.06 billion, the streets’ cacophony, the jumble of creaking rickshaws, overflowing buses, unruly motorcycles — and camels. Always, movement is relentless among the saturated colors. Singh’s photos didn’t always have a focal point, in the linear Western way. He went after fluidity and continuity.

When I traveled with a group of photographers last year with our cameras to Rajasthan, Singh’s birthplace in northern India, color and movement were easy to find. Life is forever in motion, though admittedly, I often sought out calm rather than chaos. Some say India is an assault on the senses. Traveling through the country is a sensuous experience like none other, photographically and personally. It is never boring.

We made our way through Rajasthan (Jaipur, Jodhpur, Udaipur, Jojawar and smaller villages ) and then to Uttar Pradesh, where the holy city of Varanasi seethes with energy on the Ganges River. Hindus journey there to die, believing that sending their ashes down the river will lead them on to the next life. They also bathe and play in the river, celebrate festivals and holidays, wash their clothes, boat, do business, water their animals, pray. The Ganges, too, throbs with life  and with death’s ashes. We were warned not to take photos of cremation ceremonies, out of respect, so you won’t find any here.

This photographic journey begins backwards from our route. My pictures start at the Ganges, not the world’s largest river but the one with the most spiritual currents, and end with moments in villagers’ and farmers’ lives.



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Early in the morning in Varanasi, people wash, do their laundry, swim, cook, sell, fish, worship, socialize, and usher their dead into the next world along the 1,569-mile-long Ganges River.
Shaving a child’s head is a ritual. This boy is an adolescent, but younger children’s heads are routinely shaven. It is considered healthful and part of Hindu tradition. Hindus are considered more devout if they have it done. It is a sign of a new life, and sometimes, a celebration. 
Along the Ganges in the city of Varanasi, kids catch a fish and tourists cruise the river. The river is the sixth most polluted in the world and every year, about 40,000 people are cremated on its shores and their ashes thrown in the water. The human and industrial pollution from 100 or so cities along the river doesn’t keep boys from catching a fish, or Indians from bathing in it.
This yogi told us he practices for hours daily and can twist his body into numerous outrageous shapes. After he did some pretzel-like positions, he jumped into the Ganges and showed us more poses.
Cows are sacred in the Hindu tradition. The community, or sometimes a self-appointed caretaker, watches out for them. Some say they are considered pests but little is done to reduce their numbers. They’re everywhere – in the villages, lounging on traffic medians. The man with the staff is the caretaker; the other guy helps him water the cows on the Ganges.
Stray dogs are everywhere, much like cows, though few people seem to take care of them. This dog just had pups, and probably is hungry, looking for food along the Ganges.
Most flowers in India – and many are sold for a pittance at markets – are used for religious ceremonies. Marigolds, considered holy and tossed into the Ganges during ceremonies, are usually saffron, the color of renunciation of materialism. Hindu sadhus (holy men) wear saffron. 
The marketplace, this one in Udaipur, bustles day and early evening. This young woman has enough cilantro for many meals, and she’ll sell all of it.
The boys on the motorcycle liked having their photos shot, and many adults were quite willing. Sometimes three or four people ride one motorcycle, with  kids in the middle. At this Udaipur market, the boys goof around while their families sell everything from vegetables to baskets to flowers and flip-flops. 
This toothless Hindu lady wishes me well on the street in Jodhpur. In spite of the poverty, many people we crossed paths with appeared cheerful, and few resisted our street photography. This woman was saying she was thankful. 
Begging children aren’t as common as cows, but there are many, and some kids tease tourists with begging, making it a kind of game. We took this girl to a food stand and bought her something to eat. Not sure how hungry she was.
It’s rare to see people alone in India. There are 1.06 billion people in the country, the second most populous in the world. This woman sits in a quiet courtyard in Jodhpur, known as the Blue City because many buildings in the city are painted blue. Several theories exist: blue paint supposedly keeps termites down because of the copper sulphate and limestone in the pigment; blue is associated with power and Brahmins, and Brahmins want to separate themselves from other castes, and painted their houses blue (yes, the caste system is alive, if not officially); Lord Shiva, in order to rescue the Earth, drank poison that turned his body blue.  
Recycling isn’t only a Western thing, or maybe she’s carrying garbage in the Blue City (Jodhpur). Women do a lot of physical work for very little money in India. It’s common to see groups of men hanging out on street corners, smoking, and women carrying the load.
This young farmer waters one of her goats in the Maota Lake below Amer Fort in Jaipur, also called the “Pink City” for its terracotta architecture, painted to impress Prince Albert during his 1876 tour of India. The farmer’s sari is shorter than typical ones; shorter skirts make it easier to walk and to work in. Women usually wear traditional dress in rural areas. In New Delhi, and larger cities, many women adopt Western clothes.
On a farm outside of the small village, Jojawar, this young woman winnows grain. She keeps her veil over her head in traditional respect to the older men around her. It is a tedious job, but she sat there for hours, meticulously separating the edible grains from the undesirable ones.
This goat herder near Jojawar takes his opium after a hard day’s work. Smoking opium is a common practice, usually among men, in rural areas. Opium cultivation in India is legal for medicinal purposes.
This farmer, outside of Jojawar, was trying to make a deal with our group to give him more money. He told us his goats needed medicine. The kids are listening closely to the outcome. He didn’t get the money, but we did pay him for photos, a practice that we made in certain areas. 


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Photo Joe Cantrell

Angela Allen writes about the arts, especially opera, jazz, chamber music, and photography. Since 1984, she has contributed regularly to online and print publications, including Oregon ArtsWatch, The Columbian, The San Diego Union-Tribune, Willamette Week, The Oregonian, among others. She teaches photography and creative writing to Oregon students, and in 2009, served as Fishtrap’s Eastern Oregon Writer-in-Residence. A published poet and photographer, she was elected to the Music Critics Association of North America’s executive board and is a recipient of an NEA-Columbia Journalism grant. She earned an M.A. in journalism from University of Oregon in 1984, and 30 years later received her MFA in Creative Writing/Poetry from Pacific Lutheran University. She lives in Portland with her scientist husband and often unwieldy garden. Contact Angela Allen through her website.

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