Holymen of India – meeting the sadhu


The Holyman.
One of the main reasons I like photography is it allows me to explore a subject whilst hiding behind my camera. It’s like a shield, an excuse to go and do things I would not normally do “naked” without it.

I wanted to meet some Sadhu, the holy men of India who dedicate their life to the Hindu religion. Giving up their past, to the extent that the person they were before is officially dead to the Indian government. I wanted to know all about them, any regrets, why do it and what’s it like to sleep on a marble floor for the rest of your life?

Travel Vacations India Pushkar Sadhu workshop

X-Pro2 & Fujinon 35mm – ISO1250, f2.8, 250th

The Plan
Ever photo assignment delivers its own unique set of issues. After all, good photographers are part creatives, part storytellers, and part problem solvers. This trip was to be no different. I had heard of the holy city of Pushkar before and had always wanted to visit. Even though it was still out of season, I thought I would risk the monsoon and at least try to see what it was all about, treating the trip as a recce for a later trip in the year. My plan was to use Pushkar as a base and work around the outside area of the city to find some photo opportunities, maybe some nomads maybe some holy men. I would hopefully make some contacts, have a good look at some areas and hotels and then plan a trip for a later date. Perhaps, if I’m lucky I might get a few frames in the bag on this trip too. So, despite it being totally the wrong time of year I decided it was worth trying, what’s the worst that can happen?

I have been shooting a lot on the Fujinon 14mm f2.8, as discussed in my previous blog with a fair amount of success in the cramped conditions of the markets. Tight spaces were not going to be such a problem here. So far the X-Pro2 has been stellar on this trip, it’s not missed a beat. I’m enjoying using it in India a lot. As the spaces I would be working in would not be as tight, my plan was to shoot on the excellent Fujinon 35mm f1.4 and do some wide portrait studies. The Fujinon 35mm f1.4 is sharper than the 14mm, so it is my first choice providing I am able to move back a little. It offers just the right amount of “wide” for my liking. I always shot horizontal, even for portraits these days. Something that raises a few eyebrows and the odd question but I like the dead space in the frame it affords me. It makes me work harder with the compositions and I find that rewarding. I guess this is a habit of having to make do with the horizontal format and never being able to frame vertically from my days working in television. You can not simply tilt the camera on its side to help you compose a shot when making TV programs. It’s my “thing” I guess, I’m going for a cinematic look with my images. I try to make each image look as if it could be a still from a film or a commercial with the lighting, color correction and composition and this horizontal only thing helps with achieving that goal.

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It’s always fun to give a little back where you can. The Instax is great for this.

I decided to try to travel a little lighter than before but frankly, this was a futile effort. After various packing and unpacking at the apartment in Kolkata, I ended up bringing all my lighting and actually only shed a few kilos. I was gambling on the sun being out and that I may need to overpower it. Working with a softbox, I would need some serious juice to do that. So, I needed my larger flash. I’m currently using the Godox 360. It’s cheap, fairly powerful and comes with a beauty dish / small octobox. I have an egg crate for this too, so it really is a very versatile setup. In fact, I have brought two of these modifiers and have one as a backup should the first get damaged. I prefer the 360 as it’s battery pack is separate, this means the head on the end of your pole if you are booming it overhead is a lot lighter so less fatigue. As I also have the Godox 850 here on this trip I am able to trigger two flash heads from the camera with the one trigger. So, a potential of a 3 light setup, if I’m using the sun as the third light. I actually also have a coiled cable and Nissin i40 to, hey you never know, right?

Pushkar
Pushkar is not the easiest place to get to, there is no airport for one. There is a railway station on the edge of town, but as my time here is limited. I opted to fly into Jaipur, the nearest big city and arranged a car to be waiting to take me the three and a half hour road trip. This road journey is the usual India craziness. With a six-lane freeway most of the way, it sounds so easy in theory, but this is not the case. You end up playing a computer game of dodge the sleeping cow in the fast lane as you pull out to overtake a slow moving truck stuck in the middle lane. If you try to undertake, you meet a truck driving up the slow lane the wrong way, as he is too lazy to go over to the correct side of the freeway. But, it’s ok as he has put his main beam on! After thirty minutes of nail biting, I just reached into my bag, found my headphones, put my seat belt on and closed my eyes drifting off into a nervous sleep. I was half expecting to wake up upside down in a ditch with the car on fire. As it turns out, I was to awaken somewhere equally as uncomfortable, the Baharapht palace hotel. Now, don’t get me wrong the owners Nina and Dillip are both wonderful and very helpful and welcoming. And the position overlooking the holy lake is a must see. But it’s basic, certainly not a palace and the double food poisoning I got there was not good. Added to that was the fact that the people of Pushkar love a bell and some chanting. Being only a few meters from the lake and that the rooms have no glass in the windows, you can hear it all. Now, this noise is pretty cool and adds a magical atmosphere to the place. However, it starts up from around 4 am and goes on until about midnight. So, if you are just in town for a day or two and chanting through loudspeaker systems and bell ringing is your thing, it might be just the place for you. Next time, I’m going somewhere a little quieter.

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I had really wanted to meet and photograph some of the holy men, the “Sadhu” whilst in India. So, prior to my arrival, I had made some arrangements to find a few and give them the heads up that I wanted to hang out talk and photograph them. I was also interested in finding some gypsies who live out in the desert. These two subjects would be my main focus for this short trip to Pushkar.

My plan to escape the huge rains and humidity of Kolkata with a trip out to the desert of Rajasthan was not a good plan. As it happens, it ended up being even hotter and even more humid here in Rajasthan. With the first two days of rain, cloud and 96-100% humidity. This gave me time, so I thought, to relax in my hotel and chill whilst writing the blog and editing some images. This was always my backup plan, If weather stops play, I can retreat to the hotel and write or so I thought. On the morning of day two of rain, when my Macbook gave up and died with a suspected Logic Board failure, I was then in a pickle. Added to that, the food poisoning I then came down with and the repeated power cuts the hotel was experiencing, It was beginning to look like I would not get any photos at all. Sitting in the dark room with no AC, no wi-fi and no computer in 40c heat with it raining outside were a low point. I was lying there and knew I must just tough it out for at least a day or two and keep sipping water chanting my own mantra now “it’s going to be ok, just tough it out”.

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I tell the Sadhu a hilarious joke in fluent Hindi (some or all of the previous statement may be made up)

The Holymen

Near the edge of Pushkar, there is an “Ashram” a temple of sorts where the Sadhu can go for training. So I headed there leaving my gear behind, with a local who could translate for me to hunt out the mystical sadhu and make first contact. For this first visit, I thought I would not take the cameras and just go to talk and arrange a return visit for the following day. As it turns out, I made three visits and spent many hours talking with the Sadhu. On this first visit, I discovered a windowless room with a staircase going up into the courtyard above. The shaft of light coming down these stairs into the windows dark room was just great. I knew immediately that this was to be my key light for the portrait I had in my head. This room was used by the Sadhu as a dining room and there was an interesting guy eating his lunch on the floor that first day. He was to become my subject for this study. I spoke briefly and asked if it was ok to come back the following day and chat and make some images of Sanjib the Sadhu.

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Sadhu and me, it’s good to have found a guy who owns fewer shirts than me. XE2, 27mm f2.8

My second day at the ashram was spent mostly talking for a few hours and feeling my way with Sanjib to see how long before he got bored of me snapping away as he was eating. I was trying to get him used to me being there and basically get bored enough to ignore me. Then I would get him as relaxed and natural as I am ever likely to. I made a few frames that were ok but knew I could do better.

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On my third visit, I came armed with some Instax shots from the previous day’s shoot, this really helped me to get the shot I had in my head the night before. It was time to get some lighting out and really work the shots of him eating in the dark, humid room. My plan was to use the shaft of light from the stairs as a key light. Supplementing this with a quarter CTO gelled flash off on my trusty Feisol CM 1443 monopod to the right of camera to lift the dark side of the subject. It created a really nice rim light that helps separate him from the background. I used the doorway to the rear of the room to help lift my Sadhu further from the background on the left of the frame. By closing the doors almost fully and just having a crack of light and some spill on the floor it also adds some depth to the shot.  So really a simple one flash setup but with a bit of careful placement of the subject.

Below is the final Image I made and it captures Sanjib perfectly. I believe it’s one of my favorite images from the trip so far. Click to enlarge.

X-Pro2 & Fujinon 35mm – ISO1250, f2.8, 250th

I then moved round and used the softbox to get the shot below. The sun had gone behind a cloud so I quickly grabbed the rim flash I had been using and threw it at the top of the stairs. I wanted the light to waterfall down and just hit the tops of each step. I’m still in India so have not really sorted the color on this image as yet and will look at sorting it out when I have more time.  It clearly needs a little work still. I thought it might be useful for you to see it and to see how the setup developed, so I have included it.

I don’t use photoshop, but this image may need it eventually. Click to enlarge.

Well, if you made it this far then well done. Stay in touch to find out how I got on with the Nomads in the desert. click here

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