I recollect childhood days when my father, Jai Pal Singh, showed the family his latest set of 35 mm transparency slides on a Kodak carousel projector. Projected once every couple of months on the whitewashed walls of a darkened family room in a Lutyens Delhi government bungalow, those were magical hours. He photographed with a 35 mm Pentax SLR, using transparencies more than film, and he did an amazing job. This was the start of the mystery of the camera for me, and the fact that he did not let me so much as touch his SLR camera made me want even more to experiment with this magical instrument.
My first camera
I bought my first film camera in 1986, a 35 mm SLR Olympus OM4, as a student in the US. My first subject was my wife and best friend, Rabab. She photographs extraordinarily well, and I was emboldened to believe that I possessed some creative talent, when in fact it was she who made these photographs what they were. I persevered and got better at the art, and some bit at the science. We returned to India in 1988, and my vacation photography continued to use color and black & white 35 mm print film. Wildlife in reserves in North India at Bharatpur, Corbett, Kanha and Ranthambhore kept me learning; specially as we travelled with our son Zayn.
The demolition of the Babri Masjid in 1992 - when I was a youthful 32 - was a seminal event, and led to a startling awakening to the strife, violence and prejudice prevelant in society. There are bigots and supremists in every organised religion, in fact I wonder today if there are people in any religion who aren't completely closed minded to others whose beliefs are different from theirs. 1992 however gave way to a vastly expanded space for bigoted, communal thinking in the 'common' person as old passions, dormant but not close to the surface, were inflamed and divisions exarcebated by venal politicians and sectarian religious leaders. This communal violence of action and thought in India in the years after Babri Masjid made me sit up, and I commenced my journey to understand the history of our divisions due to religion: the unhappy partition of 1947 and its complex causes; about Hind since Ashok and the Turks, Afghans and Persians; about the intertwined nature of the pre-Islamic religious traditions in India and our subsequent Islamic heritage; the Indus Harappan civilization; Vedic India and the many varied strains of the many Hindu religions and beliefs; and the deep impact of Buddhism and Jainism on what India is today not the least of which are pacifism, vegeterianism and non-violence. My mind awoke to the wonder of co-existance that India could be for the world if only we could let it be, and I glimpsed the brilliance of its inter-twined past through the lives of three great figures - Buddh, Ashok and Akbar. My travels through India and Asia over the decades since brought home to me the contributions of Bharat to the world, of the world to Hindustan, and equally of the fruitlessness of organized religion that believes only in its truths led as it is by an entrenched bureaucracies of self-seeking men; not knowing at all how to celebrate our common humanity, the everyday yearning in the individual for living a good and meaningful life, and dealing with the fear of death.
Only today in 2016, after 4 years since I left my corporate life in the competitive software industry behind, have I come to fully realize that organized religions and their labyrynth of regulations and rituals (meant to ensure the captivity of a mass of prejudiced believers) are totally fruitless. Religions across the world have thrived on exploitation of man and woman by man, on greed, power, dominance, control, violence and have created only more hatred, death, inequality and suffering. The path for me could not be religion at all, and the journey had to be inverted and had to reach deep within the mind and thought. This path of achieving true freedom from suffering by looking within and not outside in the environment comes from Gautam Buddh's original teachings (as opposed to the now terribly ritualistic Buddhist religion); and in the last century by the great mind of Jiddu Krishnamurthi http://www.jkrishnamurti.org/index.php. Neither ask us to take solace in a possible god or in heaven, and both define a mindful path for the truely religious, seeking compassion for ourselves and the rest of humanity as the basis for achieving this freedom.
Seeking the sacred
India, the land of a million gods and a billion plus humans, is nevertheless endlessly fascinating. Whether you believe in one religous philosophy or the other, or not believe in any, is accepted as long as you let the other too believe. I set out with my 35 mm SLR Olympus OM4Ti to seek these sacred spaces, which are not necessarily places of worship in our diverse nation. I sought the religions and the people that inhabit this land. Can we be athiest, tribal, buddhist, jain, vaishnavite, shaivite, sikh, zoroastrian, christian and islamic all at the same time? I continued to read, travelled when my career permitted and took advantage of living in historic Delhi - capturing capitals from Suraj Kund and Lal Kot in Mehrauli to Shahjanabad. I travelled to Sanchi, Sarnath, Kushinagar, Bodh Gaya, Nalanda, Rajgir, Khajuraho, Hampi, Ladakh, Spiti, Pushkar, Jaipur, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Nepal, Bangal, Kashmir. Buddhism drew me to Bhutan, Laos, Cambodia, Indonesia, Myanmar, China and Japan. And since to Vietnam and Sri Lanka. Islam drew me to Uzbekistan, Turkey, Morocco, Iran to find commonalities in language, poetry and food. More of Central Asia, Afghanistan and Pakistan remain on a travel-to list.
Along the way, I bought a medium format Pentax 67ii (6 cm x 7 cm film camera) with all the lenses I possibly need, and many more that I do not. It was a trying transition from the smaller format 35 mm to medium format, the change created anxiety as the Pentax needs slower handling, more time, less speed and haste. In a time when the world is speeding up with everything digital, I choose to slow down in photography; just like the pace of my life. I don’t regret it as the Pentax produces simply outstanding pictures, due the larger negative size and superior optical technology. My 35 mm Olympus cameras sat forlorn for 2 years in the camera bag, though I have now found a happy medim and carry both camera sytems that wed me to film. The next step to newer photographic technology for me will be to move to the yet slower large format camera, and the complete absence of any aspect of speed or haste.
The magic of analog
Film photography remains a zone of comfort, I compose the photo and the situation fully in my mind’s eye before I capture it. It is deeply meditative as I wait - for hours, at times - for the photo to self-create. I remain a print film camera and darkroom printing photographer, and the magic of not knowing what comes out till the studio displays its development and printing magic. Medium format photography teaches me patience, a slowing down, an unwinding.