www.madhurdhingra.com (Proposed Coffee Table Book: "Entangled"- Complete Manuscript & Images On My Website In "Work" Section- (Entangled 1-2-3-4-5-6 )
I was born an only child to my parents, in Delhi, into a family torn apart by the aftermath of the India-Pakistan partition. Hailing from an affluent background in Pakistan my family was now struggling for survival in the walled city of Delhi totally penniless.
Embedded with deep insecurities and freshly bearing the scars of partition my family started setting up trade in the walled city, dealing in fabric. It is relevant for me to mention this background for these insecurities I too inherited from my family and they remain with me till date even with the changed times and lifestyle.
Things improved financially, with the trade flourishing and much because of the sheer hard work of my grandfather,father & chachas (father's brothers).We settled in Delhi at the start as big joint family. I have grown up hearing tales of how our family had started life anew, selling fabric on the pavements of the walled city where we now own several properties. My father could never get over those scars of partition. I too was repeatedly made to realize that (for better or for worse), even though I was born much later in Delhi.
At the age of four I was put to school at St.Xavier's High School, Delhi. That period was to become the most memorable part of my life. I remember enjoying school lifethoroughly. I was an above average student with a lot of love for extracurricular activities. In school I would love to going hiking, camping, swimming & cycling with the other boy scouts. From the very start I was naughty and mischievous and was a regular in getting in and out of trouble. After school I went to the Delhi University and took up ‘English Honours’ as my subject. But it was nowhere in my mind to take up studies serious. Restless from the start I had always wanted to travel the world.
I join the Merchant Navyat the age of seventeen, as a deck cadet leaving college in the first year itself. I loved this new experience and was good at learning navigation. Soon I was promoted to become the navigating officer. The first year I never even thought of coming back home. I was busy fulfilling my desire to see the world and meeting different types of people and experiencing different kinds of cultures. .
Once while travelling tothe city of Jeddah in Saudi Arabia duringthe monthofRamadan, I was amazed to see gold slabs and coins being sold on the pavements of thiscity. On the loudspeaker I then heard the eveningazan (prayer call). To my utter amazementI saw the vendorsleave thisgold unattended and enter the nearby mazjid for prayer. Such was the strictness of the prevailing law of the land that anybody caught stealing would have his hand chopped off. Nobody dared to steal.
Now quite a different experience when my ship entered Bangkok ( Thailand ). To my utter surprise I saw hoards of women entering my ship. Their numbers must have been no less than a hundred odd. I was on duty and I waylaid to their entry, immediatelyto be informed by my second officer to back off as they were entering with the permission of the captain. These were sex workers who later stayed on my ship till the time it wasdocked. Nobody was questioning anymorality orethics. It was gala time for all officers, crew, and the captain too. I soon came to realizethat this was 'way of life' for most sailors .
One horrific incident I still remember was when our Burmese radio officer died on the ship due toliver failure. Likemost sailors he too used to drink a lot. As we were still somedays away from the next port, his body was put into the deep freezer of the ship.This was the same place where all vegetables and other eatables were also stored. Life wenton as if nothing had happened and everybody was eating and drinking likeany other day. In ‘ship life’ relationships and friendships are fairlytemporary and the moment a person gets off the ship all these are left behind and forgotten. My bag of experiences was filling up fast and most of these were quite alien tomy nature.
Restlessness and void again setin fast. I was getting bored again afterfive years of sailing. Novelty had worn off and my temperament and upbringing was not that of a sailor in mostways .I finally decided to say quits and jointhe family business which was waiting for me to return. My dad was overjoyed at mydecision.
I had no problem settling into the businessenvironment as it just happened to be in my blood. I now decide to get married too. I got married and soonbecome a father of two adorable children. My age at that time would have been early twenty three. Timeflew by fast earning bread and butter for my family. Nothing was more important than bringing up the kids properly with a lots of love, something which I was deprived of during my childhood days.
The same restlessness and void againsetin soon. I was in a dilemma, now trying out new ways to end this emptiness . I initially tried my hands at learning sculpture at Triveni Kala Sangam in Mandi House, but soon realized that medium was not for me. Destiny seemed to have other plans for me. It was during this period that I was gifted a SLR,a basic Ricoh 500 by a relative . The camera body had a dial with some numbers and also some numbers on the lens of which I had no clue about. There were a photography course being held in Triveni Kala Sangam (Basement). I joinedthese classes along with the sculpture classes which I was already attending.
It was here that I met my photography teacher and now a dearfriend, Satyasri Ukil for the first time. The Basic course was about learning the techniques of Black & White photography. Satyasri was a dedicated, honest & straightforward teacher. His likes and dislikes purely dealt with the merits of the image and not with the person who had shot thatimage. I learntfast under the guidanceSatyasri.
A few of us (some of them now renowned photographers) formed a smallteam under Ukil,as we address Satyasri till date).We shot, developedand printedthe whole day long under his supervision . Photography now no longer a mere hobbybut a frenzy, a medium which we all wanted to excelin . I soon set up my own small darkroom in my kitchen and would develop and print negatives all night long.
I start trekking again now armed with a SLR, going to high altitudes of Garhwal Himalayas. I remember showing my first serious work to Ukil and found him overjoyed. Soon my ambitions grew and I start shooting products for advertising agencies. My first breakthrough came from the agency 0gilvy & Mather whose creative head was Benoy Mitra.Hejust happened to beat the colour labwheremy portfolio was being printed. He saw my work and quietly handed me his card asking me to see him atthe agency. I was overjoyed, for this was breakthrough I needed desperately. I soon started getting assignments from major Delhi based advertising agencies.
But now againI startedgetting bored fromshooting the same mountains, product and fashion over and over. I now needed to express myself in a different way.
I decide to work towards a solo exhibition. For gallery sponsorship I show my landscapes and other mountain work to the management of IndiaInternationalCentre. After seeing my work they agree to sponsor my show fixing the date to 28th November 1998. It is pertinent to mention here that I had then onlyshown them some beautiful landscapes and mountain TP's for their approval as I had nothing more at that time in my kitty.
I starta new journey, first shooting Ladakh, which I found immensely peaceful and tranquil. The quiet inside the Buddhist monasteries actedas a balm for my troubled mind. Filtrationof light from the windows and doors into itsdark interiors wasindeed very beautiful. I would sit inside these monasteries for hours at a stretch calming my taut nerves. The prayer gong would echo inside the main hall and seep deep inside my soul. I have always equated light with God and have always believed that the darkness of the human soul will ultimately become alive with the play of God's Light on it.
After wanderingin and around Leh for a some days I decide to move on further towards Kargil and then to Padum (Zanskar ). On route I saw the most colourful landscape ever witnessed. It seemed God had personally sculpted these barren mountains with elements like water, wind and snow and then painted them with strokes of such different hue. I stood there spellbound admiring the creativity of that Master Sculptor.
During the same period, Kumbh Mela was being held at Hardwar which I decide to shoot. Considered to be thelargest Hindu religious gathering in the world, with around 1 million people expected to visit, it is a spectacle to watch. Hotels were jam packed with people and media from all parts of the world. After significant hunting, I managed to find a room for myself. Not wanting to waste any time I immediately set out for the shoot. I saw hundreds of completely naked Naga sadhus loitering around aimlessly, smoking hash. Their behaviour showed no signs of spirituality either.With ash smeared faces, they looked more demonic than godly. It was a weird sight.
Soon I came to learn from the local inhabitants that the whole show was a complete farce. Theseso called ascetics shed their clothes and stormed the streets with trishuls only during the period of the Kumbh festival. Neither do they live in the remote Himalayan regions leading a renounced life, but on the contrary live in their lavishly furnished air conditioned rooms of their Akharas in Hardwar itself!
My contention got proved the very next day when I witnessed a massive fight that broke out between the local police and the Nagas. Whoever came in the way of these Trishul armed sadhus was at his life's risk. The streets of Haridwar resembled a battle ground with broken bottles, stones, iron rods, bricks strewn all over the place. Blood lay splattered on the streets. I saw local shopkeepers down their shutters in a frenzy and run for dear life. The police retaliated with full force of tear gas shells.. It was now the so called ascetics turn to run. The ash smeared faces morphedinto blood stained ones. God !!! what a sight !!!! These were no saints but downright criminals to the very core, most of them.
On the day of the Shahi Snan, I woke up early and positioned myself on roof top of a house near the Niranjani Akhara, a place that houses these Naga sadhus. I was testing my telephoto lens when I saw a group of Nagas gathered in the Akhara compound. What shocked me was the sight of one Naga fiddling with the genitals of the other Naga. Luckily, I was just in time to capture the act in my camera. It created a furore when this image got published on the first page of a leading Indian daily " The Indian Express".
I would be presenting a lopsided story of the Kumbh if I were to write only about the wayward lifestyle of these Nagas . This festival all through history has been a congregation of learned mystics and saints too. These are the people who have devoted their life to study and meditation. There werehundreds of hutsbuilt by the Kumbh authorities for the sadhus to stay, across the river bed. I visited those and sat with some very learned sanyasis listening to their discourses and hear them sing bhajans(devotional songs). An extremely nice and peaceful experience for me. Animated discussions would take place among the mystics about the existence and nature of God. I too would sit among them trying my best to grasp whatever was being said.
My next visit was to Varanasi. Here I found people visiting the Ghats in colourful attires. A activity on these ancient Ghats like the Dashashwamedh Ghat would start very early in the morning. People from all over India visit Banaras to perform various religious rituals, right from the birth of a child to the cremation of the dead and also later to perform rites for their safe and comfortable passage after death.
Now a special reference to the Manikarnika Ghat " the ghat of the dead" is needed. People from all over India come to Kashi (ancient name of Banaras)to cremate their dead at Manikarnika. It is believed by Hindus that a cremation at Manikarnika Ghat gives the human soul an unhindered passage to heaven. Pyres are being lit here continuously without getting extinguished for the last 3000 years. But it was on this 'BurningGhat'that my worst nightmare was to begin. I would visit this ghat daily looking at the activities. It was not very long before I realised that whenever a body of a poor person would come in, it would be cremated in a bizarre manner. It required two 'mun' wood at the least (mun is an Indian measure of weight equivalent to 20 kgs) to cover a human body completely for cremation. But the people accompanying the dead body did not have that much money in his pocket. So only that much wood was purchased in which only the torso could be covered by wood. The legs and head were left hanging out and the pyre lit. The head would get burnt in a horrific manner with the head and feet falling away from the torso partially burnt. Then these torn away parts were picked up and put into the pyre or thrown into the Ganges. This whole sequence was so bizarre that I decided to get it on film and show it to the world. This I did manage to photograph secretly even after a lot of objections and hindrances from the people in charge at Manikarnika. Man really "was" meeting his God in Kashi, though in a very bizarre manner.
The IIC Gallery wanted to see the final prints that I had decided to display. Nowhere in my final selection were those beautiful landscapes anywhere to be seen. Their place had been taken by naked sadhus with Trishuls and burning ghats & corpses.
The Gallery management told me in no uncertain terms that they will not allow the show to go on unless these pictures were withdrawn. My dilemma was that my photo essay "Where Man Meets God'" was a story of a photographer'spassage of life, his wanderings, his search for God. This essay was incomplete without these pictures.
I told the management that I will show my work as it is and will not remove any picture from the proposed list. Much courage to take this right stance come from Satyasri Ukil who stood by me all this while withstanding this massive onslaught by people with a narrow vision about art. IIC Management banned my exhibition.
It was during this period that me and Satyasri Ukil were introduced to Suneet Chopra a reputed Art Critic. He later introduced us to Siddharth Tagore, a gallery owner at Art Konsult Hauz Khas Village. Siddharth Tagore offered to hold apreview party of my work at his gallery inviting respected artists like B.C.Sanyal, Jatin Das and many otherartists of repute. The preview was a major success with all these stalwarts in their respective art fields giving their nod to my exhibition.
Mr.Khushwant Singh a famous & respected writer too came up with an article on me in his column "Malice Towards One And All’ - The Hindustan Times.
Soon IIC started shifting its stance and a compromise was reached." The images will be allowed to display but onlyfacing towards the Gallery wall, whoever wishes to see them could do so at his own discretion". Almost everybody saw those images.
Many reputed people visited the exhibition.Eight major newspapers wrote elaborately on this exhibition. There was a TV interview also held by a channel too. The exhibition was a huge success on the whole.
I have been shooting ever since refining my images and thoughts. Thispersonal search for a meaning to life still continues. Ihave rigorously read and researched this subject and shot in locations related to this personal quest of mine.
The year 2019 should hopefullybring in the culmination of my thoughts and images in the form of a coffee table book which is titled 'Entangled".An unedited manuscript is in the ‘WORKS’ section of : www.madhurdhingra.com
Needless to say that restlessness and void have set in again and I currently try to tackle it with dabbling in conceptual and abstract imagery.
Life for me as a photographer continues.............