Naked In Ashes - The Making of
by William Haugse, A.C.E.
So much happens in India, more so even than New York or Rome, or Rio; from the moment you first breathe the air, you’re swimming in new sensations, events, people, an unimaginably intense mix of new thoughts. And you are definitely not walking along the bottom of the pool, you’re in over your head.
A few stories...
I arrived in New Delhi a day after the others in the film team, because the Indian consulate in San Francisco had had some sort of difficulty processing my visa. So I experienced the New Delhi airport alone, the sea of three-wheel cabs arguing passionately for the next fare but trying not to let the tourists see their ferocity. The driver whose turn it was to take me was big and stern and had to fight back a challenge from one of the other drivers; after that I thought we probably wouldn’t chat at all. But just a few conversational probes later he was opening up in very comprehensible English. By the time we reached the hotel, I knew his family history, where he lived, and how much he made each year hacking. It was my first exercise in trust: whether to believe him – he was so friendly and smart, and he gave me very exact directions how to reach him if I wanted a taste of village life – or whether I should be skeptical, whether he was manipulating me, the economic figures he gave seemed so ridiculously low I didn’t see how he could possibly be telling the truth.
I had another day before connecting with my friends, so I took another cab ride, this driver was more taciturn, to a site I had seen in one of Paula’s other films, a Mosque with a brilliant Sufi background famous for religious toleration and cultural beauty. The driver was very shocked when I gave him the address, “Are you sure, Sir?” This set up a tinge of fear, of course, but I persisted. He said he would wait for me at the entrance; the byways of Old Delhi are far too narrow even for a three wheel cab. We had been informed in advance of the possibility of anti-American sentiment in country and I had even thought of using the word “Canada” when asked about my origin. Walking up those winding streets I saw fewer and fewer Westerners, every male head with a white hat, and very few females. After half an hour of this the fear, planted earlier, blossomed. I wasn’t even sure I could find the mosque, never mind find my way back. And the daylight was waning. When I realized I was the ONLY guy without a white cap, I also started to realize how many of the faces were cautiously looking at me, some even glaring, or so I thought in my increasingly paranoid fantasy. Before losing myself in that labyrinth I turned around and scuttled back to my driver, still waiting by the gate. He insisted that I visit another site, a great 16th C. tomb, where I had my second encounter with Muslim custom.
The grave was a magnificent ruin, with nobody else around, other than a rag-tag guy with his hand out, insisting that he was officially authorized to give me a tour, and that the tour was required. I walked up on a fantastic structure shaped like a band shell for a closer look, and heard a woman’s voice, “Sir! SIR!” A woman in a bright green sari, with two children, approaching me in quite a hurry. She didn’t speak English beyond “Sir,” but her gestures made it clear: “You must take off your shoes in this holy place!” So I finally understood why Paula had insisted that we come with shoes that were VERY easy to slip on and off, over and over. I was quite careful after that, it turns out that all of the deities in India, and there are so many!, prefer to be approached with bare feet.
A few more stories
We journeyed to Ujjain, the site of the festival we were to photograph, by plane, van and bus, along with hundreds of thousands of Yogis, who were encamped along the river with – they said it and I believed it – a million, maybe several million pilgrims! I couldn’t stop saying how happy I was, just being in India after hearing so much about it for all those years, a whole civilization focused on devotion and spiritual attainment! I was prepared to find fault, to discern hypocrisy, after all as a Westerner that’s my habit, but really, there is so much goodness everywhere present, so much spiritual joy, that it was impossible for me not to believe in the thrust of the thing, the spiritual meaning of these people’s lives. I was glad I had come with the job of photographing the wild intensity of the Khumba Mela; I realized at one point I could rely on my camera to funnel the experience down to a more manageable size. To turn a mountain of chanting devotees, blazing with color and throbbing with trance-inducing sound, down to a thumbprint in the viewfinder.
This led to one of my more humiliating – and yet in the end, quite interesting – experiences. On the second morning at the festival, I was standing with the digital video camera to my eye, taking images of a phenomenal street scene, a parade of elephants, acrobats and saints, drummers in bright costumes, scores of naked yogis, magicians, donkeys pulling carts, monks with hair in plaits just touching the ground, vendors of holy things –I would become accustomed to such pageantry with time, or at least less to need the glass wall of my camera shielding me.
Finally, I took the camera from my eye, with some sort of comment “Paula! Look –“ But she was gone. Chris was gone. Our translator was gone. Everyone was gone except the unrelenting ring of little boys staring at me and calling out their requests. There were also about 100,000 other people, conducting the ecstatic and urgent business of a religious festival in India. I looked for our crew for an hour and a half, trying to figure out how we had gotten separated. I didn’t then know how urgently they had been tracking down Sri Raj Giri, the principle subject of our film. They had found him right there in the fair, when I was with all my concentration cranking out video images, and they ran after him like devotees after a master! It turns out that filmmakers have devotional intensity nearly as great as the children of Shiva.
This was in the morning – because of 120 degree midday heat we, and everybody else, worked early in the morning and very late in the afternoon, lunching and swooning at our camp in between. My real adventure began a few hours later at a booth which identified itself bi-lingually as a police sub-station in the fair. Although they could give me no official help, partly because I could not make myself understood, an off duty officer volunteered to try to find “Sita Camp” (all I could remember of the name of our hostel). So there followed four hours on the passenger seat of a surprisingly sleek motorcycle with a very kind and calm off-duty police officer who could not speak a word of English. There had been warnings about sunstroke, and I had not worn my sunhat that morning. But during our day in the sun bumping over the rutted dirt roads of Ujjain and the colossal temporary tent city which springs up around it for very special festivals, there were many encounters: the English yogi with dreds to the ground talking about his 20 years as a holy man in India, and the families and the children and the huge palette of human drama which colors any really big gathering. The cobra being removed from a temple-tent by a snake man, reminding me to zip my tent door all the way around, and so many more over the course of the day, ending with a brief sojourn in a hotel in town, I finally thought I had to have a nap. The off duty officer dropped me off and the hotel manager, who had his own motorbike, had heard of our tent encampment “Sita Camp” so I got back in time for a few leftovers from dinner. It was never really frightening but the experience of being totally lost for ten hours in middle of a gigantic religious festival in a remote Indian capital is memorable, let’s just leave it at that.
Sita Camp. A camp put together especially for the festival for tourists and upper class Indians. Right on the holy river, the Shipra, where the holy bath was soon to take place. All along the river, other encampments, for all classes of Indian society, and all religious sects. All manner of devotees and gurus. I know this because they could be heard chanting. Chanting all the time, and this is not a colorful exaggeration. “Sita Ram, Sita Ram, Sita Ram, Sita Ram” and so on, with quite a lovely melody, choral and accompanied by the lapping of the river. But ALL of the time. Lucky for us Paula brought ear plugs or we wouldn’t have been able to sleep a wink; the supply of chanters for the glory of Ram is apparently inexhaustible.
Religious, spiritual, orthodox I have the feeling I’m not alone in saying that while I have an abiding interest in Asian religion, I am not exactly a devotee. It’s taken me quite some bother to get myself free of the dogmas of western religion and I’m wary of the dogmas of another. But there is an allure, there is the whisper of hope there, in the stories and imagery and practice of the religions of Asia, of India in particular. So when the festival came about, we put our glass shields in front of our faces again, to shield us from the bright light of all this devotion. We had moved to another guru’s encampment, right down by the water, right where the yogis were expected to enter the water at exactly the appointed hour. The exact hour which, by the way, is not revealed until the very last minute, literally, by the astrologers who presumably are taking into account the minutest variations in the whims of the planets.
So we came to the river before dawn, just to be ready. And waited, and waited. The government of Ujjain had put up a sort of raft midway across the river for the benefit of camera people from all over the world. It is, after all, something to see, and quite a few glass eyes were trained on the event. Chris went out on the raft but I was skeptical. I was also skeptical about crossing to the other side. One gets there by crossing an underwater bridge, made of stone, box shaped and long, maybe six feet wide. It goes all the way across the river, maybe a hundred yards, and the entire bridge is under the surface of the water, maybe three feet under. If you are inebriated, in other words, you must not attempt to cross the River Shipra on this bridge. And if you have in your hands a digital video camera worth thousands of dollars, you must be extra careful.
Finally, a person from our Ashram (the second encampment actually had a real guru so it’s called an Ashram) told me that nothing would happen on the near side, that I would have to get either out to the raft or take the bridge to the other side of the river to see anything at all. India continually puts you in this sort of circumstance, situations which mirror the challenges and beauties and obstacles of life itself, the hope the fear etc.
So. I decided I could not stay on this side of the holy water. I wade out into it, despite the fact that we’ve been told that if the water has even been NEAR the lettuce we are not to eat it, and despite my experience in another country in which I was told not even to TOUCH the water, despite all this, it was necessary to wade out into the water, to step onto the submerged stone bridge in my easily removable rubber and fabric slip-ons (the Yogi’s frown on the use of leather). I stopped halfway across, to visit Chris on the raft. His position was considered the supreme position and all the main international photogs were there as well, but I thought I’d go on across, get another angle, in the midst, so to speak of the action.
It was an unexpected, unrepeatable experience, standing on that bank, watching tens of thousands, then hundreds of thousands, of naked Yogis, hair to the floor, some in the most exotic colors, come down the ramp to the stone faced river bank, each in their own Akara, carrying banners and flags, covering themselves in ashes, some bearing their guru high above on litters and thrones. To see so close their wonderful ecstatic delight, so eager to bathe in the holy river, to wash away karma, to move forward in their spiritual adventure, was exhilarating! And to come for spiritual refreshment in such a sensual way, to immerse oneself in water, to bathe! To go all the way down in, hair and all, everything soaked with redemption and release!
It called up images of fundamentalists in the south of my own country, being held by the shoulders and leaned back into those Baptist stone bathtubs behind the altar, or in the river nearby, for the same purpose. But so serious, those pious Americans! For these Indians, it’s all joy, all bliss! You can see it in their faces, in their eyes, in their bearing, before and during and after the sacred immersion. But for me, of course, that sense of being “the artist,” “the observer,” the reporter. Standing back just far enough from all this spiritual splendor, so as not to really be “in” it, not to participate, not really to get wet. Getting, to be sure, even from a distance, something out of the experience, some new of karma and divine justice, perhaps, or the other philosophical blessings of the religion. But still, to be outside, looking in, to be so terribly different from these men washing white ash from their skin with the cascading waters, unable to cast oneself without reserve into this exotic and apparently ecstatic way of life. A little bitterness along with the enjoyment. The religion of others.
So the last Akara comes in, bathes, drying themselves, sometimes with a partner’s long long hair. The religious excitement settles down at last. I’m going back over the submerged stone bridge, with just the same caution as I used for the first crossing. Passing the little island of cameras, where Chris, ever diligent, is still capturing images. Walking back toward the town side of the river. I’m almost to the near shore when I see Paula, our director and by now very great friend up on the shore. She waves, I’m happy to see her, and happy about the images I captured over on the other side, not to mention still happy – and this was very intense and inexplicable – very happy just to be in India. I call out to her. Then, as I have done during both crossings on this bridge, I feel about with my right foot, carefully looking for solid stone footing. But my foot does not find a stone. For some reason, I do not reconnoiter, rather, I’m off balance for just a second, there’s a moment of confusion, and then suddenly I am discovering the depth of the Holy River Shipra, which seems to want to cleanse me, to cleanse all of me, in spite of my western ways. The Shipra is not really so deep, but it’s deep enough to cover my legs, and my arms and my head – and my short western hair, not six foot dreds – and even though the hand holding the camera shoots up into the air, a vain attempt to protect the precious tiny electronics inside it, River Shipra wants the camera too, is deep enough to cleanse us all.
It was quite a few chapters later, trips through the Himalayas, back home through Germany before the river-locked camera was finally opened. The camera, like a burnt stick of incense, was spent, used up, recyclable. But the hour’s worth of images, the cassette inside the camera, all the pictures of those wild holy men trailing hair and limbs, dancing and yelling in clouds of ash and smoke, was dry and alive. Visit the Paradise FilmWorks website.