Amazing Environmental Audio from Maha Kumbh Mela

I’ve been back from India just over a year now, back living in the US and in that time its been a real struggle, both on a personal level and financially.
Looking back on that time, a half-year spent in India, thinking about it and thinking about how much I miss it, and yearn for the Utopian chaos to run through my veins once more.
I have edited my photography over and over trying to extract the essence of the experience. However the personal journey that India was to me, has obscured my objectivity, something that only time can distill.
I have started once again on the editing process, going back over the audio recordings I made, and in doing so, had an epiphany about the work. I realize that I have no choice but to go back to India, and capture more audio, this time with an expanded kit. And to dedicate much more time and effort into making quality environmental recordings.
Audio recordings offer a taste of reality that video and photography simply cannot touch. Where video has to be constructed to make a compelling presentation, and photography provides specificity, and depth, that depth is within just that contextual intimacy.
Audio offers a living reality of time based exploration. Audio treats the consciousness to a wide layered mental vision, one that the mind is intrinsically connected to, there is no learning to listen, whereas there is learning to read photographs.

This Location Sound during the Anup Jalota concert at Pilot Baba’s Ashram camp 2013 Maha Kumbh Mela, Sangam Allahabad, Uttar Pradesh India. I had decided to walk around the sector 9 area where the ashram was located, about 7 miles from the actual main bathing area.
You can hear all of the local sounds, and the far distant sounds of the millions (130,000,000 to be more accurate) of pilgrims who existed at the ‘city’. Headphones highly recommended. Sit back and enjoy the Mela as I did for thirteen minutes.

Observations from Varanasi pt.1

20130218.IND.VRI.JO©.0028

Cows and Sponges

20130219.IND.VRI.JO©.0019

Bathing in sacred Ganga.

20130219.IND.VRI.JO©.0107

Varanasi is as much about the rooftops as the Tola’s (streets).

20130220.IND.VRI.JO©.0050

20130220.IND.VRI.JO©.0121

As children we learn to share..

20130222.IND.VRI.JO©.0132w

Monkey King on the rooftops Varanasi (at night, during a black-out).

20130222.IND.VRI.JO©.0196w

A Sadhu came and joined us on he Ghats for a smoke of Chilum. Chilum has made me sick in the three times Ive tried it. I hate the taste and the effects are crap.

20130224.IND.VRI.JO©.0038

Lava.

20130225.IND.VRI.JO©.0027

A Swede and a Norwegian two very nice travellers I met on my first week in Varanasi, took a bathe in the Ganga, not me however. I just take the pictures.

20130225.IND.VRI.JO©.0050

First light on the Ghats.

20130301.IND.VRI.JO©.0055

Theres a street photography gem around every nook here..

 

Thoughts In Place 201307-14

And now its time to go. After 24 nights in Varanasi I am leaving tomorrow to go to a city named Jaipur, a place I have no idea about. I dont know whats there or anything about it. All I know is that Im going to pick up a ticket at 2pm for a train that leaves at 6.15 tomorrow either from here in Varanasi or from another station called Mughalsarai which is 17km from here and an additional 500rupee taxi ride. Preferably I get the train from Varanasi because its a slightly higher class carriage 2ACs which means Class 2 Air Conditioning Sleeper, which equates to double layer bunks. If I get the other train its a 3ACs which means its 500rupees less and there are triple layer bunks or not very comfortable and more people to potentially steal you shit. I know that 2AC has food onboard and its less likely that the train will have as much human traffic on the ‘relatively’ short trip Im taking. The ride will be approximately 17 hours heading West, most of it at night and so I can in theory lay back and struggle with a book.
The concept was that I leave here to go to ultimately Pushkar which is a beside Ajmer a small city. Pushkar is very attractive, built on a sacred Hindu lake with lots of hills surrounding it, and it’ll be like a tiny Varanasi with ghat’s encompassing the lake edge. My plan was to be there for about four days and then move on up north past Delhi and into the foothills of the Himalaya to a place called Rishikesh which is the spiritual home of Yoga, but Im not a Yogi so Id be going there for a few days and then on to Dharmsala where Dalai Lama lives, and again not to visit him but to just experience the place. Typically its cold, but its mid spring here and everything is getting hotter. India gets hot in the summer then then breaks into Monsoon . Hot means 40c. Delhi get to be 50c in the summer before Monsoon.
originally the plan was to go to Udaipur a gorgeous city In Rajasthan, which is supposedly one of the most attractive states in northern India, its 5 seconds of fame was that James Bond Octopussy was partially filmed there. Its also famous for many lakes and temples built on islands in the middle of the lakes.
However.. Im not going to Udaipur because I couldn’t get a ticket there. So instead I go 2/3 the distance and get off at Jaipur and have to find another way to get to Ajmer and then on to Pushkar. But theres one caveat now, and that is I am being asked to go to Delhi to record sound for some project my colleague has up his sleeve and to be honest I don’t really want to go to Delhi unless I have to be there, because its massive and congested and polluted. However there are opportunities and I get to meet a world famous Seattleite Tabla player and sound recordist. And Ill at least have someone there to hold my hand a bit. I just suspect that its going to a very expensive endeavor to be there.

This has been a test, for me to learn the definitive answer about decision making. The last three years have been a steady challenge of overcoming my fear about trusting yourself and trusting that I have the capability to make a decision knowing that its the right one. I haven’t been very good at it all my life, and I definitely have not been good about it here in Varanasi. I was sick for a period and then sick again, and they were my excuses for not getting out sooner, but now after being here for so long, Im actually glad I stayed because I got to see Varanasi as the Maha Kumbh Mela after-party city, and then the tourists left and it got quiet for a moment and then Shivaratri happened which brought in devout Indian pilgrims from the south by the train and truckload, party like only Indians can and then get right back on their transports for the 49 hour train ride south to the hellishly hot temperatures. And then Varanasi becomes quiet again and the long term tourists peek out from the doors of their guesthouses and a few familiar faces reappear. Its great to experience a city so surreal and unbelievable for an extended period because you get to build up relationships with locals and ultimately get a much better feel for how the place works. No doubt about it when I leave it will seem like a truly surreal experience having existed there within those ancient caverns and deep rich spiritual traditions.

Leaving a place in India requires forethought and planning, because nothing happens when you want it to. Five minutes is not five minutes, its Indian five minutes. This is how India works. If you want to go somewhere then you have to think ahead and book now, because you wont get a ticket (even if you pay ever increasing bribe prices), so thinking ahead is quite the psychological quagmire. I have to figure out where Im going, and its never that easy, because you have to think about the place, and then the next place after that and the place after that, so that you can leave go there and then move on and then on and use the momentum to keep you motivated alert and inspired. Otherwise you get stuck in a place and its hard to move on because its cheap, comfortable and easy. Traveling is hard, its hard on the body and on the mind. An Oasis in travel is a base or a stop. Varanasi just has possibly the worst case scenario for access in and out of the city as Indian cities go. Its ancient and designed for human access only, despite the livestock which meander through the Tola’s and the fat Indian ladies that squabble and gossip and stop every three seconds to argue a price on a bag or a design on a Saree, and then usually not buy anything at all, did I mention the millions of stray dogs, the cow shit, dog shit, man shit and rivulets piss, at least the Red Faced monkeys are smart enough to stay on the rooftops. And then theres the shrines everywhere, every corner ledge, doorway and stair harbors a shrine to any number of gods, Varanasi is the Hindu city and its the fulcrum for an incredible amount of worship activity. Personal space is diminished by about 90% for the most part.

==============

Thats haircut number five now, for me, in India. I can count them because they are all unforgettable experiences. You get a haircut and then you get a shave and then you get a face massage and then you get a head massage and then you get a spinal adjustment and then you get arm alignment and muscle relaxing hand massages. These barbers work very hard, and spend time with you, they know your body and your head and how they relate. They take care of you sometimes you get a mid break chai. And then he meditates on your head and you can fucking feel energy between you and him. Electrical harmonic energy on some very distinct level.

Like a tailor he wields a scissors with accuracy and precision, imagining my hair was a piece of finely woven linen and his scissors a piece of cheese chalk gliding and stroking like Morse code on my head. The sound of scissors (not shears) these are well polished and honed pig iron twisted to form the blades of a sheers the blades never snag or rip, they are razor sharp and the boy fidgets with his scissor hand to keep the momentum going. Fast like a motor the hand shimmers over the grey and clips the cuts like a line of formation, and the forest falls away.

Then theres the shave, the shave is in three parts; the application of the foam. Some places make it from a shaving soap bar, some places use it in a tube. Either way its brushed up into a lather and slapped like whitewash over your face, the brush glides and glitches as it mops your face like pouring melted ice cream on your skin and then its done. You have a moment while the barber opens his blade box pulls out a brand new razor peels the individual white paper envelope from the flat and pierced piece of metal and drops it in to his blade vice and drops the cinching lever down on it. He pushes your head back into the head rest you forgot was there and stretches your skin with the side of his thumb and runs a fine edge over your face you can hear the crackle of roots as they snap with the blade. The picture he paints with his razor brush is one of experience and knowing how hair grows and the best way to make it disappear. Drawing short sweeps away from your ears, down along your jawline and up from your neck to your chin, he completes the edge with a bevel run along the ridge of your jawline to your chin and back toe our other ear. From the edge of your lips to the center, lifting your nose to get the Maharaja of all shaves. He runs the blade straight on not as at angle, to clear the woods before he can actually get on to the second round.
The second round is faster but its all business. The whitewash is reapplied and the blade sits at 90 degrees and is drawn like a portcullis over the skin while stretching your face to accommodate the blade. The sensation is different, there is less resistance and there is a mild burning sensation trailing the blade but is gone in the same instant. The towel comes and gently maps your face with two strong hands inside it, opening your face from the center along the line of your nose. Your eyes are rubbed, your ears are cleaned and your nose is squeezed and there is no hiding the contents of your nose from these guys; they clean your face.
The face massage starts instantly with a cool barrage of viscus gel rubbed into every area of your face, ears, eyes and around all corners and is applied with the symmetry of two fast hands, your skin soaks it up and he wipes it off and then applies aftershave, the ultra cleansing pore cleaner and nervous system wakeup call. He rubs it in with rough hands, his skin is professional grade labor quality texture, and the warmth of his hands belies the capability of the tools.

The towel is removed and replaced with something smoother, like the curtains of intermission, a chai comes you open your eyes and the mirrors of the room show more boys in the room now because theres a white guy getting the works so theres curiosity. Someone puts their phone on the table and puts on a pop song with religious lyrics, they can all sing the lyrics and jesus can they sing and know how to make their voices change pitch mid refrain. The heat of the masala chai wafts up your nose and you can smell the ginger accents. The sweet milk offsets the ginger and tea to make a quick charge down your throat and into the realm of satisfaction.

The face massage begins, by mapping the shape of your head with his thumb and forefinger on each hand and acts out an Art Nouveau ribbon line in gold and green on your skull mapping the pulse points, the shape, the symmetry, and the metaphysical currents of electrical elements and their points of congestion. More pressure is applied at certain meridian points and intersecting crossroads, like thumbs in latex, re-routing and redirecting the bioelectrical traffic. Clearing your mind, and vacuuming out the static.
You are put in a trance and the hands go to work: fingernails rattle across the cobblestones on top of your head, the roots of your hair are manipulated and woven back to life, Oils are applied, poured into the hand and rubbed together until heated to the right temperature to affect the most amount of effectiveness. There is a heavy clapping on the crown of your head like the sound of shoed hooves on stone, a clopping sound is made and the hollow drop of the heal of the hand is applied heaviest at the back of the crown and the break of air inside the hand make for an wide echo in your entranced brain. It also serves to release something in your brain, like a spell and suddenly you are aware of your other senses. Sound becomes clear as crystal and the clanging of the Shiva bells for temple arrest you with gentle awareness because you’ve been hearing them the whole way through but didnt fully realize it. And so begins a slow but serious breakdown of your sinuses, through pinching up of the eyebrows and gentle eyelid rotations followed by pinching the soft skin of the lid and lifting it off your eyeballs and dropping it back a few times, and instantly your eyesight is improved. The smells of the shop and of your own clothes come back to you like a snap. A single hum of an electrical box finds you and takes to you an extended state, your neck and shoulder are braces and gripped by strong clamping hands biting your sinews and awakening muscle, the mass is manipulated and your head is separated from your shoulder in a powerful fanning of ligament.
The shoulder is clopped softly and your arm is taken by the barber and put on his shoulder and from the arm pit the muscle is tenderized and the arm is twisted all the way along its trajectory and up in to the hand until your palm faces the wrong way and your fingers are gripped like a bundle of twigs and rotated, your wrist pops first, then your lower thumb joint then your knuckles, the hand is rotated the other way, and the shoulder pops. your hands are placed by your sides and there is a water spritz on your face, the towel comes back and your are truly worshipped.

It is also amazing to see the face to the barber when he is working on you. There is nothing but dedication and a most amazing sense of ultimate concentration. There is much physical effort put in to a ‘haircut’ here; the barber will cut your hair with scissors not an electric clipper and the momentum kept in the hand that operates the scissor is non stop. I know from my stylist friends how hard that is on your hands, and then there is the massage element on top of that also. The experience is nothing but stellar.

End of Maha Kumbh Mela & Beginning of Varanasi

20130217.IND.VRI.JO©.0003 20130217.IND.VRI.JO©.0011 20130217.IND.VRI.JO©.0018 20130217.IND.VRI.JO©.0029 20130217.IND.VRI.JO©.0033 20130217.IND.VRI.JO©.0046 20130217.IND.VRI.JO©.0061 20130217.IND.VRI.JO©.0066 20130217.IND.VRI.JO©.0186 20130217.IND.VRI.JO©.0226

Varanasi an extended courtship..

We left Maha Kumbh Mela in a sea of slop and destruction. A sad ending to the biggest gathering of humanity in recent history. They are rebuilding the event now, but it wont be the same, as there was only to be another ten days or so for the final bathe. We left in a taxi the size of a butter box, taxies here mean a private car and usually in questionable condition. Ours was big enough to hold one suitcase only, the rest we had to live with on our laps. I was rotten with a cold, filthy and everything I owned was damp. The ride was relatively painless and the views were interesting. My mind was telling me we were going in the direct opposite direction then we were actually going. And the direction of the Ganga flow still confounds me today.
Getting in to Varanasi, or getting in to any city is always different to being there and the experiences of existing within that city. We drove off the highway and through a military base and then through a university into mass congestion where the taxi driver told us to get out and get a tuktuk literally-a motor rickshaw to carry thee men and 5 pieces of luggage. But it worked, and the rickshaw farted it was along crazed streets for a moment and then stopped and told us to get out and walk, and thats when the insanity really begins. The old part of Varanasi is ancient, a three dimensional latticework of passageways that weave around buildings constructed right beside each other with zero room between, and yet the cities ancient thoroughfares are its life. In amongst the buildings are tightly nestled Temples and in amongst those are the loving roots of the Banaras trees which provide an ever decreasing amount of greenery within the city limits, but are the homes to the millions of Monkeys which leap around from one impossible location to another. These passageways are wide enough for people to walk through and even enough for the occasional asshole on a motorbike to blast through. 4ft from the Shiva Guesthouse is the Varanasi Cautilya Community Intercultural society, which is a restored building and within its walls is one of the most attractive restored old buildings I have ever seen. Its modest dark green and maroon walls with a central opening on each floor all the way to the top floor of four, and on the top is a stunningly beautiful gothic library like something you would expect to see in turn of the century Europe, and the window butts right up against the balcony of the guesthouse, so you can see directly in the window and gaze upon the old books and Ivory lamps.

 

It wasn’t until nightfall that I realized the full extent of this geography, the guesthouse like all buildings here has a rooftop view and from there the sky is indigo and the city is charcoal grey with orange accents, and when you look down it looks like you are standing on a cool island of black rock in a random pattern of molten lava, as the orange street lamps cast a passing shadow on people as they catch a borrowed shadow and pass it on to the next.
I made some dimensional sound recordings from the roof and thats when the full extent of what you are seeing really actually comes to life. The layers of sound from close by, to far away are immense. Street sounds, including carts, shouts, conversation, children, dogs, squirrels and monkeys and the occasional low deep bellow of a cow, mixed with the myriad of different bird sounds, telephones, sewing machines, touts, a far away rave dominates the east and the white noise din of a busy city in the distance. Then there is the ritual sounds, bells for the hindu’s and the Call to Prayer for the Islamics. Quite an unbelievably rich an wondrous compliment to the visuals. And then of course there are the non-recordable’s like smells and flavours, which are reserved for the traveler and not the reader.

The best way I could begin to visually describe Varanasi would be to call it an ancient BladeRunner.

There is fire and there is water Shiva, Vishnu, Ganesh, Saraswati, Krishna, Parvati, Hanuman, Kali they all demand their fair share of attention in fire and water. Where ever you walk and wherever you look there is a shrine, there are shrines everywhere, some are so old that they do not bear any resemblance to the original god they were made to represent. There are more Ganesh (Elephant) then there are Hanuman (Monkey) shrines and they are typically 12” high relief granite or the like, tiles painted a garish orange and eyes painted on and thats usually it, but occasionally there will be some rotting marigolds and a handful of burned incense sticks.

 

Its quite something to be in a city with such massive levels of reverence and devotion to god(s). Even In Ireland I never came anywhere near this level of religious culture. Life and civility exists around the religion, everything takes a second place to devotion.

 

Its a city that in one week I have had many emotions about. Sometimes I love it sometimes I loath it. I love the architecture; the gothic Dickensian winding three dimensional latticework of thoroughfares, and I love the mix of black and colored accents like Bladerunner, I love the proximity of everything, nothing is more then a few minutes walk or further then arms reach. Cavernous, living~breathing, meditative, medieval city. I love the remnants of a certain style and the ultra slow pace of pop culture from one generation to the next. I love the sounds, and the layered levels of audio in any direction, conversation, street sellers, hawkers, bread men have horns, milkmen have bells, ice cream is a different bell, different sounds for different things. amazing!
Theres more I love but I forget about now, because they are weighted down with the loathings, I have a sadness in me about the filth. Its a completely filthy place. Black from the knees down exposed plumbing, shit; cow shit all over the streets everywhere, Dog shit in piles everywhere, human shit. Human piss and the frequency at which its delivered in public, I really love the idea of not having to wait around like in the US while waiting for the charity of some commercial establishment for you to have a pee, but theres a fine line between discreetly pissing behind a bush and stopping mid stride in an alley way full of 40 other people to block traffic while you squat and unload right where Im about to walk, and the fucking stench of waste, garbage, rotting flesh. I believe that it comes down to social responsibility and how Indians are in so many ways stuck in the stone age.

Ive had conversations with Store owners who understand you to a point but get completely lost when you attempt to get them to think in a different way. Like for instance the Curd seller, He sells his curd in these beautiful little clay pots, which he buys every day from the pot maker for a hefty price, and he put the curd in the pots and sell it for 15r a go. 10r of that is the pot. The pot is used once and thrown away. I talked to him about it and he said “once only, one time only then smash” So I said to him that it would save him a lot of money if he washed the pot and used it again, he was very excited about the idea of saving money, but couldn’t get his head around the fact that he would have to change his thinking to make that happen. Ive seen it countless times, that there is an apparent inability for indians to accept anything beyond their own sphere of influence, I can see it in about half the population. Perhaps it was like that in Ireland too, I dont remember, but I also dont remember ever having seen a people so obtuse with the potential of possibility.
The coughing, hacking and hocking and then the Spit the Indians do, its unreal, India is dripping with spit., their respiratory systems are fried from so much smoke. Fire is revered in india, as is smoke, as is Chilum (ganja), as is independence and commerciality so the city is fed with millions of two stroke engines, motorbikes, modern and old scooters, that just shit out the pollution far and wide..

Ok well its definitely time i posted this as ive been here now more then ten days maybe even two weeks I cant remember. Ive been sick I got a lung infection and went to a doctor for antibiotics now im recovering and its time to post this.

Maha Kumbh Mela 2

20130214.IND.MKM.JO©.0298

Tribal woman at her tent the night before the big bathe on the 15th

20130214.IND.MKM.JO©.0301

A tarp tent houses a camp of babas.

20130214.IND.MKM.JO©.0325w

Tibetan holyman poses for the camera with his Baba and Guru.

20130214.IND.MKM.JO©.0334

Pilgrim with his Baba

20130214.IND.MKM.JO©.0340

Mad Max Apocalypse Now

20130214.IND.MKM.JO©.0345

A veritable army of civil workers cleaned up during the night at Kumbh Mela. This was a basket of Lye plonked on the ground at strategic points to be later swept.

20130214.IND.MKM.JO©.0359

A pilgrim at Kumbh Mela

 

Maha Kumbh Mela

After coming to Varanasi and being here for a few days, looking back at Kumbh is like rubbing your tongue in the hole left by a pulled tooth. Kumbh is a distant memory, every white person in Varanasi has because we all bailed at the same time. The build up to, then the event and the aftermath we all seem to have similar sentiment towards it, ‘meh’ and apt American word for ‘yeah been there done that…Next!’. Im glad I went, Im glad I saw it, but Im left with a distinct sense of dissatisfaction.

The Kumbh authorities and organizers out-did themselves in terms of putting this unprecedented event together. 120,000,000 people in a 56 square mile area of Indian military engineering mastery; supplying fresh filtered water to everyone, workable roads paved in steel plate, and pontoon bridges, and the policing of such, and the refreshing level of sanitation, litter control and basic but fully functional hygiene and the army of workers who provided it was completely impressive.

The first time I stepped out of the Kumbh grounds I was approached by two students from Allahabad University who were conducting a detailed survey for non Indian travelers and what we thought of the event. The questions themselves were somewhat revealing in that they were asking a lot about what we thought about the administration of the event and whether or not it had much of an impact on us (yes it did), and whether or not we felt more devout about the high levels of celebrity Baba’s and whether or not they needed the level of coverage and pomp they received (no they didnt).

I went to see what millions and millions of people would look like and to feel the presence of such levels of humanity in my face, and the the most part the benevolence of the Indians meant that it was a peaceful affair. Everyone was on vacation, or were there in devotion and to seek enlightenment from their Baba and to bathe in the sacred Ganga, and to take little bottles of it home for their shrines.

The people that impressed me the most were the blue-collar workers, not necessarily only the lower caste, but the people who had put their lives on hold to go.

The Baba’s were a mix of the high profile dicks with their giant self promoting posters plastered everywhere expressing hollow and borrowed promises to their followers, then there were the smaller Baba’s who had less money prowess and smaller numbers of devotees and offered rudimentary accommodations in the shape of thatched huts with straw beds or tents with straw floor coverings, and then the lowest levels of Baba’s who had nothing but their meagre paraphernalia, a tarp and some pillows to offer their flock to come pray in front of a cleansing fire. And maybe share some of their hashish.

Then there are the various levels of holy men, most of which blend into one another without much of a difference in their ways, some stand out;
The humbleness of the Brahmen monks and their generosity is breathtaking. They are the ones who shave their heads and mark their forheads with stripes and lines, wear orange and carry with them a sick which has a small roof attached so they always have a place to stay. They fed me good food and asked only to be photographed. I would later meet the same Brahman in the chaotic twisted streets of Varanasi where he recognized me and gave me blessing.
Ahgori’s who relish death and devote themselves to it, who eat the flesh of the dead to consume death, they (of course) wear black, and have some party piece like bones or a skull to embellish themselves with a talisman. Later I would find out that they usually have to get mangled on whiskey before they can perform their flesh eating rituals..
Then there were the Naga’s. They are the renounciates, the ones who are naked, and cover themselves in ash and wear marigolds around their necks, and paint their faces and look like something from a White Zombie album cover.. They are also the ones everyone wants to photograph because they are the most outgoing and flamboyant, they are also the most conceited and have been known to smash a camera if you make a picture and dont pay for it. Asshole celebrity photographers have ruined for everyone including non photographers who want to follow their beliefs because the Naga’s know that they are currency in of themselves. I still managed to get the best shots of them on their way to the bathing just because I happened to be in the right place at the right time.

The Maha Kumbh Mela is more about show and pomp now then it could have been back in 2001. I saw awesome arrays of film making equipment with cranes and dollies and entire film crews squabbling with each other over locations.

Then the rain came, a giant storm, so much rain, and wind that smashed and destroyed anything up to 60% of the grounds. Some say it was an act of god, and how it would wash away the pomp and leave the devout. Im not going to argue with that.