Photography often involves letting go. While light and the elements may be in your favour and experience steadies hands, you remain at the mercy of whatever wanders into frame. So, rather than capturing perfection, it’s an attempt to convey emotion, slow time, work with your subject and create something genuine.
For me, travelling through Rajasthan and on to Agra - taking in Udaipur, Jaipur and the surrounding villages, my camera became a vital tool; a means of managing the chaos and fostering a sense of intimacy. You may have the briefest exchange with those you photograph - a mimed request to look this way and smile - but as they stare into your lens you feel the full intensity of their gaze. With the camera in play, pretence evaporates and people are willingly exposed. This is a moment shared, a chance to focus on the minute. With architecture you’re also forced to consider your experience - the adornments, the history, the skill and artistry involved in creating even the smallest details. This proves especially true of Rajasthan, a treasure-trove of beauty and wonder.
An artistic city, Udaipur is renowned for its miniature paintings, with contemporary practitioners working in places like Royal Art and Crafts taking up to six months to complete their incredibly detailed work, painting on everything from silk to camel bone. Their studio is near Jagdish Mandir, one of the city’s 700 temples. Found up a flight of steep marble stairs, holy men pray by the entrance as chanting and the scent of incense wash over you.
Jaipur is paradise, with added pandemonium, a place where pink is abundant - the shade first applied to impress Prince Albert on his 1876 Indian tour. Visitors flock here for the hue alone, yet delight in sites like the Jantar Mantar observatory and Hawa Mahal, built in 1798 to allow women of the royal household to watch daily life unfold from behind veiled windows in this bejewelled wedding cake of a structure.
Equally wonderful to photograph is Delwara ‘town of gods’, which boasts 1,000 temples, each dedicated to different Hindi and Jain deities, and walking through it you find a community preserved. Here cattle turn waterwheels, shepherds sing to their goats and women run the fields. Or there’s the Taj Mahal itself, built by Shah Jahan as the tomb for his favourite wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Approaching it, white marble glowing gold in the morning light, my guide soberly reminded me that when talking about Taj Mahal legend the truth should never get in the way of a nice story ... before rattling off a series of numbers. 3,000 elephants were used to transport the marble from quarries, carrying so much that the tomb could have been constructed 40 times over. All told, 20,000 people worked for 12 years constructing this architectural icon, which is adorned with calligraphy, lace-like marble and unfathomably intricate inlay work, shards of onyx, jade, jasper and coral so minute they’re impossible to see with the naked eye.
Both confronting and mesmeric, India is a country alive with contradictions and impossible to understand - it delights in revelling in its own complexities. But with a camera you’re forced, at least temporarily, to remain present, consider the scene and embrace chance, beauty, art and imperfection in all their photogenic glory.
Words by Liz Schaffer