Monday, June 30, 2008

Notes from the filmmaker...

Misty mountains, winding ghat roads, lush coffee plantations and slender silver oak whispering in the breeze welcomed us to Araku Valley. The sheer breathtaking beauty almost made us forget why we were here - to document on video a photography workshop for a dozen tribal men and women from the Araku region. To provide them with the opportunity to handle a digital camera for the first time in their lives. To enable them to capture the magic and mystique of their environment. To enable us to see their world through their eyes. A mutually beneficial exercise.

The venue for the workshop was a charming convent where the Nirmala sisters also allowed us to house the participants. The serenity of the convent provided the ideal environment for learning and facilitated a flow of creativity. Surrounded by lush orchards and colorful flower beds, our workshop participants blossomed.

As with our other locations, here too we had a tough time keeping up with a group of enthusiastic photographers-to-be. There was cute little Dombai who walked barefoot blithely along the railway tracks because her sandal strap had snapped, without batting an eyelid; and Somesh with his Naandi hat tilted rakishly on his head, looking for all the world like a miniature version of Clint Eastwood; and Rambabu in flowing saffron flapping out the side of a jeep. And all the others, specially the women in such vibrant colors that they looked like birds of paradise, as they looked at their own lives with new eyes.

For us, it was a revelation. So many pairs of untutored eyes captured their environment in such innovative ways. We hounded them with our video camera, trying to capture what they captured. But moving images do not freeze just that one moment in time as a still camera does. So we shall have to use freeze frames to match exactly that effect!

Our first outdoor location was the charming tribal village of Gondivalsa – Dombai’s home. The little red-tiled huts nestled on a slope surrounded by coffee plantations. Our workshop participants sped up and down the slopes frantically clicking away with wonder at all the sights that they’ve taken for granted all their lives. Nothing was spared. From the little kindergarten school to the vegetable patches; from the quaint little dwellings to the cattle coming home from pasture; from religious rituals to banish the evil eye to paddy being planted; from the tilling of land to the exhilarating Dhimsa dance in which most of the villagers participated. Most of this was achieved under gloomy overcast skies, or by dodging raindrops, often under the nearest thatched or tiled roof – on one occasion I even found myself sharing my shelter with a stray dog, a piglet and a fat brown hen and her seven chicks.

The shoot at the village could only be upstaged by the train ride from Tyada to Araku. Our budding photographers were totally overwhelmed by the experience. As the bright blue train sped up the slope, chugging through innumerable tunnels (there are 32 tunnels en route!) they shot up hill and down dale; they shot the other passengers, vendors, each other, the dark tunnels and even a traumatized chicken hiding under a seat! It was an exhilarating experience for them, and a stressful one for us as we tried to squeeze in our camera and tripod into the crowded compartment, tried to prevent all and sundry from crossing our frame at random and keep our balance to get some steady shots. But the breathtaking view and unique experience made up for it all.

Our participants entered the fray again the next day at a nearby weekly wholesale bazaar (haat). They shot jackfruit from every conceivable angle, very ripe jackfruit which our otherwise tolerant videographer Srinivas abhors, hence most of the video coverage was in long shots! Baskets of half ripe tomatoes suddenly assumed an intriguing quality as they were shot in tight close-ups; neatly packaged towering piles of leaves (to be made into disposable plates) were lined up to be captured digitally; the multiple hues of an array of vegetables; colorful trinkets; snacks and sweetmeats; and so much more. We even accompanied an enthusiastic group way up to the top of a mountain where they derived a great deal of pleasure from shooting a bunch of little kids perched high up on a jackfruit tree.

Dogged by persistent overcast skies and intermittent rain, we were never sure if we would maintain our schedules. Every dry hour was a bonus and the sun’s flirtatious glances from behind the clouds elicited cries of gratitude and random clicking of camera’s to make up for lost time! One such event was a shoot at a granite quarry, where the craggy, forbidding rock face often became one with the dark clouds.
Other locations included a waterfall way up on top of a mountain. Our participants scampered uphill like a herd of mountain goats, while we ‘city slickers’ huffed and puffed our way up. On the way down, we were caught in a thunder shower and reached our next destination – the Borra Caves – looking like a bunch of drowned rats. But the awesome caves made us forget our discomfort and we were all dry by the time we left (reluctantly).

Another visit to a weekly bazaar (different one) was even more exciting…it was bigger, louder and smellier – courtesy the innumerable stalls selling different varities of dried fish. Fortunately, photography is a purely visual medium. The images remain, the odour doesn’t.

Last but not least, mention must be made of Naandi’s Program Officer, Prakash, who co-ordinated our activities, cajoled all the right people and charmed his way through all the obstacles we faced. An entertainer to the core, he neither offers nor accepts the word ‘No’ – always with a smile on his face. Nothing is impossible as far as he’s concerned. Thank you, Prakash, you made it so easy for us.

Having blazed a trail through Araku, FoE now moves on to Nagaland. The journey continues…

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

We did it!

The prayer worked. No rains:)
The station master at Tyada too did his generous bit. He refused to give the train it's go signal till he saw that the tripods, camerabags and all of us boarded the train. He even waved us on from the bright blue station office.

Once in, our participants created a riot of excitement. At first the passengers looked at them in the FoE stetsonish hats with more than a little curiosity. Then, Dombai, a participant (a young girl from the Gond tribe) decided that she'd like to use my camera - a nikon D 40 and proceeded to hang it round her neck and rushed up a little girl who was looking shell shocked on her dad's lap because the train was thundering into a tunnel.

And like a true photographer - not only did she get a fab close up, she also proceeded to show the wary dad the picture on the display monitor - that broke the ice and like a forest fire his 1000 watt smile spread to the rest of the compartment and all our participants were inundated with requests of 'take my picture, take a family pic'. They were getting a hang of what it means to be on the other side.

There is a lot photo training is teaching us, the need to build brides, to talk, to engage with the people. It makes tasks so much easier, pleasanter, and sometimes gives us insights that we would otherwise never have had. An example - there was this old woman sitting in the corner. She watched us intently for some time and returned our smiles and then shyly indicated we look under her seat. The hen roosting there definitely made a picture for Pratap, and probably his day.

Elsewhere in the compartment there was the inevitable hanging out of the door and taking pictures of the train, its wheels, its passengers from all kinds of angles. The participants were making good on Rajendra Shaw's advice - "don't feel you have to stand only at a distance to take pictures - get bold, get closer to the subject'. They did. And horrified us no end :)

Sunday, June 22, 2008

F.O.E halts at Araku

It's drizzling in Araku - seeing it come down across the hills - is what hundreds of tourists are paying good money for. But for the Freedom of Expression team, it's time to get into a hurry and quickly discuss a PLAN B.

PLAN A was to drive down the hilly Ghat roads to a tiny railway station called Tyada, get everyone into the train - the famous Kirandole passenger, which starts from Visakhapatnam and goes right up to Jagdalpur village in Chhattisgarh - and leave the team free to take pictures of the train looping picturesque hills or even capture 'a must experience' hustled inside the train compartment.

There are several who'll heave a sigh of logistical relief if we are rained out. Afterall, what are the odds of getting 24 people (13 participants, 7 trainers, 4 filmmakers) into a general compartment of a train that stops for 30 seconds, picks up about 1,000 passengers - vendors, bags, baskets, jackfruits and hens - and then ensuring they get enough goodwill, smiles and elbow space to get on with their photographs?

Will the raingods and the kind people of Araku smile for us? We are putting our prayers into a wooden prayer scaffold. We were introduced to one on our way to the village of Gondivalsa. It's what the members of the Gond tribe believe to get rid of bad luck.

If the rain holds, we'll carry it into Nagaland, our next F.O.E destination, where we hear, it's raining as if the dams have burst.

Until then stay tuned.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

Photo feeds...

Morning: Yawn. Brush. Sweep. Wash - utensils, self, clothes. Tea. Cook. Eat.
Afternoon: Fill water. Walk. Fields. Tractor. Buffaloes. Seeds. Fertilizers. Manure. Plants. Crops.
Evening: Walk. Home. Sweep. Wash - self, utensils, clothes. Tea. Cook. Make bed.

Such was the routine for the 45-year-old Surinder Kaur, resident of Khot Bhai village, Gidderbaha Tehsil. Home. Children. Work...were the only elements for Kaur, who got married at a ripe age of 17 but unfortunately became a widow at 25. Racing against time and hope, it was a challenge to raise her children all by herself. Though they all are married and settled now, life is still very much the same for Surinder. Home. Fields. Work.

But, it was the Freedom of Expression project that brought back her yesteryears of fun and frolic. "Often, I felt I was getting old. I forgot how one can be cheerful. But its when I held the camera, i felt as though i was a 20-something bloke with full of life. F.O.E. redefined how one can be happy despite all the pressures and challenges one has to face. I will carry forward this spirit for the rest of my life."

Monday, June 16, 2008

Guiding light...

Photographer: Sukhdeep Singh
Location: Kot Bhai village, Gidderbaha Tehsil
Date: 11 June 2008

Bhangra, lassi, rotis, rasgoollas, men with colourful turbans, women in resplendent patialas...all conjure up images of Punjab. But what's also ubiquituous in this northern state is the tractor driven by men. Sukhdeep captured this defining picture that speaks volumes about the life and culture in villages.

Friday, June 13, 2008


Clickocracy defined:

Origin: Blogger-composed adjective to go with photography jargon. *geeee*

Time of origin: 4.52 pm IST

Place of origin: Bathinda, Punjab

Root of origin: Take a look at the photographer Shaw and his boys in the picture below, and you'll figure it out. Here you go.........
















Photographer: Charitha Reddy

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Balle balle Bathinda

I used to think Bathinda (yes, not Bhatinda!) was the name of a place thought up by Bollywood scriptwriters (Jab We Met). Then I heard it really existed and that we would be staying there for the photography workshop to be conducted for a dozen villagers living in and around Gidderbaha, a small town about an hours drive from Bathinda. One expected a group of rustics, simple and untouched by urban India.

The day of the workshop dawned. In walked a group of cheerful, smartly dressed individuals, ranging in age from about 16 to 45. The 45-year-old is a tall, energetic widow whose children live away, and she was all gung ho about learning something new, involving technology that was totally alien to her. A tough act to follow.

The others in the group were high school students, college goers and fresh graduates. One young man was into mobile repairs. So much for the rustic villager. This is the face of the new Punjab.

Till now we’d thought it was difficult to to keep up with the children in Hyderabad and Sheopur. But they weren’t a patch on the group from Gidderbaha. How can a tall strapping Sikh boy in a bright yellow turban vanish in the blink of an eye in the middle of a market place (that too, when it’s not crowded)? And as for that boy in a black T-shirt and Naandi hat who stood next to a mannequin in front of a store and became one with the background!

And dare we forget the vivacious ladies of the group? The vibrant colors of their flowing dupattas, kameezes and voluminous patiala salwars fluttered wildly in the breeze like all the flags of the United Nations, making them stand out against the stark white of the beautiful Gurdwara Shaheed Ganj Sahib at Muktsar, and yet made them blend in smoothly with all the other women who came to worship there. We didn’t relish the thought of shadowing a group of women with our very conspicuous video camera only to discover they were the wrong ones!

Being older and more mature than our previous participants, they were more used to taking their own decisions. Hence, they decided what they wanted to shoot. Even if it meant dragging a little beggar off the street and making him pose on the steps leading up to the hotel entrance! All this while we were trying to shoot them through the glass doors of the hotel. And then there were a couple of enthusiastic young men who snuck off to the fort (for which we didn’t have permission to shoot!) while we were in the market, and quietly took some very dramatic shots that were revealed the next day, much to our surprise.

Our visits to their homes were full of warmth and hospitality, coupled with frantic maneuvering on the part of our videographer Srinivas to make the most of natural light while coping with the jostling crowd of assorted family members, friends and neighbors. They also went out of their way to provide us with the much-loved images of lassi being made manually in a matka – these days, the electric mixer prevails you see!

And of course, a charki for spinning yarn which had everyone tied up in knots. Fortunately for everyone, a visit to a spinning mill the following day explained the plethora of colorful fabric available in Punjab today. Which kept us on our toes, trying to keep track of the participants darting between the colorful bobbins and barrels getting some very dramatic perspective shots while we battled with the fluorescent lighting!

Much fun was had by all, as we left picking lint out of our hair and clothes!

Then there was the very festive evening when a Bhangra performance was organized, followed by the Lohri. Colorful costumes, the setting sun and a high spirited crowd kept us on the hop. Till the power went on the blink and we were left with a cheerful, albeit inadequate bonfire for video shooting. Frustrating. But good fun till then.

Barely recovered from the Bhangra evening, we had to wake up at 4.30 this morning to drive off to the Damdama Sahib Gurdwara, one of the most revered places of worship for Sikhs everywhere. Though we couldn’t shoot inside, the exteriors provided enough inspiration for our workshop participants. And it was admittedly easier to keep track of them in the wide open spaces!

And so, the ‘action’ continues. But this too shall end. For now. And we shall move on to Araku Valley, with fond memories of Punjab. It’s been ‘Balle Balle’ all the way!

We are at a loss for words.....

If a picture is worth thousand words, we have reams to write about!!! But when we looked at the photographs shot by children in Sheopur, we were at a loss for words. Literally. We were so overwhelmed by the professionalism with which the participants took pictures. It's rather unbelievable that these are children who saw, touched and used the camera for the first time in their lives!

So instead of scouting for right words, we bring you some breathtaking pictures (in the slideshow ) that can blow you away. Take a look and gain free membership to join the just-formed AT A LOSS FOR WORDS club. *Siiigh*

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Chak de patte!!!!! F.O.E rocks Punjab

Whhhheeeeeeee!!!!! F.O.E reached Bhatinda! Yup. After an exhilarating 6-day stint in Sheopur, Madhya Pradesh, Freedom of Expression is now testing waters in the land of five rivers -- Punjab *gee*

We reckon testing waters, becoz, it's the first location for the F.O.E team to rub shoulders with men and women from the community. We presume, [comparatively that is] it must have been a cakewalk for master photographer Shaw and his team to groom children in photography. It's a given that different strategies exist to teach children and grown-ups irrespective of what needs to be taught. But what do you do, when you have a combination of both children and grown-ups seeking to learn the same subject at the same time?

[Uggghhhh...complex right?]

Well, Shaw and his team have saved us from racking our brains to come up with a solution. For, they are already on Ground Zero and enjoying every minute of teaching a vibrant team of 3 children and 9 men and women. [And of course savouring lassi, makki-ka-roti, and sarson-ka-saag :-D:-D].

So, stay tuned for updates on F.O.E's Punjab sojourn.

Monday, June 9, 2008

"I realised it was time to pack my bags and move on...."

If you ask me as a trainer which session was the most exciting for the children at the Sheopur photography workshop, and expect me to say ‘shooting’ that would be incorrect.
While shooting did generate high excitement because of the rides, new places and the freedom to use the camera, it was the review of their photos that the children most eagerly looked forward to.
Every shoot was followed by a review: what worked, what didn’t and why. And despite being tired after the outing in the scorching sun, children were the first to assemble in the hall awaiting results of their efforts.
Enlarged photos were shown to them and the photographer will share what made him or her click that image, what worked out and what didn’t. Then the rest of the children will share their comments. Unlike adults children need no coaxing to comment on each others photos. They were forthright. And as the images were projected on to a screen one after the other, children's comments just followed:

She has cut off the top of the fort. She could have turned the camera to the vertical position to include it.’

The house is small. He should have gone closer, it would then be a better photo’

The people are too stiff, they could have been more at ease’

I like the reflection of the tree in the water, I too would like to try it’

And when an image appeared on the screen which almost everybody felt was a perfect picture and clapped for it, Prithiviraj Meena, Std IV, GPS Bijarpur, Sheopur, stood up and drew our attention to a subtler aspect:

Bahoot achcha hai lekin thoda soonsan hai’ [A perfect picture but looks a bit deserted]

I realised it was time for me to pack my bags and move on to the next workshop at Bhatinda, Punjab.

Author: Rajendra Shaw, a freelance photographer is training children, men and women through Naandi's Freedom of Expression project.

Saturday, June 7, 2008


Photographer: Ankita Chowhan, Class: Std IV, Government Primary School, Sheopur
Date: June 3rd, 2008, Location: Chambal River

"There's something very different about this picture. Something that's invisible to the common eye. Look closely, focus and then you can feel the movement of the objects plying on the bridge and objects living in the water. Buses, motorcycles, autorickshaws, fishes in the river they are all there.......Yes. They are there where they ideally should be.
Okay, before you start fretting why you can't see them, let me tell you that they are all invisible because....
it's becoz....
....mmmm.................I actually never shot them!!! *geeeee* I just wanted the bridge in isolation. And there it is, in its solitary splendour posing just for me."

Overheard by the blog writer during luncheon conversation between Ankita and her group.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Happy World Enivronment Day....

Photographer: Nisha Jangid, Class: Std V, Government Primary School, Sheopur
Date: June 2nd, 2008 Location: Doob Kund, 60 kms away from Sheopur city

Take a two minutes to look at the picture. Exactly two minutes. 120-119-118-117-116....
5-4-3-2-1-0. Okay stop now. And don't worry. We ain't inviting your thoughts this time :-((( sorry folks!!
What we want to share with you is how the thought-process of young children is shaping up when they are given a tool and a skill to express ideas.

Read the conversation between Manisha, one of the participants and Nisha who shot the picture at Doob Kund and you will figure out what we are talking about.

Nisha: "Wow! This place is picturesque. I'll go for a wide angle shot."
Manisha: "I bet you should stand right there. And don't zoom in. Just take a long shot."
Nisha [looks through the viewfinder]: "Oh! There's no headspace. Not all pillars are in the frame. I'll step back."
Takes few steps back .... but something catches her attention and she instantly changes her subject of focus.

Manisha: "What are you shooting? That looks like a broken piece of a wall or may be a pillar. Yeah. That's what it is."

Unperturbed, Nisha is busy arranging her frame (both camera's and her mind)

Manisha: "What on earth are you shooting????!!!!"
Nisha's camera answered: Click-Click-Click.
Manisha: "????!!! Whhhhaaatttt?"
Nisha's camera again: More clicks. Vertical. Horizontal. And some more clicks.
Manisha: "???????????????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!??????????Eeeehhhh!!!"

A little later, Nisha turned to explain: "Don't you think it's a wonderful design? It'll make for a good picture. And guess what? I have a great idea."
Manisha, who's furious: "To replicate the design on your clothes?"
Nisha: "No."
Manisha: "Get an imprint on your hand then???? Ridiculous."
Nisha: "Heck no!!"
Manisha: "Then whhhaaaat is it?"
Nisha: "It can make for a beautiful manhole cover."
Manisha: "????? Of all the things, a manhole cover? Are you crazy?????"
Nisha: "You are dumb. Just think of it. What we don't have right now are lids covering manholes. And that's why all the filth and garbage flows on to the roads and into the streets. When you have a nice design engraved on the lid, people might as well start using it. It'll control overflowing sewage."

Some noble thought, this!!!

Our blogger intelligence bureau reports:
Every manhole cover in Japan is engraved with designs that each town and city is famous for. For instance, Osaka, which is a port city, has lids with Osaka castle or designs depicting a boat and the like engraved on manhole covers. It's a common sight in Japan and perhaps this is one of the reasons why the country has clean and neat roads.
Manhole cover in Japan. Source: Sewage Works Association, Tokyo

Our verdict: Nisha, hailing from a remote village in Sheopur district, is blissfully unaware of this fact. But we are glad that Freedom of Expression as an initiative is surely firing up imagination of participants and is equipping them with a skill to make the world a better place to live.

And that's the way to go....

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

From the filmmaker....

What happens when you bring together over a dozen children from underprivileged homes, a team of photographers and a video crew? An explosion of color, chaos and creativity :-D
Children - urban and rural - who had never had the opportunity to even touch a digital camera, were suddenly let loose to capture the world as they see it in digital images.

Government schoolchildren in Hyderabad and Sheopur ranging in age between 8 and 13, guided by the team of photographers, were suddenly transported to another world. One where with a mere click of a camera they were given the freedom to express their interpretation of the world around them. Their imagination took flight, their sphere of knowledge suddenly included terms such as framing, color and composition, and like a group of whirling dervishes they took off. And we had to keep up with them while documenting their experiences on video.

How do you frame a child on video who’s chasing a butterfly digitally? How do you focus on a child in moving images who’s already clicked and vanished? Try panning the camera on a child who’s clicking stills on the fly – in the opposite direction! Try zooming in on a child who’s suddenly noticed a pigeon in the rafters of a church, leaving you with a big closeup of the back of a head.

These are the children that our video crew has chased through the narrow lanes around the Charminar, the imposing staircases at the Indian School of Business, the exquisite architecture of the Chowmahalla Palace, the colorful stalls at Shilparamam – all in Hyderabad. We then followed that up by trying to keep up with feet on virtual castors as they raced through the Sheopur Fort, darted through the melee of a rural mela, froze their impressions of home and family in a moment in time and clicked away with reverence in a Shiva temple.

Result? Closeups of eyes sparkling with wonder, faces radiant with excitement, and a bunch of NG takes with speed lines to show that there once was a subject in the frame!

Undeterred, our video crew continues to chase these budding photographers who click with increasing confidence, producing images that would put a lot of aspiring adult photographers to shame. Uninhibited and unbiased, they continue to manifest their perceptions of the world in strong digital images. Motivating us to try and keep up, in order to capture that one ‘Eureka!’ moment that makes it all worthwhile.
We hope to provide further updates after resting our tired feet and recharging our batteries. And of course, another tape change.

Author: Mita Bose, a Filmmaker, who's shooting a 15-minute film on Freedom of Expression for Naandi.

Tuesday, June 3, 2008

Hide and seek....

Date: 2nd June, 2008
Place: Sheopur Fort, 3kms away from Sheopur city.

We all had descended on to the desolated Fort early in the morning with re-charged batteries and cameras ready. And yes! With turbo-charged spirits in tow :-D

Silently, we all settled down whereever we can. Few of us on trees, others on dilapidated structures and few others on the ground. With cameras in ready-mode we waited with bated breath for the subjects to come and pictures and stories we could share.

In the meantime, we shot the ruins of the fort. Later we quickly adjusted the focus of our cameras and waited patiently for some more time.

The excitement changed to hope and lasted for 15 minutes until somebody from behind blurted out: Ohhh yaaaaaarr! We forgot to tell the monkeys to be here today!!!! :-(((((

[Thoughts of Punam Sharma, Std V, Government Primary School, Lachoda, Sheopur block as told to the blog writer]

Monday, June 2, 2008

Can I Have Some More?

'I want to take more photos.'

'I want to go to more places'.

'Can I spend more time here?'

'Show me more photos.'

In other words, can-I-have-some-more is what every child is asking for at the photo training workshop being run by Naandi Foundation at Sheopur in Madhya Pradesh.

Sheopur is a small remote town surrounded by miles and miles of forests with scattered tribal hamlets in them.

It is the height of summer and the markets here are overflowing with mangoes. You just can't ignore them. The smell of ripe mangoes is heady.

Sheopur however is better known for a run-down but charming fort on the banks of the Chambal river.

Rajendra Shaw is training children how to take pictures.
And he is also learning that they have an amazing point of view on everything

Presently it is abuzz with two events: an annual fair and our photo workshop. The fair lights up the night sky and has the usual attractions: the giant wheel, the merry-go round, the candy floss, the chaats and the iced mango pulp.

The photo workshop, however, is a bit unusual for Sheopur. School children from government schools from surrounding villages have invaded its population. Wearing sun hats, holding water bottles and with a compact camera sling on their wrists the children are shooting everything in sight and wanting more. They are everywhere: the fort, the fair, the streets, the markets and the nearby villages. They are clicking away: photos of their schools, their homes, their streets and any thing that interests them. Nothing escapes their lens: the heaps of mangoes, the cracks on the fort walls, the giant wheel against the faint blue sky, the cow squatting on the street, the colourful motifs on the walls of their village homes, the goats and the pots and pans. They just want more of everything.

Watch this space for more.