This post is written by Darshan Stevens who is a photographer from Victoria B.C., Canada who spent two weeks with DWP here in Mumbai. The photos above are just some of the wonderful shots she took of Nisha and Deepak’s wedding and today I printed and put together a photo album and presented it to Nisha’s family.
Trivia question: What is appropriate dress for a wedding photographer from Vancouver Island, when shooting a traditional Indian wedding in the slums of Bombay? It’s steaming hot outside, I need to be able to move around and climb on top of things (ix-nay the dress idea), conservative is a must, (as in no shoulder or leg exposure, no necklines even moderately plunging), and I need to look nice — “Nice,” one may be surprised to learn, is a formidable charge here in India, even coming from the poorest of the poor. My much-to-be desired wardrobe – a.k.a, the wrinkled contents of a smallish travel backpack — spread in front of me, I realize it is impossible for me to dress properly in a culture where women wear elaborate silk sari’s to carry bowls of garbage around work sites. I sigh, shake my head and pick out the same thing I wear everyday: brown pants, open-toed sandals (tsk, tsk), and a white shirt.
Ten days prior to the slum wedding, I step off a plane in the humid Bombay airport. It’s night in the largest city in India — dark, loud, chaotic and frightening. I search for Kane hopefully as I exit the gates, and feel an unusual wave of relief when I spot his blond hair in the thicket of brown bodies. After haggling for a few minutes in broken hindi, Kane ushers me into a taxi and promptly issues his first request, “I’m putting you to work right away, we’re going straight to the slum so you can take photos of a cricket match that Dirty Wall is sponsoring.” As he speaks, my 20-kilo plus backpack is engaged in knocking me in the back of the skull; we’re in a three-wheeled go-cart that Mumbaikers called “Riks”, and as we move through the interlocking network of alleys, back-ways and byways that comprise the largest, craziest city I have encountered in a lifetime of globe trotting, I feel as though the heavy bag is trying to remind me of it’s contents: laptop, extra lenses, external hard drives, back-up camera body. Heading into a slum in Bombay, in the middle of the night, with all of my professional gear, I consider the situation as I looked at Kane dubiously. Here is a guy I met once before, in a quaint Cook-Street village coffee shop, where drinking a hot apple cider, he explained to me the mechanics of how his non-profit worked. In the Western Hemisphere, on a cozy October morning, it seemed so lovely and non-threatening, “ahhhhh, the humanitarian spirit,” I thought to myself,picturing cute children attending school in the afternoon sunlight. In the back of the Rik, with the driver swinging through the streets like a trapeze artist, I wonder what the hell I am doing on my way to one of the poorest area’s of a very poor country in the middle of the night, with close to ten thousand dollars worth of photography equipment. And then it hits me, and I remember yet again, “I’m in India, and I’m helpless in the arms of this crazy motherland: if I resist I will be swallowed, considerably well-chewed and spit our like the red paan juice grinding through the teeth of our rickshaw driver. If I surrender I might just learn the true meaning of Darshan (my given birth name), and receive the divine blessing of a country, so often and so aptly titled the land of the heart.
“Okay,” I say, “sounds like fun.”
An hour later we hop out of the cab, and drop into a very dark and dingy street. A stranger walks up, someone Kane insists he knows, but he just can’t quite remember his name. This stranger promptly hefts my oversized backpack onto his shoulders and takes off around the corner. “Don’t worry,” says Kane, “People in the slum are trustworthy, I used to give my backpack, full of camera equipment to a kid that lives here and he would always look after it no problem.” he paused and added, “I only found out later that he was actually a thief, and his profession was to hold-up people at knifepoint in the middle of the night.” I wonder if this is how Kane reassures all his new visitors to the slum, and I take off at a quick trot after the nameless man who has my livelihood hoisted on his quickly disappearing back.
By the time of the wedding, a week and a half after my auspicious arrival in Bombay, I feel as much confidence and trust in the members of the Sakinaka slum community as Kane. I walk into the slum and 20 children run to greet me. Echo’s of “hello teacher, hello teacher, hello teacher,” sound up and down the narrow walkway between slum huts. Ever since I sat in on a kindergarten class, I have been dubbed with the title of “teacher,” and considering myself to be substantially not teacher-type stock, the title makes me chuckle as I ask the children “Nisha?”
They tug me by the hand through rows and rows of tarped shacks and I eventually arrive at a small hut with a faded blue door and a makeshift curtain covering a small barred window. The children point, insisting “Nisha, Nisha.” Still encumbered with my Canadian cultural politeness, I knock lightly, I haven’t entirely gotten the grasp of how private and public life are one and the same here in India. The door opens a crack and my eyes adjust to the dark of the tiny space. I’m not entirely sure a room this tiny exists in North America, and a full-on bridal preparation, respite with Mom, sisters, friends, friends children, and all the bindi’s and bangle’s that make an Indian bride, is currently subsisting within these miniature confines. Thick in the procedure of dressing and decoration, Nisha is looking, quite possibly, more beautiful than any woman I have yet to witness on her day of matrimony.
I take photos of the bride preparing, I take photos of the groom’s arrival, I take photos of the ceremony, the dancing, the dinner, the decor etc. And although the time-line of events of this slum wedding seem much the same as the wedding’s I shoot back home, some substantial differences are evident. Commonly, when shooting a North American wedding, I would arrive at the hairdresser’s, where the bride would spend a couple hundred dollars on hair and makeup. I would then follow the bride and bridesmaids back to her (potentially five hundred dollars or more per night) resort, and take photos of her getting into a thousand dollar gown. After which I would follow them to the ceremony site, often rented for upwards of three of four thousand per day, take photos of the ceremony, the tapas, the dinner, the cocktail party, the reception and so on and so forth. Now my services as a photographer just so happen to tally up to another fair-sized expense on the tab of people planning their weddings, and I’m not slagging the industry. But the relative expense of a North American wedding (or upper-class Indian wedding for that matter) is astronomical compared to the wedding taking place in the slum, and the essence, what all couples hope and dream for on their wedding day — celebration,community, family, ceremony and union — was abundant for Nisha and Deepak. And the photos turned out well, — especially when considering the environmental context for the images didn’t cost upwards of twenty and thirty thousand dollars.
I didn’t do much while I was in the slum. I shot the wedding, I helped children write numbers and letters at school. I played guitar, and showed a couple of kids how to use my camera. I took Rickshaw’s to hospital’s with Kane, and chatted with friendly nurses as he paid medical bills for sick kids. I met many children in perfectly pressed uniforms, kids that Dirty Wall sponsored for their education. I watched women proudly display their hindi writing in adult literacy classes at the school. I shoveled garbage into an orange bucket with the aid of an eight-year old boy named Aman. I tried to connect a cricket bat with a cricket ball, and failed miserably, much to the chagrin of some helpful teenage boys. I allowed myself to be invited into many homes, I ate with many families, and I happily obliged when a local indian Mama wanted to dress me up in a sari. And I listened to Kane and tried to understand his hopes and dreams for the people of this multi-layered, complex and beautiful community. I visited other slums in the great city of Bombay, I witnessed thousands of children wading through garbage and human shit, looking for a top that had spun out of their hands or a rubber tire they were spinning with a stick. In the area of the Sakinaka pipeline slum that Dirty Wall is operating from, the children play in a street that has no garbage, in a park covered by tree’s, with benches, and a diamond to play cricket. In the morning you can hear the kids from the kindergarten doing their daily call-and-response english exercises from a quarter-mile down the slum. Many of the older children in this area go to good schools because Dirty Wall sponsors their education, it sponsors them going to a decent hospital if they get sick. I’m not entirely sure if, or how, I aided Dirty Wall Project. But Kane and the inhabitants of the Sakinaka Pipeline slum divided and reassembled the puzzle-piece paradigm of what is important in my life.
I went to the Dirty Wall Project fundraisers in Victoria, I read Kane’s blog, I looked at his photos and I liked it, I believed in it. I was inspired — but I didn’t get it. I didn’t get it until I was in the slum. Until the children looked up at me and smiled. Until I saw the way Kane is loved by the people, and how he is loved by the children — as soon as he takes one foot out of the Rik, and three steps into the slum, he is draped from head to toe in smothering small bodies, so many bodies he can barely walk. This slum has taught me the definition of a word I always found ambiguous and without context, a word that North America, and many wealthy cultures seem to have exorcised to the recesses of anthropology textbooks and sci-fi utopias. The word community. For the first time, the true meaning of this word settles into me and finds a home. And when I see Kane smile, as I watch him light up as the kids make a run for him, I get it. I get why he’s here, and I get why he sticks it out through all the frustrations, the hopeless, the coercion and the chaos that are all a part of India. Not an easy part. but worth it, well worth it, when those kids come running.
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