This article was written for Terrascape, a travel magazine where I write a monthly column on photography.
One of my long standing wish was to photograph the mendicants in Varanasi. I have been to Varanasi many times in the past, but in all these years, I was apprehensive to approach the sadhus with a camera. I had heard about short-tempered nature of many and was unsure about reaching out to them. I did not wish to photograph people from a distance either. As much as possible, I prefer to make conversations, know about the people I am photographing and keep them comfortable during the shoot. During the last visit, I decided to put my uneasiness aside and make an effort to approach them.
Instead of trying to connect with any mendicant I bump into on the river-front, I planned to meet them at their own residences. Obviously, the first step to doing this was asking permissions. I wasn’t very hopeful with being let in, but decided to try out anyway. To my surprise, the Guruji of one of the largest and well-known river-facing residence of the mendicants gladly consented to our request. Even better, the resident mendicants were happy to oblige to the camera.
What also followed were several interesting conversations. Most of the mendicants here were affiliated to the Akhara where I was, but there were many who were also wandering hermits often going from place to place and living in any place where they found temporary shelter.
We were at the akhara a few days after Dev Diwali. Saraswati Maharaj, the guru of the Akhara, told us how they had lit-up the ghats in front of the akhara with large torches this year, and how they intend to go on increasing the number torches year after year.
The mendicants willingly stood in front of the camera and were happy to have their photographs taken. I was surprised at their friendliness and willingness to mix with complete strangers without any inhibitions. All my prejudices about them turned out to be just that – prejudices.
At the end of our session, we were even offered lunch at the Akhara. We couldn’t have asked for more. It was a day of learning for me to be free from assumptions, believe in goodness of everyone and be ready to make the first approach.