KUMBH MELA by Philip Volkers for Tirade Book #6
‘We all wear so many faces, but I love taking portraits just for the flash of a moment when all the masks come off.’
We have some very fond memories of Philip Volkers, who graced the bpages of issue three with his coverage of Burning Man, in Nevada’s Black Rock Desert. We were completely enticed by the way in which he captured such a monumental event in a way that left us feeling that we’d been there, smelled the fire and felt the ashes fall upon our sun kissed skin. Now we’re here talking with Volkers about his latest adventures, in particular, the Kumbh Mela and we learn a little more about the man that became our eyes during some of the world’s greatest events.
‘I can say with complete certainty that I have never taken a perfect photograph… But there is a feeling you get sometimes - a surge of adrenaline as you press the shutter down - that tends to mean you’ve captured something really special.’ Volkers reminisces on that special moment - ‘I had one of those moments at the Kumbh Mela.’ The Kumbh Mela is a mass Hindu pilgrimage of faith, which sees up to 100 million people bathe in a sacred river. What proves to be most striking about this event is the fact that it only occurs every third year and it is considered the most peaceful gathering in the world. It takes place in one of four places on rotation; Haridwar, Allahabad, Nashik and Ujjain. Volkers describes the moment in which he captured a shot against all odds. ‘It was very early morning and very cold. As it was still dark floodlights lighted the pontoons, and devotees were busy making their way to the river for their morning ablutions. From the pontoon you could see that there were already thousands of people in the water.’ It was at this point that Volkers realized he had no tripod, and found a metal post to balance his camera on to keep it still. ‘The crowd was pulling me in every direction; I didn’t have a chance to look through the viewfinder before being swept away by the throng. But I had a feeling that something good had come of it. Once I got back to camp I looked through my pictures and saw a shot of all the devotees in the water praying and washing, all bathed in an eerie yellow glow. Apart from the floodlights it looked as if it could’ve been taken 100 years ago.’
He admits that a lot of his photographs from this event are extremely different in style to several of his other works, taking on the technique of shooting from the hip in order to remain discrete and avoid being spotted in the crowds – ‘I became a lot more selective about the photographs that I took’. The event itself was incredibly hectic and one of the most dangerous environments Volkers has ever worked in. ‘The whole festival takes place in the riverbanks of the Ganges, so it’s incredibly dusty compounded by the fact that there is no infrastructure in place. India is not well known for its sanitation, need I say more.’ It was not the sanitation however that provided the biggest risk – ‘One real danger that constantly reminded me to be vigilant was the threat of being crushed in the crowd, you had to be very careful where you were standing and also make sure you didn’t loose your footing.’
Volkers notes that his main focus during the event was to fully immerse himself at the heart of it, and experience and understand why people came from all over India to pray in the Ganges. He had a number of questions that had not necessarily been captured or answered in many other artistic interpretations, and the goal was to capture something not only unique, but something very real.
‘I managed to sneak into the Juna Akhana the main camp for the Naga Sadhus the night before the main bathing day. It is forbidden for laypeople and Westerners to be in there so I had to hide for a lot of the night. I made friends with some of the Sadhus who allowed me to sit with them huddled around a fire, passing chillums and watching them apply their ash to their naked bodies in preparation for the big procession at sun rise.’
It is these very moments that first intrigued Volkers, he wanted to meet and document these individuals ‘who spend most of their lives in cemeteries covered in human ash.’ A great deal of his experience was not captured on camera however; as much of it is a feeling that would not always convey itself. ‘I had to lock into the experience and go through the process myself, worshipping in my own way and taking photographs as I went.’
When asked how he was able to capture what is considered to be the largest peaceful gathering amongst a mass of people, Volkers highlights the fact that actually the Kumbh Mela has not always been a peaceful event – ‘the British at the turn of the century tried to ban the event and there have been many fatalities from different sects fighting each other, the military have been employed to stop violence breaking out.’ He continues to explain that the Naga Sadhus (meaning Naked) ‘are fiercely independent and traditionally they would have fought in the military campaigns. When they come to the Kumbh Mela you can see them displaying their weaponry and combat manoeuvres, add a lot of hashish into the mix and you have an interesting result!’
The imagery from the event is thought evoking and captures just a small piece of what Volkers experienced on his travels. As he explains, a great deal of this journey was a spiritual one that could only predominantly be felt and lived, as opposed to being conveyed through photography.
‘I hope that I have been able to capture some of this madness in my photographs.’
Words by Pariss Sloan | All photographs © Philip Volkers