#Pilgrimageofanimage is an artistic participation in the Maharashtrian Palkhi (Palanquin) procession of the Varkari (pilgrim) tradition. The self-portraits exhibited are a result of a public art project conducted in Pune and on Instagram on 3rd July 2013.  The performance was an attempt to introduce this rural community to the procedure of capturing and sharing Selfies. It was an attempt to cross a cultural divide between the modernized world and the rural Maharastrians - who have not yet engaged in the instantaneous consumption of self-imagery using the smartphone. It is also a documentation of the way the pilgrims have captured their own reflection in this cultural phenomenon of a Selfie using front facing camera. Although unfamiliar with the device, the pilgrims are certainly well versed with dialogical engagement of the reflection of Self in society owing to their participation in the poetic Bhakti Movement. 

Here, I share with you a detailed intimate record of the process of manifesting this thought and expression with the first part of the project "Mauliche Paula" - Footsteps of Pilgrim(Mother) . A project that started with this image below, lost and found through many years following its own journey.

“Namdeo Tukaram” “Namdeo Tukaram”. The chant is consistent, accompanied by devotional songs venerating the two saints who worshipped Pandurang.  They walk in the rain, over highways and rough paths alike, through crowded cities, and lonely villages. Wealthy and poor, shod and unshod, male and female, women and children, all walk shoulder to shoulder, negating their differences as they are all united by their devotion and faith. They address everybody alike as “Mauli” which means God, as they believe that the divine is present in us all.

The chanting and singing comes from thousands of pilgrims who annually make a pilgrimage with the “Palkhi” (Palanquin) bearing idols and padukas of Saint Dyaneshwar and Pandurang from Alandi to Pandharpur. Dyaneshwar in the 13th century is said to have spread an understanding of the Gita by preaching it and illuminating the average person’s life by its guidelines. He initiated the 250 kilometer/156 mile walking pilgrimage between Alandi and Pandharpur. This route is said to be a walk of enlightenment.  Dyaneshwar a child of ostracized bhraman parents became a Sant - Saint when took Samadhi at the age of 21.

Every year, this pilgrimage, begins in June, during the onset of the monsoons in Maharashtra, India. The devotees, typically farmers, leave their villages after sowing theirs crops. They leave their seeds to germinate as per the will of nature while they pray to Pandurang. As they gather at the starting point, the congregation at Alandi swells to tens of thousands of people and they proceed with the Palkhi to its due resting place in Pandharpur, with only devotion in mind. 

This journey takes them 15 to 20 days and nights. The devotees camp for part of the night and gather under minimal cover around bonfires and keep on singing their bhajans that are stories about the saints or Pandurang himself. They are in a state of bliss throughout the journey despite the tropical monsoon beating down on them or the sun blazing on their wandering bodies. Without a thought to the fragile seed germinating in their fields at home, or the financial hardships that they face during the rest of the year, their joy is fulfilled by accompanying the Palkhi.  Pune happens to be in this route.

During this very time, 6 years ago, I was on top of Saswad Ghat, and I met a mauli whose spirit I captured in a pixel and his power arrested and inspired my soul. On taking this image shown below, I promised him a copy, and in the unfortunate juggle of life, Indian- USA, USA-India, and back and forth for so many years, that little piece of paper bearing his address was sadly lost. Also, many hard drives crashed, erasing all reminence of him. Untill one day, Janhavi my sister, produced a digital copy she had saved on her hard drive back in the day. Thank God.  

Today, I stand by a promise made many years ago, postponed but definitely not forgotten. And the resurfacing of this image has resurrected my vigour to reach out and make the gesture.

Today the Palki has arrived in Pune. And today has been a very special day for me, because finally, something that has tugged at my heart and soul so deeply, for so mant years, is finally being realised. Today, with the help of Babubhai the billboard guy, his assistant, the very talented Pintu, the ultra dedicated Kisan, and with a little transportation help from Meghraj. We erected a 10 foot call to this man in the image. I dont know his name or his place in the procession. All I know is that he is one of the 150,000th person in the Palki procession, if he is still around in this world or on this side of the world? 

This poster stands on the corner of Sholapur road in front of Kroma mall, where the procession will proceed on the 15th, where hopefully he sees it and we have a magical encounter. 

Tomorrow, I head to this mountain, to drop a 20 foot tall poster over its facade in Saswad, where I initially photographed him for that hopeful second chance, incase Sholapur road does not work out.

The message on the board says: Shraddhayukt Ani Prembhave Warichya Nimitane Shubha Kamana:  On the Occasion of Wari (Palkhi Procession) My Best Wishes Filled With Love and Devotion. 

We arrived a Saswad Ghat at 4pm yesterday. The day was really hot, and the sun was bearing down on  us all afternoon. No sooner that we were on top of this hill, with all our belongings, the poster an all, a large dark cloud loomed over area and came down with tropical thunder. We took refuge under the poster and waited, taking it as an auspicious beginning to a mammoth task. 

Due to the rain just passing us by, the strong winds were viscous and the task was precarious. Installing a 20 foot poster, of an unknown man....I wondered what was the real reason why I was doing it. Why spend an entire day going through the trouble, why not spend that time hanging with friends, watching a movie, reading a book or indulging in such activities that will not result in my being alone in a crowd?

The thing is that Palkhi festival holds a lot of importance in my life, because ever since I remember, Palkhi was always an exciting event. The bulls would be decorated with vegetable dyes, and make up, and beautiful ornaments as they would carry the idol on the bullock cart from Kadki to Sholapur. A beautiful engagement that no longer exists in our lives now, because we have been urbanized.

Also, every year, an old couple used to come and stay over at the farm, as they were strong followers of this tradition, and I remember my interaction with them was always so fullfilling because they were pure, they were bhakts and they were strong. I remember admiring them and always finding ways to spend time with them, one of those excuses was photographing them. This was when I was a child 22 years of age. I did not realise the worth of a photograph then, because I has so many to manage. And I did not understand the worth of a promise, because I was always running, and running away. Far from innocence into the big bad world of tough lessons.

Many years went by, and I never came home during Palkhi time, or if I was home, I was sometimes in Mumbai, or in a studio completing an assignment. The couple that stayed at our place would always ask Kisan (seen in the grey pant and shirt in the image below) did the little girl leave behind a print for us. Somehow to me it never felt important, because, I always could make a print and always had access to images, and could not in my youth, for the life of me, understand why an image would be so important to a person. Speaking of karma, as I grew into a woman at some point, this psyche of ALWAYS giving a print became a strong part of my work ethic later on. But in 2006, when unfortunately was this couple's last visit to my home, I had lost all my work in a hard drive crash AGAIN. And by the time I attempted to give a print, I had realised that it was too late.

Another aspect of this interaction that I find so old worldish is that they were our good friends, without fail, we knew that they would come over every year during the month of June, stay for 2 days, they would eat at our house, and we would give them shelter with great admiration and respect. We did not know which village they came from or anything else. It was only Pandurang, Tukaram and Dnyaneshwar that bound us together. And in this bound of divinity, lay an odd exchange that ended in a missing ingredient, the print I owed them. Now I have no idea where they are, in 2006 they were atleast 80 years old. Strong 80 year olds who could walk 200 odd kilometers across the State of Maharashtra, because they were farmers and thats how their bodies were built. There was no cellphone, no mailing address, there was no way of communication with each other, except when they would arrive and we would meet face to face.

 Now, who knows where and what state they are in? Has one or both of them passed away? Have they reincarnated in another world, are they now two separated souls? One born in Africa and the other in Spain? Will they ever try to come back here again, in some other form, a part of them gone into the earth and fly across the fields like pollen during the Spring? All these questions were in my mind, as I attempted to complete this ridiculous task on the side of the windy hill.

In this philosophical exploration, I used one tool, that has been gifted to me by God, and one thing that comes very easily to me; photography and honesty. I used the gift of art to express such ridiculous emotions on such a massive scale to put it out there to hundreds of thousands of people, because in such moments of over analyzing life, I feel very very alone. And all I want is for everyone to relate to a deep feeling, whose meaning becomes irrelevant in the act of translation, and finally culminates into pure emotion, one that the viewer or audience can take and make it into whatever they find suitable. As long as that portal is open between me on one end expressing and they on the other end receiving.

Turns out, that no matter however many people one may hire to install a 20 by 14 feet print on the side of a hill, wind and rain and physical constraints dont make the process any easier. After creating the frame, and taking it to this precarious edge, I learnt that this would be more challenging than ever imagined. We lowered the image, and winds, folded the whole thing, including the wooden frame, and the poster when sliding down ripped into half.

All of us stood there awestruck, steeped in disappointment and sadness. Everyone yelled at each other, blamed one another, screamed and shouted, turned to me, and reprimanded me for printing it 20 feet tall instead of 10 feet like the last one. So, after getting the shit out of our systems, we went to the landing with our tools, and starting repairing this thing, object, gesture, message. An hour later, it was starting to become dark.

While I was gathering large rocks to use as support for attempt 2, a sadhu baba came upto me and said. "Look child, do you see that blue iron frame. Yes, that thing, the wind took that entire thing off the mountain, so why would it spare your puny wooden frame, if it didn't spare iron?" To that I turned around, and worked harder, because, the point was to not give up, not now, definitely not now.

So there it is, standing precariously on Saswad Ghat, I have not idea after 12 hours if it still stands, I find out in a few days.

Au revoir

15th June 2012

Today the Palkhi has passed by Sholapur Road. Lakhs ( Hundred Thousand) of people passed by enroute Saswad to reach their final destination Pandharpur. 

Saint Dnyaneshwar and Saint Tukaram  whose idols and foot prints on palanquins are followed by these large drones of bhakts (devotees) are two extremely prominent saints of the 13th and 17th century in Maharashtra. They played a key role in translating the verse of the Bhagwat Gita a seminal religious text into more popularised versions. This was a revolutionary act in those days, because the religious power was in the hands of the preist (Brahman) class. Owing to the validity of the caste system in those days, this power was highly abused. 

 Therefore, these two saints played a large role in reversing the hierarchical of old Maharashtra, and brought universal access to the Lord through their poems, which were sung for the people, not in the illegible sacred text language that could only be read by the priests, but in verse that could be comprehended by all. In these translations were valuable lessons for society, inspiring verses to bide by hard times and poetic meanings that indulged one and all in the great Indian religious and philosophical engagement.

Therefore, Palkhi festival is an event for the common man. Not for the elite, or those high up in the hierarchy. In this installation, I have tried hard to respect those very rules. When it comes to photography, I have noticed that only those who have had access to expensive cameras can indulge in photography (Untill of late with the emergence of cell phone cameras etc). In the case of photographing those who do not have access to a computer and other forms of quick and easy 'developed' forms of communication, sending copies is quite a task. So I wondered, why should me and my socio economic class only be privy to this gorgeous image, made by a stance as powerful as the one seen here by this mauli? Why can't all of those who can appreciate this man's spirit captured within this frame have access to this image? Therefore, as a dialog with the philosophies of Tukaram and Dnyaneshwar, this installation was created. The people seen walking in the crowd are the people of rural India, most of them farmers, who live on extremely meager incomes, the underdogs of the unfair economic structure of this beautiful country that; ironically enough, are the greatest preservers of our ancient culture. Unlike us 'developed' urban people who are losing themselves in modernity

Today, my effort to meet this man via this poster was in vain. We did not cross paths, but I do wonder, if he saw this poster, or was he walking onwards, his attention dedicated to his song and his mind concentrated on his walk? Maybe he saw the photograph, but I was not present underneath it at that time, busy capturing the crowd with my camera. Was this poster visible enough? Should it have been larger? Should I have placed it in another place? Are the questions streaming through my mind.

My answer and hope in the event of all these queries is, if he truly is a spiritual man, I guess he knows already, and may have glanced and understood what is happening here.

That is the magic of media, which others only exploit for commercial value. That this photograph carries within it an essence of intent. This large frame encloses within it the spirit of reason. This ink emanates the emotions of its creator. And this gesture is laden with a message which for all is subjective, but for the one, it is received and understood. Hopefully.

As for this silent communication between two disparate souls, it will be a mystery till this project is over what will be the end result of this exercise.

Cie la vie