There are at least three stories I can tell you of India. One is of magic and warmth, colors and sunlight. Of a land that was once called the jewel in the crown of the British Empire in reference to its beauty and bounty. One is of chaos. Of a massive population and a flawed infrastructure that has collapsed under the weight. And one is of hardship. Of a hard and sometimes cruel world.
It’s 6:30am and I grumpily hit snooze on my alarm. But even semi-wakefulness brings an awareness of the sounds of Jodhpur. Clip clop. Clip clop. Rumbling carts roll down the lane beneath my room, tuk tuks blare their horns, and I go to the window to see the day’s business begin while fog lifts from the lake. Up on the roof, the sun is painting a picture across the massive Mehrangarh Fort above the town. People appear briefly on the pristine roof tops across the city, and lapis colored houses glow to life in the forming rays of the new day.
We begin in the dye district and cluster about a father who is stirring a vat of cloth while his children prepare for school. Eventually I wander away from the chorus of camera shutter clicks; curious about life on this small district. A grandmother catches my eye and waves me over from her front stoop. I look back briefly, but the rest of the group is still focused on the yellow dye. Again, she waves me over. So alone, I follow.
Up we climb into her home. Three flights of narrow and steep stairs, further and further from the street along surprisingly clean stairs and past glimpses of neat rooms. Up and up to the roof where she gestures to a green tarp hanging across a passageway. I’m not sure what to expect. More sleeping quarters? Storage? I don’t feel as though I’m in any danger, but neither do I know what lies beyond. She pulls back the tarp and I am greeted by two couples working in green tinted light as they steam out the wrinkles of brightly colored lengths of cloth.
Columns of steam rise from huge mushroom-shaped steamers. Women dressed in bright saris work with their husbands in a comforting rhythm. It’s barely 8:30 in the morning, and already a pile of neatly folded cloth is growing. Back and forth. Fold. Stack. Steam, color, sunlight.
At first the women giggle at the site of me, a stranger, and cover their faces with saris. But as I take up position in a corner out of the way, they quickly relax and uncover their faces. It’s a sign of welcome I will see repeated day after day while in India. It’s interesting that in a country where I have to take more care than average as a woman, I also find that my gender opens more hearts and homes.
At night I walk the streets of Jodhpur with a guide and pace the narrow alleys below, moving in and out of electric pools of light. The walls glow blue and time and again men and women wiggle their heads in agreement when I ask in broken Hindi, can I take your photo?
The colors, the finely textured skin so warm and different compared to my own, the shy giggles and broad smiles of women, and the winding streets are an intoxicating brew. I seem to fascinate people as much as they fascinate me, with my light hair and skin and height. One woman pats the ground beside her, inviting me to sit. When I do she crows with delight. In the milk market in Jaipur half a dozen men, photo subjects, are excited just to shake my hand. I’m not used to being such a pleasant novelty.
I spend a week in Rajasthan with a group of photographers through the Leica Akademie and my favorite photography teacher, Michael Lee from XA Travel. We move from Delhi to Jodhpur, Pushkar to Jaipur, and finally out to Mandawa before returning home. Everywhere we go there are women in spectacularly colorful saris, schoolchildren in bright uniforms, heavily spiced food and light. So much light. It illuminates blue buildings and red sandstone forts in Jodhpur, or golden walls and the stunning angles of an astronomy garden in Jaipur, and mosaiced rooftops and intricately painted havelis in Mandawa.
Brightly colored fabric, hints of jewelry and sparkle, misty mornings in rose gardens, and stunning detailed design saturate the week. It’s a heady combination that leaves me drunk on colors and light, and yearning for more as soon as I return home.