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Tuesday, July 23, 2013

The Faces Of Kumbh Mela

Amidst a cacophony of humanity, Fredric Roberts’ photos of the 2013 Kumbh Mela isolate the individuals, and through that, his images tell the broader story

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The triennial festival of Kumbh Mela puts a deeply spiritual aspect of Indian culture on display. The concentration of the devoted, combined with the ever-present, sometimes overwhelming colors of India, attracts eager photographers from around the globe. Most photographers are seduced by the cacophony of colors and their images fail to delve beyond that outer layer of the Kumbh Mela. When he journeyed to Allahabad for the 2013 Kumbh Mela, Fredric Roberts waded through the distractions, and he captured the essence of the festival in the faces of the people who make it so special.

It was just after 3 a.m., and Fredric Roberts was descending a hill above the Ganges River in the Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. The fine white soil that advanced from the riverbank all the way up into the surrounding countryside shimmered in ghostly puffs about his ankles as he walked. Golden light from nearby campgrounds bounced off the inky black water. Roberts stopped and looked upon the river and the deluge that appeared to be flowing out from it—thousands upon thousands of people, swathed in saffron robes and peasants' attire and saris and turbans, carrying in their hands jugs of Ganges water and marching slowly toward him, like salmon swimming upstream.

"I kept saying, 'Well, what's going on?' And they said, 'This is the auspicious day, the planets are all aligned, so we got here at midnight and now we're going home.' And I said, 'Where are you going, where is home?' And they said—Roberts pauses here and opens his arms wide—"'Home is everywhere.'"

It was a moment that defined most poignantly for Roberts the unwavering devotion of a people drawn to this junction by a common thread: their Hindu faith. The American photographer, who has been traveling to India since 1974, had returned to document the world's largest human gathering, the Kumbh Mela. The event is held every three years, alternating between Allahabad, Ujjain, Nasik and Haridwar. Each of these cities, according to Hindu lore, was splashed with a droplet of the nectar of immortality that fell from the kumbh (pitcher) during a fight between the gods and the demons. Today, the melas held in commemoration of this spiritual tussle attract millions of faithful; they come from all over India and beyond to receive blessings from holy men, partake of religious discourse and cleanse their sins in the river beside which each city sits.

Allahabad's festival, held every 12th year, is the largest and most auspicious of the four events, for it's here that three holy rivers converge: the Ganges, the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati, which is said to emerge from the earth's crust at the Sangam, the very point at which the other two waterways touch. And the 2013 mela was made more special still by the simultaneous occurrence of a rare planetary alignment that last occurred 144 years ago. It was on the day of this astrological event that Roberts met the pilgrims moving in slow procession back up the riverbank. By the conclusion of the 55-day-long festival on March 10, his encounters with pilgrims would expand beyond his imaginings; around 100 million Hindus would have surged to the banks of the river and taken a holy dip.

"There's some form of sainthood that derives from having gone in that water," Roberts explains. "You see what people will go through to get there, and fight through the crowds, and get down into the water, and then come back and be exhilarated by this. It was a marvel to me."

That wonderment is apparent in the images Roberts captured during his six-week-long project. They evoke the joy that miraculously exists amidst capacious, tightly packed crowds, and suggest intimacy rather than the fleeting connections that so often link the photographer to his subject. This rejection of the cliché in favor of authenticity—apparent in all of Roberts' work—isn't something he consciously strove to achieve, he says. Rather, it emerged organically from the relationships he formed with those he encountered on his journey: pilgrims, sadhus (holy men), naga sadhus (naked holy men), gurus and swamis.


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