In Spirit: Self-portrait Through India

Written by

Mariette Raina
August 7th, 2020

This month, I want to travel. I miss India. I miss its light, its tea, the sound of the temples and my Indian friends. With a six-week-old newborn at home and especially COVID 19 continuing to inflame the country, it is impossible for me to return for probably several more months. But India, just like other places one can have a strong connection with, does not exist only in space. The living presence of a place is beyond geographical laws. Its energy is like the perfume whose origin one does not touch, but which nevertheless scents the nostrils.

Even when you know a place, each trip is unique. I made my last journey to India with my brother of twelve years younger than me. On his twentieth birthday, he asked me if I could accompany him to South Asia. I then imagined discovering this country through art, a passion that we have in stock. Photography, movement and self-portrait, the mediums have merged organically to become witnesses of our encounters.

We start our trip in Kamakhya, a place of tradition in India, that is off the classic Westerners tourist trails. But here, tourists and Indian pilgrims flock to meet the Goddess, where the sacred energy resonates. As we visit the many temples of the city, I tell my brother the story of the deities, the meanings of symbols and describe to him the rituals and codes of the culture he is discovering for the first time.

Especially in rural areas and villages, the Indian aesthetic is raw. There are craftsmen and know-how passed down from generation to generation. The colours are intense, saturated; paintings in hotel rooms and village houses are often unexpected to a Westerner: pinks, blues, greens. The textures of the walls, the dust, the light and the oppressive heat create an atmosphere unique to this country. I feel like a fish in the water. I reconnect with this aesthetic that I love so much. With my camera in one hand and my notebook in the other, we stroll through the alleys.

We arrive in Benares in the scorching heat of the afternoon, just after the monsoon season. The Ghats are still submerged, the Ganges stretching out all along, offering an extraordinary view of the sacred river.

Being accompanied on a trip allows you to rediscover a country that you thought you knew, through the eyes of the other person. It’s a refreshing process as long as you don’t impose your vision and opinion of the place you already know to the other person who discovers it for the first time. It is a soft balance between sharing the keys to few codes or cultural elements, and at the same time, letting the other discover, without stealing their experience or hampering them in the process of discovery. Ultimately, it is a very similar process of raising a child. It is not a question of imposing our vision of the world on them, but on the contrary, it is up to us to be available and to accept not to know anything. Being open to discovering at all times is a position of humility and listening.

In Benares, I mix self-portraits and street photography.

Mumbai, we land at my friend Ritam’s, a renowned photographer in India and the West. Ritam has followed me on my Indian journeys more than once. Travelling the world for his contracts, he is the representative of a modern India, able to navigate between various cultural codes. Once again, we discuss for hours on end traditional India and its stories that fascinate me so much, and modern India whose codes and skills he shares with me. Tradition and modernity always overlap in this country, not as oppositions, but as the reverse of the same coin, one of which takes precedence depending on the circumstances.

One day, Ritam comes to me and asks if I can photograph him in my way. He tells me that since becoming a photographer, he has had the opportunity to take pictures of many stars, to work for prestigious clients, but that he is rarely photographed. So we go to his studio, without a plan. I look at space and light. The stack of trunks laid casually against the wall becomes my backdrop and we start to create. Through these photos, I talk about him, his sensitivity, the unspoken things that hover over cultures, over families and individuals, whether from the East or the West. And through this silence, the strength of the profoundly human nature seeking for meaning and connexion to feeling alive, a similarity that brings us together despite our so different cultures. It’s about him, about me, but also about each of us.

During my stay in Bombay, I also met Danny, who had come from Pune to work together. Most of the time, he only does self-portraits. I ask him, “What brought you to this process? » So he explains to me that he is often travelling for his job as an engineer and that photography has presented itself naturally, first to kill time, then gradually becoming a form of expression of freedom in a very conservative and repressed culture. We discuss the deep meaning of the process behind photography, the research underlying the image.

During my photographic journey, both in front of and behind the camera, I gradually understood that for the model, as for the photographer, the process of creating a photo can be liberating. While this is true for many art forms, photography is unique in that it confronts us directly with our image. There is the lived experience of the instant as such, an exhilarating moment that all creation knows. But there is also the aftermath when one discovers the photo taken.

This dynamic that exists behind the act of photography can be presented as a mise en abyme of the inner quest and the process of introspection. It is a form of acceptance to put oneself under a microscope and touch one’s vulnerability, our fears, our loss of control. The beauty of photography is that it can reinforce the self-image, indulge myself in a role, reinforce the belief that I know myself, or it can be a risk-taking and a process of letting go. Such as travelling with someone else, it is a journey in itself, witness to a direct encounter with our alter ego where the unveiling of another face of oneself takes place.

About the Author

Mariette Raina has a master’s degree in Anthropology. Yoga has always been part of her life since she met the teaching Kashmirian yoga and its tradition in 2008. Since she is 25 she regularly travels to France, Brazil, Chile and Canada to teach yoga. As an artist, she uses the mediums of the body, photography and writing to investigates the act of perception, the relationship to the image, as well as the body as a vehicle of expression between tradition and modern times. Since 2015 she has been teaching photography at the Cultural Activities of the University of Montreal.

Mariette joined the Never Apart center team in 2016 as a writer of monthly articles for the spiritual column, where she also organized an exhibition in 2018 Traces of life: a journey from Canada to South Asia and worked on Dax Dasilva’s project Age of Union.

Follow Mariette on Instagram.

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