Monday, May 19, 2008

The ghats of Pashupati

The first time I visited Pashupati, I abstained from taking pictures of the cremations.

Pashupatinath--the nath suffix1 refers to a holy place, here the main temple with its enormous golden image of Nandi, Shiva's bull; likewise the stupas at Swayambo and Boudha become Swayambunath and Boudhanath, respectively--is the most holy Hindu site in Nepal, on the banks of the Bagmati River, which far into India feeds into the Ganges. The temple is so holy, in fact, that non-Hindus are forbidden to enter, as are leather goods (shoes, belts, watch straps), cameras, tape recorders, and binoculars.

Accordingly, Pashupati is a popular place to be cremated; there are, apparently, cremations here every day of the year, even through Monsoon. Indeed, when the royals were massacred in June 2001, they were all cremated here, including Crown Prince Dipendra, in a ceremony that also included Brahmins defiling themselves in something like 84 ritually prescribed ways and then riding elephants out of the valley to help shepherd the souls of the departed. For this the Brahmins gave up their caste forever, but were very well compensated, at least in worldly terms.

Among tourists who go to Pashupati—and most tourists in Kathmandu make it to Pashupati, though the less elegant Swayambo seems to be more popular—an interesting phenomenon occurs: those that don't photograph the cremations feel superior to those, unnamed, that do. It's the imposition of a camera, perhaps, the feeling that somehow by taking pictures we are commodifying someone's grief. It 's also our feeling, collectively, that privacy is somehow necessary for grief; and that as upright and ethical citizens, we ought to respectfully allow grief to come out in whatever way, in whatever terms, the grieving find necessary.

Foreigner and Nepali alike come to watch cremations at Pashupati: Nepalis mostly from the terraces on the eastern bank, high above the ghats just next to the main temple, foreigners from a rampart just south of the bridge across the Bagmati, clustered in huge tour groups or far enough interspersed around the Ram Temple to feel separate and individual, adolescent-like. A number of these tourists do come prepared: professional-level SLR cameras and bulky telephoto lenses, khaki fisherman's vests with pockets blooming up everywhere, fertile with filters, lenses, accoutrements and paraphernalia. At certain moments it can give the walk the feeling of the photographers' well at an important baseball game, a bustle of relatively polite, mostly professional paparazzi activity.

For whatever reason, avowed amateurs like myself—those of us with with compact point-and-shoots in a pants pocket—are spared. It is a case, perhaps, of signals given and signals mis- and understood. That I should have an SLR signals that my photography is serious somehow, that I have committed something material—and likely something of myself—to its pursuit.2 That in actuality I shoot with a camera the size of a back of cigarettes, a camera that is battered from tumbles onto rocky trails and, most notably, a short ways down a mountain in Montana—this signals something else, and somehow exempts me from disapprobation.

This, obviously, is not altogether fair, nor is it altogether accurate. Our collective assumption, and I am not immune, is that these semi- and wanna-be pro photographers have a single notion in mind: That of getting the shot. That is, that they are getting their pleasure, and in a sense their power, from the grief of others, succubus-like; that they have little regard for their own imposition; that they are trying, with the capture of a "good" photo, to increase their own reputation--increase their own status--within their local or extended communities. Or so we other Westerners understand them, and judge them.

But there is another use of photography, more benign and less self-conscious, and altogether more common: That of photography as an incitement to dialogue. Physically the actions are much the same—capturing a scene or a landscape with a light-sensitive sensor or light-sensitive film—but the intents diverge. It is the photography not of look at my pictures but the photography of look what I saw.

We are familiar with the idea of photography outside narrative: the posed family portrait, everyone wearing white and khaki with a neutral backdrop that gives no bit of location away, save in its own sort of negative information; the band's hi-res; the actor's glossy; the MySpace self-portrait with camera held at arms'-length. These are meant to convey something at once general and specific about the subject: a cheerful disposition, the right, artistic attitude, a certain "look," certain visual signals of class and of personal interests.

But the idea of non-narrative photography is a construction, for each photograph takes place within a narrative: the creepy photographer's run-down studio in a strip mall in El Cerrito, his long, wavy gray hair matted to each sheet and office chair; a publicist whose idea of cool involves leather jackets and dreamy looks just past the mercenary photographer's right ear; a seemingly endless day of black-and-white smiles and half-smile and no smiles, only to have not a single shot be the right one; a bored Friday night during private school's ski week, and the realization that an entire evening could be spent finding just the right angle to hide a pimple and highlight the elegance of high cheekbones smoothed by the last remnants of baby fat. The thing about such staged photos is that the stories are expressly, intentionally hidden; the idea is not as much look what I saw as it is look what I want you to see.

Photographs of strangers or of strange places, like the photos we take at Pashupati, are different. In the pessimistic assessment they serve as creators of status, of power: look at how I see. There is a certain element of pedagogy in this, and a certain arrogance, or confidence, of pedagogy, the certainty that you have something worth teaching. Like soccer, or negotiation, or writing, you improve both by doing and my watching how others do, but there are far more soccer matches or negotiations or books than one could ever peruse.

In certain situations, with certain signifiers, we find this sort of creation of culture almost inconceivably gauche: at funerals, at highway accidents, at times in churches, at public bathing sites and bathrooms. We assume, because of the trappings of wealth, because of a certain manner of dress and a camera that costs what the typical Nepali makes in 10 years, that this is exploitation of grief, of poverty.

And sometimes, often perhaps, it is. There are more generous ways of seeing, however, and other intents. Put into an album, stiff pages protected by plastic film and leafed through casually by our friends, our photographs allow us to say, Let me tell you about this person; we can say, The photo may read like this, but let me tell you about the beauty and horror of this place, Let me tell you how people live here. We use our photographs to tell stories, but also to open the doors to the stories we want to tell.

For example: I want to tell you that burning bodies pop loudly, violently, much louder than the pop and crackle of sweet sap boiling between bark and heartwood, but it has taken me an entire essay to come out and say it.

1 Pronounced nat+h, or in approximate English phoenetics, NAHT-h, but with the tongue on the teeth, like in Italian. Nepalis, at least those in and around Kathmandu, also tend to pronounced the letter u, when mid-word, similarly to its pronounciation in Japanese, which is to say almost not at all, as in the Japanese word hibakusha, meaning the atomic bomb survivors. The best, still-rough equivalent I can give in text is to the e in Oregon, which kind of sounds like a hiccup in the middle of organ.

Pashupatinath, then, is closest to pash-pa-tee-NAHT-h than any other way I can think of syllabicating it.

2 The paradox here is that oftentimes point-and-shoots require more imposition, more posed photography, than SLRs, because it's difficult to get sharp pictures from a distance far enough to be surreptitious; but also that people are more at ease with their portraits being shot with a point-and-shoot than a fancy camera. Perhaps the lack of communicated "seriousness" signals a lack of desire to exploit of the images--that the images are to be used only personally, and therefore no reciprocal (and unoffered) consideration is in order.

No comments: