A saint in the square
As a short woman, Radhika Chopra had to rely on her camera when documenting the Ravidas parade in Amritsar. Read on for an intriguing reflection on the role of cameras when researching minority religious movements such as Ravidassia of India.
The Ravidasi sacred text Amritbani on a palanquin. Photo by the author.
‘New Look Amritsar’ metaphorically opened its doors to tourists and pilgrims in late October 2016. Heritage Street and its swanky plaza lit by designer street lights, paved with coloured stone, with burgundy and gold signage adorning the tidied up shops, resembled a mall.
Seeing it will make your heart happy (dekh ke dil khush hovega), said my taxi driver. Within days of its inauguration, taxi drivers offered to take tourists to the ‘Golden Plaza’ – for that is what it has become. A plaza to eat ice-cream and make the Nihangs (weapon-bearing Sikhs) in their large blue turbans and indigo cloaks (chogas) pose for selfies and display a camera-friendly Sikhism.
In early February 2017, a procession marched into this ritzy square. It heralded its arrival with loud cheers, dancers and brass bands. I learnt it was a parade (jaloos), in celebration of the birth anniversary of Sant Ravidas, a cobbler, a poet and a mystic. Born in the city of Varanasi sometime in the middle of the fifteenth century, Ravidas’s poetry and hymns inspired a large following. In Amritsar, the mystic saint is revered as one of the contributors to the canonical scriptures of Sikhism. Forty verses composed by Ravidas are part of the Adi Granth, a key text of the Sikhs.
The 2017 parade that I witnessed was no ordinary procession. As a celebration of Ravidas Jayanti, the birth of the saint, it was an urban ritual like many others. But the eruption of the procession into the Golden Plaza, a showcase space of Sikhism, demanded attention in the language of sound and colour. The spectacular parade was a political declaration of a claim for the autonomy of the Ravidassia sect, followers of the Sant, from mainstream Sikhism.
The palanquins bearing copies of the Amritbani, the sacred text of the Ravidassia sect, were clearly the fulcrum of that claim. The Amritbani, based on hymns composed by the cobbler Sant, is a text ‘extracted’ from the Adi Granth, for a key element in the Amritbani are the forty verses included in the Adi Granth.
The Bani is the focus of a distinct scriptural community. The palanquin bearers who carried the Amritbani and small statues of Ravidas on their shoulders, were formally dressed, with headbands that resembled the Sikh headscarf, but coloured a pale peachy-pink, a tint hovering between the saffron hues of Hinduism and the orange of the Sikh. The insignia of this newly formed community ‘Hari’ was emblazoned on each patka headscarf.
In the wake of the palanquins came the motorised tableaus of Ravidas mounted on small trucks, e-rikshaws, tempos and carts.
Decorated with marigold garlands, plastic flowers, balloons, bunting, garlands of paper money and piles of fruit, each tableau was preceded by drummers or wedding bands brought by temple committees and neighbourhood associations.
Women singing praises of the Sant surrounded each cart while others swept the street before the Sant’s motorcade. In one large tableau a dhoti-clad priest sat cross-legged, dispensing blessings and blessed food to the singers, dancers and devotees who clustered around each cart.
Seeing the tableaus pour into the plaza from the narrower, darker streets that branch off from the central square [or lead into it depending on your perspective], I pulled out my little camera to take pictures of the procession. In the past, I always ‘disguised’ my camera – holding it discreetly, almost surreptitiously, in a bag or by my side. That feeling of the camera being a person and not a very welcome person at that, always made me self-conscious. But not this time. I’m a short woman, and I was on the periphery of the crowd. I couldn’t really make out what was happening. So I let my camera ‘see’ the parade for me. I held it above my head, in plain sight of every person, to get a ‘camera’ view of the proceedings which I couldn’t see myself.
Someone noticed – gestured to someone else to ‘let me through’ into the dense centre of the teeming parade. I kept taking shots relentlessly. Insignia-holding devotees stopped and stood still to be properly ‘framed’ in picture perfect postures. Bands of young girls preceding the motorcade with brooms in their hands were sweeping the road perfunctorily. Seeing the camera, they giggled, looked my way, swept the path with vigour, delighted to be photographed for their piety and their nice clothes.
I felt flushed with delight. It must have shown. Two transgender persons in jeans and tight shirts, slim lithe bodies and lots of makeup, came right up and danced at me and my Coolpix. I focused the small nose of the camera at them and their faces and caught them close up, caught them longshot, and we literally performed for each other, using angles and poses to make the theatrical frame. Enough to gratify each other. Exhilarating.
I didn’t need to say a word. I just kept running, alongside, in front of, sometimes backward, with my little Coolpix pointed toward enthusiastic participants. I can’t call them subjects because they made the frames for the images with their postures and poses, rather than the camera framing them.
I squeezed through the flanks and into the thick of the procession. Running back and forth, leaning against parked cycles to get a good angle, jumping up on a half-step to get a clear shot, wedged into corners, sometimes stepping back inadvertently onto peoples’ toes. I apologized with my hand on my heart and they smiled and stepped back as much as possible in the crowded street to let me take my photograph. There was a kind of play between all of us. I dropped all pretense of being local – my black jeans and short hair, my suede shoes and tan jacket almost persuading me that I could pass as a photo journalist from god alone knows where. It was like a street play, but we were all actors and all audience.
As a reason for friendly consent, my little camera was great. But I was forcibly struck by its distressing inadequacy. Not counting selfies, I was the only person taking photographs of the vivid drama of Ravidas Jayanti. The paucity of coverage of a dazzling procession in the newly minted square was in sharp contrast to the meticulous coverage of the Nagarkirtan processions of the Sikhs that I’ve witnessed emerging from the Gurudwara into ‘Golden Plaza’. The anniversaries of the Sikh Gurus are celebrated public events in the life of the city, and exhaustively covered by virtually every media form.
The procession for a Saint who was a cobbler left almost no trace as it passed through the Golden Plaza. Only the receding sounds of brass bands and singing women, muffled by distance, hovered like an echo as the parade left the square. What didn’t dissipate was the sense of euphoria of the Ravidassia devotees, who all too briefly took over Heritage Street not designed for them. I did look for photographs in the local papers the next day. Other than one grainy, black and white, generic image of the main Ravidas temple in the city, I couldn’t find any. I offer my Coolpix photographs as a poor record of a momentous event.
This text was first published as a blog post on www.amritsar1984.com.