“O Krishna, the stillness of the divine union, which you describe, is beyond my comprehension. How can the mind which is so restless, attain lasting peace. Krishna, the mind is restless, turbulent, powerful, violent. To tame the mind is like to tame the wind.” – Srimad Bhagvad Gita
I was in my early teens when on my grandmother’s fierce insistence, parents took us on a tour to Mathura and Vrindavan. Krishna had supposedly entered my grandmother’s dream. She lost her sleep, and waited for that day when she would touch the earth of Krishna’s birth. And encircling the epical, ancient, holy Govardhana hill, गोवर्धन पर्वत on her bare feet.
The sun was setting in the land of braj as we arrived, the winds started blowing, grandmother’s eyes went backwards; her body calmed, voice started mumbling the words known to every wall and each monkey sitting on them, as they could be heard from myriad mouths. Narrow lanes of brick, tall walls wearing Mughal attires turning holy, as the time turned blue like romance, the colour of Krishna, Yamuna reflected many spirits of light, Brass bells tinkled. Women transcendentally turning into gopis praying, running like desire does, towards their protector. Was my grandmother a Gopi in her previous birth? I will never know. It is strange that I still remember even though seemingly I was too young for acquiring memories. But I even remember the morning when I had seen whole colonies of ants moving past the large roof of Jai Singh Ghera; later that night when clouds started roaring like armies do, deafening thunderstorms entered systems of nerve, only lightning showed our family the way in the dark. It is the way in which it rained felt like the time travelled back thousands of years, when Krishna in human form had saved the village and all its people from the flood, and from the wrath of Indra. For then, Krishna had asked villagers not to worship the rain god, and they did not. Angry Indra, wanting to teach them a lesson, hailed down torrential rain for several nights.It was this was Govardhana Hill, that Krishna lifted up, on his little finger, while playing the flute with the other fingers, thus saving the villagers in thousands as they had gathered under the hill for safety.
But one difference from those nights, now was the presence of my grandmother. She, in unusual, never seen trance, kept walking on, leading us, through the blinding, sharp arrows of the water droplets, drenched, yet she seemed invincible, unstoppable that night.
Was my grandmother a Gopika? I would like to believe so.
According to the Giriraj Chalisa (a forty verse hymn dedicated to Govardhan Hill) Govardhan in human form, went to Vrindavan with Pulastya and decided to stay there evermore. The sight of Govardhan Hill and Yamuna River in Vrindavan attracted the demigods who took forms of trees, deers and monkeys to live in Vrindavan there after.
Long since that night; the anxieties of the unknown are gone, my grandmother is gone. And it would take me more than a decade and half to come back since that night again. For whom? For another Gopika, for she also had a dream, an Australian photographer Robyn Beeche.
There are many India’s in India, and each India though different from the other is connected with every other in spirit, in it’s seeking.
Each one of us are seeking here; money, material or moksha, we all are looking for something more, wanting to reach somewhere higher either outside or within us. Trying to attain our highest self through ways of trial and error, experimenting, fighting patiently or fierceily. Even though some might know that the only way to it is through it. To just do it. And thus for the majority who arrive in India from outside either see this as chaos and leave, or absorb the wave of early shocks, of disbelief; slowly finding their own pace, becoming a part of the numerous patterns interconnected with each other; just like all rivers become Ganga after a point.
Robyn had seen a collection of my photographs being exhibited at the India Habitat Centre in Delhi. A long term project of mine was exploring the arid landscape of Rajasthan where once the historical, ancient river Saraswati flowed though, dried midway before reaching the Arabian sea. She had loved the work and had sent me a mail telling me about how those two photographs spoke to her like it were presenting a case of a lost river, almost directing the landscape. Getting immersed in one of the images, she congratulated me.
It is one of the purest joys that an artist can earn, finding words of appreciation from a stranger on your mail. I looked up her name and found to my surprise that she resided in India, and one story described her life’s curve, she had sold all her belongings, her prized studio in Paris to settle here in Vrindavan, living here for years, she photographed extensively the braj region since 1992, finding herself through Krishna.
Before sending a letter of thanks back, I spoke to a friend, and asked her if she would be interested in interviewing Robyn for the magazine she worked then on. When Ananya replied, she and I wrote back thanking Robyn for the appreciation, while expressing surprise about learning about her work with the community in Vrindavan, and added asking her if I could come over with a friend for a visit and a talk. I think this must have made her happy because she instantly shared a number of someone who would be taking care of us on her behalf. Moreover surprisingly, she asked me to get for her a print of that particular image she loved at the exhibition. I was happy to oblige. Vrindavan was on.
The journey ever since then became a flight into an intoxicated world of the singing spirits. And it started the moment we kept our backpacks in the bus. Throughout the night, the intensely enthusiastic, enigmatic old bus driver kept singing his heart out. He was drunk. In the morning twilight when we reached, the alleyways of the ancient town approached as if envoloping us in a maze divided by timezones. A land of about five thousand temples was awaking together, like a scattered collection of sounds uniting above the black river Yamuna. As we walked along the river into the empty lanes of Vrindavan, the forest of Tulsi, seemed to be an indelible pivot between centuries past and now.
I was anticipating a lot more intoxication of thoughts. For all the memories of grandmother were trying to revisit me, or I was trying to see them on the walls, the birdcalls, lazy and curious monkey glances, greetings, a few verbal directions, and a warm welcome by Robyn’s attendant, we reached, drenched in sweat and affection.
Lying down in the room resting our eyes at the high ezee blue ceilings of the elderly walls directed our minds towards the changed landscape. Delhi looked so far and so unreal just like the presence or the absence of dinosaurs in modern times. We were finally breathing in Krishna’s leelaksetra, Robyn would meet us in the evening.
Meanwhile, we decided to walk along the Ghats of the black river, at the hour of cow dust, sitting rich at the Kesi ghat, where Krishna would meet Radha for their nightly trysts. Ahead the architecture of ancient walls kept becoming primordial as the evening gradually turned the color of Krishna’s complexion. Gradually, the boats waft carrying their travellers. The ghat slowly transforming itself into a fantastical remnant from a historical drama and chants of hare Rama Hare Krishna lilting along the waters mirroring the reflections of the world around. While the vibrations of a keertan being sung, touching the floating diyas, travelling far beyond the banks, as women in their colourful attire dance to express their elation. The boats passing introducing compositions and sight, as bodies swayed, lost in chants and hands rising above holding flowers or nothing under a canopy of kites overhead. The claps seem to be rising in tempo and the energy is catching on as it runs through the gathering packed till the ghats down to the river. Insects and amber light from the lightpost fill the air. Dogs, monkeys, children, myself, looking at the tiny flames, floating through prayers and requests alike. While our still bodies were swinging to an internal rhythm, Robyn called, she was waiting nearby, a little away from the people in trance, we bowed to everything acknowledging the presence of love; Love that we soon were going to find in a woman who once left everything that she called hers.
She welcomed us with a smile, and lead us quietly towards the ghats where we all sat cross legged facing towards the river; as Suresh her attendant brought tea for us. Ananya, who wasn’t wearing her specks for the fear of monkeys, was seeing everything multiplied by three, somehow she felt more relieved and interestingly looked towards the sky more, though blurry, had earned a new found energy remarked looking at Robyn, what a fascinating life you have led! Practicing an art only for the love of it! Robyn smirked, took the first sip from the sugar milk water known as Indian tea and said, the idea was to create lovely, i sensed she liked speaking in metaphors too like me, to serve without any expectations. Even though i had been shooting in London for fashion designers, with hair dressers and make up artists for several years; but when Vrindavan called me in I feel i didn’t change anything about me. I continued to document the living tradition, the culture of brajbhoomi in the same way. To tell you the truth I saw that in Narayan’s work, “me? I was surprised she took my name in a way of describing something of her own, also because she hardly knew me”, she explained, in London I wasn’t interested in working for money, I was collaborating with anyone around my age trying to experiment, travel, creating good experience together to only create. We would all pool in money to buy a film, or colors or make a set. And irrespective of what work I have done and shown, I have always told photographers that they have to satisfy their creative urges first, and not solely look for money. This has stood out for me as an experience, I think my main goal has always been to inspire people, and tell them to get off Photoshop, and do something real.
Perhaps that’s why the switch from the glitz and glamour of London to the mundane reality of Vrindavan, the rituals and customs which were in practice for centuries, were they not difficult for you? I asked. Well, In fact, she continued, at many levels, I found a resonance with the work I did in London here in Braj. There In the west at a time when the city was thriving with creativity and experimentation, I was inspired by Impressionism and the Bauhaus art movement, I was busy making drastic images of painted bodies, collaborating with the likes of Vivienne Westwood, Leigh Bowery, Zhandra Rhodes and teaching at London College of Fashion, until one day i witnessed a massive cultural festival of India mounted in London in 1985.
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“It all happened when on my way back from Australia, an acquaintance invited me to come to Delhi and from there he sent me to Vrindavan,” and I do not know what happened in those weeks, months and in years that something, someone sat painting, turning my insides to something else. It even took me a lot of time but i finally decided to live in Vrindavan 7 years later in 1992. “I had made 13 trips of India by then. You know by the late ’80s Margaret Thatcher’s rule had really made things difficult. With all those taxes, freelancers were suffering.
My studio was right opposite Victoria and Albert Museum. A small but lovely and intimate space. I had to choose between keeping the studio which was getting difficult to maintain and to pursue my work in India. So I decided to sell it. I had to, because i felt an incomparable difference between these two worlds. What I was getting there was raw love, color, sounds and all what only India can give. For me then It was like planning a tour to a far world of stars.
And you see, ever since then, I have engaged myself with intensely documenting the traditions of the land.
Hearing Robyn speak was nothing less than observing someone who had bathed completely in each and everything that India gave her, she accepted. She was wearing a pink saree and Reebok shoes under it.
The orange and the purple of the magic hour was giving way to the dark. Songs, activity had subsided. Boats had left and ghats were taken over by the spirits of the night, smoking, drinking and yet some pilgrims quietly walking encircling Vrindavan, It was getting late,
Robyn requested us to have dinner with her, we accepted. As we walked, I was curious to know something more, deeper aspects of her journey because change doesn’t come naturally to humans, and as you are sharing I am feeling, what kind of things you had to change in order to become a part of this big, highly active and dramatic community?
“Ah for so long. Narayan, you know why I asked you to get a print of the photograph that I saw, because that image made me forget myself and took me in there, like I keep losing myself still in Krishna’s name. I had that connection with the moment when I saw that image and then i read your name. I connected. You know being a photographer or a filmmaker most specifically, is nature’s gift to you, if only you can hold on to it, because your seriousness will only determine what this nature will provide only for you to see. I have travelled throughout Rajasthan but I haven’t seen an image of a tree like that in a desert where a woman’s memory is placed, representing a whole culture, more so when you were on a huge project such as of finding the footprints of a river. It was kind of same with me, because it is me who wanted to know more, or may be myself; to earn this culture by all means, to be able to look deeply into the tradition, and I realised I cannot remain an outsider to know it all and hence i embraced Hinduism. It made good sense because I knew what I was doing. Likewise the people also accepted me as they felt that I was serious about what I was doing.” suddenly she went into her own world of thoughts, chewing slowly looking at her thali and came back. And continued in a manner as if she just realised something about her past. “Initially when I was shuttling between India and London, I used to speak and ask several questions to my creative friends. Once I asked a friend if he can spend 10 hours a day in creating a work to completely destroy it before going to bed, daily? Because that’s what used to happen to saanjhi. A fresh one would be made painstakingly only to be destroyed after the darshan was over, and the artists would start working over a new one all over again, day after day. For me personally, it was one of those early inspirations that taught me detachment, she was laughing by now, actually she laughed a lot. We had finished our food and walked out of that beautiful, traditional, small restaurant, It was a fulfilling dinner. We all were walking quietly more so filled with food and trance of the place, when I asked her the most important questions of all, of the only night we shared, have you ever regretted anything leaving back everything as you did and coming here? She went quiet for a while, it felt like she wanted to say something, may be finding words:
“It was 2005, she started slowly again, digital hadn’t still arrived big in the market so I had to keep my films in suitcases and carry them wherever. There was this one time when I was flying back home to Melbourne after five years, and I had kilograms of films that I was carrying back, it was huge, an archive of its own of all the possible work I had ever done here; transparencies, scores of films, prints and printing material. I thought carrying them back home was wise as there i could work on them in silence. It was a beautiful morning, that feeling of going home setting in me, i was very happy, watching, waiting for my train to come for Delhi at Mathura Train Junction, when two boys arrived hurriedly, picked that suitcase and walked away with the crowd, just like that. They picked and walked away!
All my life’s work, my time, energy, everything left me in front of me. You can imagine for how many nights i got up from sleep. Dreaming of those memories, the time of their making. I didn’t know what to make of it, to tell myself or how to explain this loss. Even if I did know about detachment and practice blissfulness, this loss was gruesome but somehow as time passed it became my way to enlightenment because not immediately but it gave me a deep sense of freedom, of not owning anything anymore, it made me powerful enough to not let me choose anymore, i could let go and still live. May be it was also my krishna’s leela, his ways are a bit different and who better than I and this bhoomi, this land knows.
We were bitten by a snake, stunned actually. But she laughed it off.
She bid me bye and as we started to leave, she sweetly called out my name loud, Narayan! my print! I shyly beamed and took out that print and with gratitude ceded it to her. I could see the joy she felt after holding it, seeing this image again had made her happy. She hugged me and Ananya, and told us to go to Sitaram Sweet shop before 9 AM, his are the best kachoris you cannot miss to eat.
Call me when you reach Delhi.
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I couldn’t possibly sleep that night rather sat looking at the magic above, it was a full moon.
It was march 2015, one morning when Ananya called me from montreal, she had left India to continue her studies, told me that Robyn Beeche is no more. She died two days ago. The same year when we had met her, she was diagnosed with Cancer.
I felt a sense of loss somewhere and also a shame that i could not maintain which had so beautifully started.
And I remembering that evening, us sitting at the ghat when she told me of what she had to lose to be here, her soul, if not less.
1945 – 2015
While her talent speaks for itself, it was her trajectory, her magnetic aura that she carried from the West to the noisy, even overwhelming, pluralistic India, and her work here that most captures attention. Even though most is lost, but i remember one beautiful sentence that i carried with me since that evening was. and she said,
“My life is like green traffic lights – I’ve just gone through them. I’ve just accepted everything and had a go.”
Her work and life captured the attention of many, including filmmaker Lesley Branagan, who made ‘A Life Exposed’, a 2013 documentary about Robyn. Leaving a link for everyone to see here
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narxtara and Road to Nara