India has a few problems: it is dirty, crowded and loud. Smell fusion is everywhere—cardamom-garbage, sidewalk-food-vendor-lentil-car-exhaust, and the curry-oil-tobacco-charcoal-tea blend—a deluge of scents providing memory road signs for the future. Car noise and honking horns are the concert of the city, from piccolo to crescendo and back. The sights and sounds become overwhelming and its difficult to see India past her problems. But beyond the funk and noise, the trash-lined streets and organized beggars, there is an India of personalities and people.
Old Delhi is the most populated city in India and everything one might expect from a country with 1.2 billion people. A constantly moving barrage of sensory inputs from which it is impossible to escape, old Delhi is also alive with beauty, pride and history.
Entrepreneurialism is evident throughout Indian society, where independent drivers eat and shop at privately owned roadside cafes and stores once frequented by their great grandfathers, brothers offer the same food their forefathers served six generations earlier, and fathers work side-by-side with their sons, just like they used to work with their fathers. Brands are developed by word of mouth and competition is tough. Whether plating tender, saucy meals or printing wedding invitations, business owners rely on satisfied customers, full bellies and happy memories to serve as television commercial and magazine advertisements.
Expressive by nature, its as if people here were trained in front of the lens. Some don’t speak much, if any, english, so I nod toward my camera and gesture with a smile. They nod, the omnipresent Indian head bob, indicating it is ok to take a photo. They pose, wanting to look good on camera even though they have no idea where the photo will end up. Their personal pride transcends our language barrier.
I take the shot, the “click” in local parlance, and check the result. They also want to see it, so I bring it up on the viewfinder. Sometimes they smile, or wobble their head from side to side pretending to be disinterested in the result. He taps his brother’s shoulder to show him the digital print, their shared glance betraying a satisfaction beyond this moment, as if the photo will live forever.
Although one might infer from the extremely dirty streets a lack of national patriotism, there is no mistaking their personal honor and strong family bonds. Sons work with fathers and brothers with brothers in the same businesses as their grandfathers. A simple click becomes a story of generations of families living through oppressive regimes and inadequate governance, all to move cardamom, cinnamon, and dried rose petals to market.
Their presence in every moment transcends generations. Young or old, working or resting, they are participants in the daily grind of clockwork gears, ticking off the minutes dying fabric, machining parts, or playing along the sidewalk. Indians don’t shy away from the camera; their natural photorealism underscores their history and heritage. Their smile, deep gaze, or sometimes scorn are all composed, yet natural. They don’t ask for money, just a look at the result.
Religiously motivated conflicts pop up in the media, especially in northern India; however, disagreements are continually set aside. All people are welcome at the second largest Sikh temple in the world, where one’s god or practice is not a consideration. Although many people visit the temple each day to pray or take photographs, many come to eat at a kitchen that feeds between 20,000 and 45,000 people a day free of charge. Everyone is welcome, rich and poor, Sikh, Muslim, Christian and Hindu, and the obvious American tourist and his guide. The food is vegetarian, hot, flavorful and served by volunteers.
India is the source of many of it’s own issues. The streets are littered with garbage, cities struggle with water woes, and sectarian violence among extremists is a consistent news theme. But past the mountains of dust and litter, beneath the smoggy sky and surrounded by honking horns, there are working, expressive, deeply familial people.
If you enjoyed this article or you’re just feeling left out, subscribe to be notified as new material becomes available.
Unless otherwise noted, I drew or took the photographs in the article—as lame as they may look. Sometimes drawings come from my head, other times they’re from something I saw somewhere. Any resemblance to persons living or dead is probably planned. Copyright can be found here for my original work.