Sunday, May 9, 2010

Agra - the land of Love and Loss

Almost every Indian kid remembers when they first saw the Taj Mahal. They were still kids, the whole family was there and only the adults were awed by a building that looked like a cross between a temple and a mosque. Most kids were happiest about the hotel stay and the ice cream, the Taj was incidental. The real bonus came when we revisited Agra as adults and I think I can speak for a lot of Indian adults when I say this - it was mesmerizing. Not like the Grand Canyon or the beaches of Bali, those feelings are nature driven; the Taj seemed a more real kind of ‘awesome’. It was manmade and more than that it was love made. The history of the Taj precedes it and I am glad it does because that’s what makes hundreds of thousands visit from all over the world. People fall in love at the Taj, some fall in love all over again, a lot want to get married there and I believe a few have even tried to buy it, most definitely for a lady love. Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan commissioned it as a mausoleum for his favorite Persian wife, Mumtaz Mahal. In 1631 Shah Jahan, emperor during the Mughal’s period of greatest prosperity, was grief-stricken when his second wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died during the birth of their daughter Gauhara Begum, their fourteenth child. Contemporary court chronicles concerning Shah Jahan’s grief form the basis of the love story traditionally held as the inspiration for the Taj Mahal.

Construction of the Taj Mahal was begun soon after Mumtaz’s death. The principal mausoleum was completed in 1648, and the surrounding buildings and garden were finished five years later. The complex is set in and around a large charbagh (a formal Mughal garden divided into four parts). Measuring 300 meters × 300 meters, the garden uses raised pathways which divide each quarter of the garden into 16 sunken parterres or flowerbeds. A raised marble water tank at the center of the garden, halfway between the tomb and the gateway, and a linear reflecting pool on the North-South axis reflect the Taj Mahal. Elsewhere the garden is laid out with avenues of trees and fountains.

The charbagh garden was introduced to India by the first Mughal emperor Babur, a design inspired by Persian gardens. The charbagh is meant to reflect the gardens of Paradise (from the Persian paridaeza - a walled garden). In mystic Islamic texts of the Mughal period, paradise is described as an ideal garden, filled with abundance. Water plays a key role in these descriptions: In Paradise, these text say, four rivers source at a central spring or mountain, and separate the garden into north, west, south and east.

The Taj Mahal is generally considered the finest example of Mughal architecture, a style that combines elements of Persian, Turkish, Indian, and Islamic architectural styles. While the white domed marble mausoleum is the most familiar part of the monument, the Taj Mahal is actually an integrated complex of structures. It was listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1983 when it was described as a “universally admired masterpiece of the world’s heritage.

For the last shoot at the Taj was most memorable because we were traveling with a lovely group of teenagers from all over the world for a ‘Tourists at the Taj’ shoot. We made good friends with this one model we worked with last year. Very lovely young lady, she was nice enough to keep in touch way after she received her images shot by us. We got a call from her a while back saying she has a bunch of friends in town and they were all very keen to be professionally photographed. We were already riding high on our 6,000 sq. ft. studio so we asked the whole load of them to come in for auditions. So here we were sitting around waiting for everyone’s headshots to be assessed, when Manav suggested they all make a trip and shoot that. The motley mix of post-teens started discussing every possible drivable location from Delhi. They were all foreigners and each from a different country. This discussion didn’t take long to finalize into an overnight trip to Agra. The home of the Taj, the land of love and loss, the haven of a lovesick king’s biggest accomplishment. Some had seen it with their parents on a day trip, some hadn’t at all. The excitement was electric. The final list read, an Indian girl from LA, a Persian girl from Florida, an all American girl, a Scottish boy, an Estonian boy and finally a Zimbabwean boy. What an awesome bunch they made. So many nationalities and cultures of the world in this group of six. The only thing they shared in common was the age and the generation and that was glue enough to start this trip off very well.

The story I am about to tell you only goes to reinforce my crazy obsession with Lennon’s song ‘Imagine’. In my Utopian fairyland I believe that we can live without religion, without possessions and without countries, we can live like brothers and like thinking human beings. Ultimately we are all the same. I read an article by the photographer who shot the famous portrait of ‘the Afghan girl’, Steve McCurry he said to the effect that a farmer in Afghanistan is no different from a farmer in the US. I guess he meant that as people they are the same, their environments and scenarios are different but they share the same worries, the same ambitions and the same dependency on nature. Anyway, back to the story. These guys were on the road with our Art Director (part Portuguese, part Iranian), Photographer (All from the state of Bengal), Make-up Assistant (state of Punjab) and Studio Hand (I would assume Bihar).

They stopped at a harmless looking vegetarian ‘dhaba’ (typical Indian roadside diner, usually very rustic). They ordered heartily and sat back and waited. Suddenly the girls started noticing dragon flies, not one, more like one million. So one of the girls got up from the table and crouched on the floor screaming for one of the knights to save her. The lovely Scottish boy got up, swatted away the dragon flies and stepped over her head to get back to the table. She shot up and said “step back over me”! That’s all she said. One by one each person on the table said “ya, my mom says you have to step back over the person if you stepped over them once.” The tempo got louder and everyone, every different person there knew that they had all heard and participated in one of the oldest ‘old wives tales’ ever. Across the cultures and borders they all grew up hearing this one ‘superstition’. The biggest deal wasn’t that they had all been told the same tale by their Scottish, Estonian, Indian, Persian, Zimbabwean mothers; it was how they all suddenly related on another level. This highly infused gene pool of people sat there, ages 19 - 35 years and said in unison - “coz then you won’t grow tall”. Across most of the globe, covering 4 continents, all these people were told the same reason too! When I heard this story, it stirred me in many ways. Are we all essentially the same? Just people. People with stories, lives, joys, pains, fun, work, family, passions, traditions, and the list goes on and it goes on for all of us. The answer is yes!

1 comment:

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