Among the children

I’ll freely admit to a significant nervousness when photographing Hindu and Muslim ceremonies and festivals. My interest is real and runs deeper than might be assumed by a casual look at my physical presence. I’m often one of the few persons of African descent present during the preparations that so intrigue me and I feel a real responsibility not to get things wrong through ignorance.

There’s a sidebar to this as well.
My grandfather, Ainsworth McClaren O’Reilly was a powerful presence in after my father left our household permanently in 1965. Ainsworth was a teacher of some repute from Arouca and a man of intimidating will and correctness, but he was also undeniably Indian; marrying an African teacher named Moze and fathering three children.
A Presbyterian, his experience with his race was profoundly Anglicised, but he was a free thinker with no racial concerns that I can recall, pursuing his work with an eye on those who were most in need of the transformative powers of education.

I mention this because the truth of the matter is that I have no hidden genetic yearning to explore the Indian side of my heritage, but I do have a powerful sense of embarrassment at living in such a richly multicultural society with so little real understanding of the skeins that make it such a remarkable quilt of culture and creativity. I do have a real sense of belonging to these many influences, growing up in frank admiration of a mature, intelligent Indian man, living in St James, surrounded by the crashing cymbals and rhythmic taals of Hosay, I remember that at school, when my friends would drum out clumsy rumblings on their wooden school desks, I would rap out equally clumsy tassa hands with my fingers on the edges of the desk.

Some curiosities about the Ramleela story...
I was, for most of my time as a guest of the Hindu Prachar Kendra, the only non-Indian Trinidadian around. This was not a source of discomfort for me, but I would, occasionally, look around and realise it.

You’ll find a number of photos of Dhanraj Ramdhanie in the expanded gallery of images. I actually did not realise this until the time came to caption the images and it was a real surprise. Dhanraj has a mercurial face that is transformed by makeup.
When I do the first edit from the finished shoot, I look for range of subject matter, inclusion of as many different subjects as possible and a loose story thread that narrates, in the broadest possible terms, the story that I experienced. I have never picked four photos of the same person, even when they are an important part of the story for the first edit of images.

The story commands the final edit and sometimes the visual narrative is cruel. When I did the Tribe story, the first thing that bandleader Dean Ackin told me was: “You left out Gail!”
Gail Cabral was a critical person in producing that story, speaking on my behalf to the band’s leadership, she opened doors on that story early on, before I could win the kind of trust I needed to go deeper behind the scenes.
There were some good photographs of Gail, and one great one, but they simply didn’t fit the abruptly truncated narrative of the published version.
That happened again on this story, as Geeta Ramsingh, my primary contact on the story and a great help to me. There are a number of good photographs of Geeta, some of which are in the first edit that usually becomes the basis of the online gallery, but, again, they didn’t fit the merciless 12 photo selection process for the published story.

It’s a story about the children. Adults play a serious role in the preparation, training and even the final performance, but the power of this particular Ramleela is the enthusiasm and seriousness that the young performers put into the project. My first edit was based on this narrative and sought to thread together a timeline with the real engagement of the young performers with the show and its religious underpinnings.

I had to fast to be allowed onto the performance field. I discovered this on the first night of performance. Everyone had forgotten to specifically ask me about the requirement. Not a major fast, just no meat and no alcohol, which I can’t drink anyway. I was nursing a terrible cold, so I took two days off, ate appropriately and returned for the Wednesday night performance. Rather embarrassingly, this small fact was noted repeatedly over the PA system.

Technical notes...
Here’s how it came together.
Shot with a Canon 5D, mostly with a 20mm f2.8 lens and a 70-200mm f4 lens for the performance photos. I did do a few images with flash on the final night of performance, mostly on the procession from the Kendra to the Ramleela grounds, but all of the images in the gallery are existing light at a range of sensitivities from 400 to 1600 ISO.

The images were first edited on transfer to my MacBook Pro with PhotoMechanic then imported into Lightroom where keywords, copyright information, file renaming and converted to DNG format.
The edits were filtered in Lightroom and exported as low-resolution JPEG files to be used in a dummy layout in Apple’s Pages.
The selected images were edited in Photoshop CS3 and resized as TIFF files for the Guardian.

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