Travelling through Rajasthan is like opening a treasure chest, you never know what you’re going to find, but for sure it will be a gem.
Beyond the most popular places, the ‘land of rajas’ is infinite, highlighting some villages erected on the edge of a lake and protected by a fort, legacy of tension and invasions long ago in the Mogol era. The Thar Desert is a vast sandy extension to the northwest of Rajasthan, the home of countless nomadic tribes that travel from one place to another; some with fixed residence situated in a hamlet, others carrying their house on their backs.
I got lost several times wandering these lands. In each occasion with a different purpose: a report, a photographic travel guide, the recording of a documentary film …
Beyond the objective, the journey is the path itself, the encounters that we face and how we can register the experience in each situation.
In the rural area to the south of Jaisalmer, the capital of the Thar Desert known as the ‘Golden City’ for the golden color of the sandstone of their houses and fortress, I encountered a shepherd of the Beldar cast taking out his flock of sheep and goats. The Beldar are nomadic people originally from Rajasthan, that have spread to other states of the country. They have their own language and have traditionally been dedicated to mining and masonry, although some have dedicated to sheepherding.
Monsoon season is especially beneficial in the Thar Desert, an arid land that goes through long periods of drought. The rainwater irrigates the fields assiduously and where nothing grows for much of the year, pastures will grow to feed the cattle. Due to this, at this time shepherds appear scattered around the landscapes, walking tirelessly dozens of miles a day with their herds.
The Manganiyar are a cast of musicians from the Jaisalmer and Barmer areas. In ancient times, they played for the Rajas and Maharajas, princes and lords of the region. In fact, at birth, they do it under the protection of a patron, the Jasman, a king or prince to whom they will pay lifelong homage with the lyrics of their songs.
The fate of the Manganiyar can vary. Some may become street musicians, some might play in special celebrations for Indian elites, whilst others may get a contract at a tourist hotel or play musical performances during the high season, but they will always pay homage to their Jasman whenever he requires them. The most fortunate cast are the Tansen, who are considered to hold a God given gift that distinguishes them from the rest, a supernatural dominance of tones and melodies, which have led some to play musical tours in India, Asia and worldwide.
The Kalbeliya are another nomadic tribe who make their living from music and dancing. Whilst the Manganiyar women do not publicly sing or dance, the Kalbeliya women accompany the Manganiyar musicians performing their songs dressed in very colorful and showy clothes. Aware of the importance of education, some communities are introducing specific schools so that boys and girls can learn the art that distinguishes them as a tribe.
Women in this part of India used to cover their face with the dupatta or odhni. It is quite astounding how they can manage to see through this garment’s thin cloth.
Under the cover of night I was able to photograph this neighbor of Dhoba. I mounted my camera on the Manfrotto Befree Live tripod and set an 8 second long exposure illuminating her briefly with a warm light torch. Aware of being photographed, she posed for a moment in the door of her adobe hut.
Recently, I had the chance to meet Muz Khan, a Manganiyar artist who, unlike the rest of his fellows, dances and even dresses as a Kalbeliya woman. Originally from Barmer, he varies his act according to the season in different places, with the aim of supporting
his family. In this case, I decided to select a three-quarter shot portrait to show his clothes and the moment capturing how he feels dressed as a woman. His figure is defined by the backlight coming from the window.
I photographed little Seena’s stained with ata, the flour used to make chapati, the indian bread that accompanies each meal.
Here I decided to open the aperture of my Canon 24- 70 USM II lens to the maximum, up to 2.8, to get the background out of focus and highlight the features of her face.
Travelling on the roof of a bus isn’t only a scene out of a film, in some rural areas it can become a reality because of the low frequency of buses. In this situation the greatest difficulty was to photograph the travelers without all of them looking at the camera. It was impossible to go unnoticed, but in the course of the trip they became accustomed to my presence and the presence of the camera, which made it possible to capture the wind striking their faces, as well as the landscape in motion.
All these nomadic peoples have the same common low level cast status inside the cast hierarchy designated by Hinduism at birth. Although the cast system was abolished in 1950 after the Indian independence in 1947 and Gandhi’s previous peaceful struggle for the untouchables, the system is still in force today, particularly in rural areas.
In fact, the Thar Desert is the cradle of the Roma people, widely known as Gypsies. Its people, traditions and music have spread all over the planet, as if they were ambassadors of the multiple cultures that this treasure holds.