India & Why I Fell in Love with Taking Portraits
We’ve been overwhelmed with the response to our latest family and children’s photographic experiences the last couple of weeks. We’re so happy to see that people are connecting with our photographs of these precious times in a family’s life and it’s reminded me of where it all started for me. 5 years ago now, I visited a school called Food For Life Vrindavan, a place that focuses on serving the ‘poorest of the poor’ in UP, Northern India. I offered my volunteer services as school photographer and gifted a printed portrait of each child at the school as a thank you for all that they taught me in my visits there. To know that many of these children had never had a photograph taken of them before that point, and that they and their families will be able to cherish this photograph for decades to come is something I’ll always treasure. At the time, I wrote a feature article that was published in Real Travel Magazine and the first half is copied here, detailing the precise moment I realised how important just one of those photographs would be for a family and you can see the photograph of Sweetie in the slideshow above. We’re looking forward to immortalising many more special moments for families and children in Berkshire and Buckinghamshire this year,
– Sharan Rai
A holiday choice that stirs the soul and leaves its mark long after returning home, something about volunteering with India’s underprivileged communities keeps drawing me back. India evidently has much to offer spiritually, but the paths to exploring this are not always the most obvious…
Amongst Amritsar’s busy streets, navigating through the queue of rickshaw drivers fighting for custom and past the tourists lining up to visit the site of a major massacre by the British army in the early 1900s, amidst the busy bazaars, there is a golden domed sanctuary of bliss. Covering my head and dipping my feet into the cool tank before the entrance, I am instantly struck by the tranquility within this complex. This is the Golden Temple, the holiest shrine of the Sikhs – and it’s instantly clear why it’s so often described as one of the world’s most spiritual places.
The shimmering ornate temple made purely of gold is magnificent. Sitting quietly in the centre of the pool of holy water, it creates an almost perfect reflection. A single long walkway links the white marble floors of the main square complex to the Golden Temple in the middle. A flock of birds gather over a revered tree, singing sweetly as though accompanying the hymn singing that can be heard via speakers throughout. Pilgrims bow down, foreheads touching the cool marble. Awestruck tourists capture the image on film, others bathe in the healing waters. Hundreds take part in the selfless service providing free (and delicious) meals to the estimated forty or fifty thousand daily visitors.
Sitting down on a raised step by the water, it is easy to feel at peace here. Taking in the calm atmosphere and the meditative air, I reflect back on my travels.
Turning the corner of Vrindavan’s cobbled streets, the sound of the morning assembly at the Sandipani Muni School resounds familiarly. Entering through the school gates, the melodic chants of ‘Hare Krishna Hare Rama’ become clearer and louder; children are running around playing, some applying the tilak mark to their foreheads, others hovering enthusiastically around guests and volunteers. It is a hub of activity and the energy is instantly warm and wonderful. Having heard all about the hardships these communities face, it is difficult to reconcile these happy faces with the stories of terrible living conditions and poverty I had read up on.
Kids, teachers, even the cleaning staff, run to greet me – we had bonded quickly in my first trip here just a few months earlier and they instantly make me feel back at home. “Hare Krishna Mata ji” the kids exclaim excitedly, a running joke from last time. I liked to think I wasn’t old enough to be referred to as a mother figure, preferring the younger sounding ‘sister’. Exchanging hugs and kisses, I gently remind them “it’s Didi Ji!”. We all laugh and I feel blessed to be back here.
When I first arrived in the town of Vrindavan alone, only booking my ticket the week before following an inspired viewing of Slumdog Millionaire, I had no idea what to expect. Despite the short notice, all travel from the airport and accommodation had been arranged by the helpful staff.
On my first night I meet Jennifer, a friendly Australian fluent in Hindi. She lives in Vrindavan working as secretary to the Director of Food for Life. No matter that it is evening when I arrive, the staff are all very keen to ensure volunteers have the best experience. Before taking me to dinner at the Food For Life restaurant, we visit the Iskcon Temple. I have never been anywhere like it.
The first temple built by the International Society for Krishna Consciousness (widely known as the Hare Krishna movement), this is clearly an important place for devotees worldwide.
Three altars at the front carry decorated statues. In the middle, I see a western man, white loin cloth wrapped around him, head shaved with a small pony tail. He looks deeply meditative dancing around freely, eyes closed, oblivious to the people all around. Within minutes, a group of us are holding hands, smiling and dancing in sync to the chants of ‘Hare Krishna’, harmonium playing and bells jangling. The energy in the Temple is electric and the surroundings colourful – it is a joyous way of celebrating the Divine and an amazing welcome to Vrindavan.
Food for Life Vrindavan was set up in 1990 by Italian chef Rupa Ragunath. Initially just a series of evening classes, it now has over 1,000 children in the primary and secondary schools. The sole entry requirement is that students are the ‘poorest of the poor’. Priority always goes to the most disadvantaged children, quite often girls who are given secondary status in their families, sadly seen as a burden. Despite being illegal, child marriages are not uncommon here. The younger the bride, the lower the dowry her family must pay.
In the summer months, the school provides a cool escape. In Winter, it is a place to keep warm and a shelter from the bitter cold.
The school is run solely with the financial help of global supporters, who sponsor a child’s food and education. School lunches here are some of the freshest food I eat and, as a vegetarian, it’s refreshing to be in the majority for once having so much choice. Lunch is served on leaf plates that cause no damage to the environment and no cutlery is used; comparing my curry stained hands with everyone else’s, I could evidently do with some practise in this skill!
Camera in hand, I noticed on my first trip how excited everybody was to be photographed, many not having a single picture of their entire childhood. While there are endless opportunities for volunteers to provide service, I decided this was my area. To huge excitement, I set about photographing each child and promised to send copies. As I took some group shots, a little girl in a Teletubbies hat stood at the end of the line. She had the most beautiful infectious smile and I never saw her without it.
The kids take nothing for granted and their behaviour is impeccable as a result. Hungry for love, they instantly connect with their visitors making every moment at the school incredibly special.
I meet Suraj, a daycare supervisor. She tells me this is her first paid job and it has kept her adrift since her husband died. She is 33 and a widowed mother of three. One of the benefits of travelling alone is that you have no choice but to push yourself out of your comfort zones and form new friendships. Of course this is made easier in a country where the culture dictates that everybody, rich or poor, welcome their guests with open arms. When Suraj invites me to her home one evening, followed by a tour of some local Hindu temples, I’m excited to accept.
Suraj’s home is made up of two small unlit rooms, shared by the four of them. Not wanting to be a burden I ask them not to cook anything but they insist. In a kitchen less than a couple of square feet, with newspaper laid down in place of flooring, Suraj and her son make a perfect cup of tea. A rat scuttles across the room. Still, it is far better than many of the huts we walked past on the way. I’m touched by the warmth of this family and feel bad to decline when invited to stay the night. When I offer to buy the kids sweets, Suraj refuses. She has given me her family’s time and love today unconditionally and is asking for nothing in return but friendship.
Despite all of the hardships they face, this community is the happiest I have met. It is inspiring to see how they are excelling as a result. Morning classes teach the core subjects including English. Afternoons usually involve sports and culture. I find an opportunity to spend afternoons teaching an extremely able and enthusiastic art class.
I am invited along by Rupa to a school trip to the Taj Mahal one Sunday morning. The ride to Agra on the school bus is memorable, with the kids singing in high spirits the whole way. Not knowing the words, I clap along. Seeing the Taj Mahal for the first time will always be a breathtaking moment, but with these kids it is special.
Through the day, children running and playing in the streets shout out greetings to me, skip happily over and hold my hand grinning and talking as we walk together. Many are barely recognisable without their uniforms and again their poverty is evident. Having come to volunteer to help, by the time I leave I feel I will be taking so much more than I could have ever hoped to give. It’s a journey on many levels.
One of the cooks at the junior school beckons me over, hugging me sweetly. She sadly declares, “My Sweetie died”. Shocked, I choke back the tears. Sweetie… the little girl in the Teletubbies hat, always smiling. Wiping away her tears, she tells me “That photo you sent.. is the only photo I have of my baby. Thank you.” I am taken aback by the depth of gratitude for such a small gesture. It’s humbling to realise that no matter how small it feels to us, every act, every kind word, every donation made to people who need it counts in a very big way to them. No amount of giving should ever be considered too small.
On my last morning, I go with Vishaka – another staff member from Kansas – to the Yamuna river. It’s 5am and a beautiful time to see India’s most sacred river. Shooing away the mischevious looking monkeys, we manage to negotiate a ride with a local boatsman going about his work for 100 rupees, a little over £1. Back at the school, I meet Rani, my new sponsored child and look forward to watching her progress.
I spend my final evening at the FFLV orphanage. The kids here have an extra vulnerability and an extra appreciation for love. It’s incredibly sad to say bye, even after only 10 days. One girl Hema encourages me to ask my mum if I’d be allowed to stay a bit longer, say a year. These connections stay with me long after my trip. I constantly remember the happy faces, how loving and sweet they are, how keen to excel with this second chance, and it forces me to reanalyse my own capabilities. The only thing I ever see them fight for is to hold hands with the staff and volunteers, a cry for love. One girl would call out to me and as I looked around and smiled at her, she would smile back. That was all she wanted and the only reason she was calling. The contentment in her face said it all and it cost me nothing to give.
The kids at the orphanage take turns relaying jokes, before turning on some upbeat music. We all dance together. It is like my impromptu leaving party and a lot of fun. I am genuinely saddened to say bye, but know the promises I’ve made to return soon cannot be broken. As I leave Vrindavan, I cannot wait to return.