The fifty or so drummers and horn players are glistening with sweat and reaching a crescendo of almost deafening loudness when I finally feel the tap on my shoulder. I’m jammed into the crowd of thousands of chanting and jumping revelers, a veritable mosh pit of the faithful, at the annual Puram festival in Trissur in the southern Indian state of Kerala, shooting the musicians at close range with a 16-85mm VR Nikkor on my D80, and I’m not aware of much else but what’s going on right in front of me.
“Excuse me, sir,” the shoulder tapper yells in my ear when he finally gets my attention, “but if you don’t move very, very quickly, the elephants will surely crush you!”
And true enough, when I swing around, I’m face-to-trunk with a juggernaut of 15 elephants, shoulder-to-shoulder, each one wearing an elaborate headdress called a caparison and carrying three members of the Brahmin caste holding colorful umbrellas.
I sidestep the line of blitzing pachyderms and make my way to the edge of the surging, sweaty crowd. This is too much! Everywhere you look, there is this crazy, photogenic activity going on!
That’s the way it is in India; it’s never a question of finding something to shoot, it’s more a matter of finding a respite from the constant flow of photo opportunities that has drawn photographers to the subcontinent since the dawn of the daguerreotype.
I’ve been fortunate to have been assigned to shoot stories in India by a number of publications over the years. But I had never been to Kerala in southwestern India, and rather than pitching it as a story idea to a number of magazine clients and waiting for them to make up their mind, I decided to do a self-assignment and go on spec. Working without the special access (not to mention the expense account) that a magazine assignment affords means you need to plan carefully to stretch your dollars and maximize your opportunities.
In my pretrip research, I determined that I wanted to see the Puram festival in Trissur, which is the biggest festival in the state. It took a while on the Internet to determine exactly when this festival is held (it’s keyed to the moon phases, among other factors). Different sites had different dates listed for the event (some as far apart as a month), but through an official site for Kerala tourism (www.kerala.org), I found out that it was an early-April event and planned my entire trip around the festival.