While at an IIT Kanpur alumni meet in the United States, friends making a film on the institute were interviewing Roger Vogler, the only living member of the team that had designed it. As they wound up the shoot, Roger told them that he needed somebody ‘professional’ to take photos for his book on the Kailas at Ellora; did they know anybody back in India?
I had only recently worked on the Heritage Management Plan of this Unesco World Heritage Site. Slogging on a large visitor survey, I had spent my time mostly outside and around the cave complex. During the rare moments spent inside, I had wondered about the fantastically skilled hands that had created such voluptuous beauty, such vigour and life, that had literally sculpted out the burning sun, the darkness, and the recesses. And now I was to photograph the 8th-century ‘Kailas’ Cave 16 for a book, the largest monolithic rock-cut structure in the world, the jewel in Ellora’s studded crown! Would I be able to pull it off?
Our 10-day shoot started on a pleasantly chilly December morning in 2010. I had met Roger, a quiet colossus, the previous evening. At the tender age of 82, he was toiling away on his first book! Parikshit from Verul village, at the base of the Ellora caves, was to assist me. Roger had marked out the various shots neatly on a cave plan. We walked around, discussing the light, angles and framing. I took notes, some guide shots, and used a compass to get a better sense of orientation.
I was shooting with a very basic Canon D 400, an entry-level DSLR with an 18-55mm kit lens. If I shot within a reasonable range of light conditions and was conscious of the limits of my camera and its lens, I would be able to pull it off. In any case, I did not have the money to invest in better equipment, and I believe that equipment is a bit overrated. The limited wide angle nature of my lens would help limit distortion, and I would have to work around the tight spaces to somehow photograph large, sculpted masterpieces with relatively limited natural light.
The brilliant black-and-white photographs of Cave 15 by American sculptor Carmel Berkson in her book, Ellora: Concept and Style became my holy grail and counsel. She’d shot using the flickering light of fire-torches held by two young men from Verul, which recreated what must have been the original lighting conditions of the caves.
Our daily routine involved entering the complex before the winter sun had risen, carrying the camera, a tripod, a collapsible silver reflector and ASI’s permission letter. At lunch we reviewed the morning’s images, and returned for an afternoon worth of shots, which we reviewed over dinner. Though the schedule was hectic, a sense of meditative calm took over once I set up the tripod. We had, in a sense, all the time in the world. These mesmerising sculptures, over 1,200 years old, either caught the light perfectly, or shied away from it. At other times, they seemed to gently suggest that we needed to come back at a better time. I was carrying a pre-digital era light meter and would use it, not just to get a sense of the light, but more to inspire an immersive, sculptural frame of mind. I looked at the sculptures, explored angles and distances, exposed multiple shots, and then repeated the exercise, often deciding to return at a different time. The textures, expressions, grains, energy, space, ambience and awe of this monumental monolith seeped into me gently, subconsciously, and overwhelmingly.
Kailas, in its early life, must have been colourful and vibrant, where people of all ages filed in day and night under blazing torches, the perfume of incense in the air and a celebratory atmosphere pervading the shrine. And it has remained one of the great public spaces of this world, continuously for 1,200 years, a place where we the ‘global citizens’ encounter people we have forgotten exist—not just in the way they dress or where they come from, but also in their values, theelegance with which they conduct themselves, and their humility and gratitude. I had feared that managing the visitors while taking photographs would be a problem. I feared they would be milling around all the time; loud, pesky bloody tourists. However, this turned out to be one of the most charming and humbling aspects of the shoot. Children on school trips would crowd around us, asking nonchalantly what we were up to, or where we came from. Sometimes the staff, many of them daily wage contract labour, that were the true guardians of the monument, would come to our rescue and manage the crowd. Mostly people were just curious, and were very appreciative and cooperative when told that we were working on a book. While we struggled with the Shiva Nataraja sculpture in the dark Lankeshvara cave, a group of people, not only waited quietly for us to finish our never-ending long exposures, but also managed other visitors, and then came and thanked us for our work.
Any photographer worth his salt would want to capture the mystery, the unimaginable scale, the magnificence, and the sheer awe a person experiences while exploring the masterpiece that is Kailas. One afternoon, as we were looking down from the Parlanka cave, a group of old women and a few men from rural Maharashtra, organised themselves into a little circle, and started into a game of phugdi, for me a forgotten game from childhood, just at a few steps from the Ravana sculpture. It could have been a scene from any time in the past 12 centuries. There was a sense of camaraderie, a sense of occasion and peals of laughter, as Roger watched with fascination, and I took a few photographs.
My favourite image came about when I was photographing the panel depicting the marriage of Shiva and Parvati. This sculpture is at the north end of the East Aisle, a part of the colonnaded sculpture gallery recessed 30 feet inside the cliff on three sides in the rear of the Kailas. From the southern end of the space, late afternoon light streamed in. An elegantly draped old woman was slowly walking towards us, paying respects to the deities in each sculptural panel. The long exposures gave me little control of the image, but I knew I was capturing a deeply personal, ancient and timeless moment.