Shooting Diwali in Rajasthan

18 Jan 2018

Regular visitors to the Travelshooters website may have noticed that the timing of our annual camel-photofest — the photography tour of Pushkar and Rajasthan — is a little different to the typical photo tours designed around the amazing desert spectacle of Pushkar Camel Fair. We start earlier in the cycle, and try to make sure that our clients get to witness and photograph Diwali, the festival of light. Not some choreographed telephoto performance for the tourists, but up-close, 35mm Diwali as it’s practiced by ordinary Indians on their streets and in their homes.

Night shooting with available (tea)light isn’t for everybody, but I’ll tell you what is: witnessing the amazing charm and courtesy of the Indians, especially on this most special of festive days. Each time we wander the streets of a city like Udaipur, our cameras are greeted with warm smiles, greetings of Happy Diwali and, more often than not, invitations to join the celebrants in their homes and partake of the customary Diwali sweets and treats. We’ve stuffed ourselves chock-full of gulab jamun, jalebees, laddoos and barfi as we’ve chatted with people who treated us as new friends, not just as foreign visitors. (We consoled ourselves that the horrific calorific excesses of the night would be walked off in the hot November sun the following day.)

Diwali evening is not just about sky-high fireworks shows. The real opportunities are very down to earth. On every street corner you see quiet illuminated shrines, a worshipper genuflecting as she leaves a gift for the deity. Every street sports row upon row of flickering tealights; intriguing shadows and incense’s smoky magic create mystery everywhere. Ladies in immaculate sarees and iridescent jewellery make their way briskly as they tick off their Diwali chores, and kids play with sparklers and diyas in the doorways. The women sport mehndi tattoos, and the painstaking tracery of rangoli art decorates the doorstep of every home.

Pushkar Camel Fair has changed enormously over the years we’ve been doing our tours there… the trickle of camera-toting Westerners has turned into a flood of shooters from all over the world.

But there’s another reason we like to start early in Rajasthan. It’s not something photography tour companies often talk about, but hey, let’s break with that tradition.

Pushkar Camel Fair has changed enormously over the years we’ve been doing our tours there. As its reputation as a photographer’s paradise has grown, the trickle of camera-toting Westerners has turned into a flood of shooters from all over the world, as well as huge numbers of well-heeled Indian photographers who, reasonably enough, have come to capture the opportunities in their own back yard.

Sometimes, the cameras seem to outnumber the locals and livestock. A dozen photographers seem to vie for every shot, and it’s downright impossible at times to compose something that doesn’t have city-slicker legs in the background. Don’t believe us? Ask Petapixel. (And bear in mind that article dates back to 2013. Our own city-slicker legs were at the 2017 Pushkar gig and we assure you, it’s tougher than ever out there in Pushkar’s dusty bowl. The patience of the much-photographed camel-herders, once polite and happy to please, is steadily eroding, along with their cooperation. You’re as likely to get a grimace or a growl (from your subject or a fellow shooter) as you try to frame your shot. Cash for clicks — ‘No photos, money!’ — studied set-piece poses and artificial smiles are the order of the day.)

But of course, Pushkar does need to be seen and experienced. And great opportunities are still to be had. We go in early, when the horse-trading and camel-haggling is in full swing. We take our clients to the select places, to the authentic groups where serious shooting can be done under the savvy steering of our lead photographer. Timing is everything. And long before the serious wheeling and dealing gives over to touristic Ferris-wheeling and tacky side shows, we’re done and dusted. The official opening ceremony that marks the onset of Pushkar’s overloaded silly season is our signal to hit the road.

And where do we head for? The photographically rich pickings in towns like Jaipur and Jodhpur — not just the tour-bus staples where you’ll be jostled by a thousand cameraphone adventurers, but behind the scenes opportunities around these towns where meaningful work can be done. And we also take our clients into the deep desert, to the kind of tribal shooting that makes exhibition-class imagery.

And, for our many US clients, a small but often important bonus: there’s still time to catch a plane back for Thanksgiving with the folks at home.

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