The ordinary

David Hockney is quoted to have said “I’m always excited by the unlikely, never by ordinary things.” We can’t all be David Hockney. I take delight in accidents and ordinary things very often. For example, the accidental discovery that pressing the shutter release of a camera while cupping the lens in one hand can give you an interesting result. As evidence I give you the featured photo.

Say, it’s only a paper moon / Sailing over a cardboard sea / But it wouldn’t be make-believe / If you believed in me

Ella Fitzgerald / Billy Rose

Ordinary material from the kitchen has provided me with hours of fun. On a rainy day, stuck at home, I sliced up an onion to try to capture the contrast between the moist layered interior and the papery exterior. For another photographic experiment, I took two different colours of grapes and a bowl to provide a third colour; then a sheet of packaging to reflect light and intensify the hues. Do these experiments work as photos? You should tell me. But I do like photo shoots where you can eat the subject after you are done.

There are delightful times when you see something familiar in a new light. That happened to me when I decided to take photos of thorns on a rose bush rather than the flowers. A bit like the moment when you realize that Neville Longbottom may be even more extraordinary than Harry Potter.

But look around you … Death and light are everywhere, always… perhaps to create a thing of beauty.

Roger Zelazny in Lord of Light

This sudden lifting of the commonplace into the most extraordinary thing that you have seen is one of the joys of photography. If I had to choose a name for it, I would call it Photo Dhyan (the Hindi word means attention as well as meditation). I could start to sound like a mystic if I go on about it. But I’m sure you have experienced it yourself as you walk about with a camera in your hand, thinking only that you want to take photos. Perhaps you are wishing you had found a less ordinary place. But then something happens as you look around and begin to assess everything as a photo. Suddenly parts of the ordinary no longer look mundane. Share that moment from your archives. Or better still, enter the zone, and bring those moments back with you to share.

We hope you join us this week for Lens-Artists Photo Challenge #169: The Ordinary.  It is my honour to join Amy/Ann-Christine/Patti/Tina as your guest host for the week. Please include a link to my post and use the Lens-Artists tag so we can all find you in the Reader. I’m traveling right now, but I’ll be back on Monday to look at your entries.

Next week, Patti will lead the challenge, so we invite you to stop by her site on Saturday, October 16 at noon and join us.

An equinoctal moon

Luna glided overhead as we looked for nightjars. It was easier to spot the triad of lunar seas, serenity, tranquility, fertility, than a savanna nightjar in flight. Certainly photographing them at night with my equipment was out of the question, even with the moon waxing to nearly three quarters. I turned my camera up to the moon.

Top to bottom: Seas of Serenity, Tranquility, and Fertility (detail)

The lunar seas of showers and of clouds had become visible a couple of days ago. These fancifully named seas are actually basalt shields, the frozen remnants of lava flows which were caused by an extensive bombardment by meteors around four billion years ago. The earth was also shaped by this shower, and very few fragments of continental crusts are older. Life began on earth soon after that. On the moon the lava seas in these enormous craters had solidified more than three billion years ago. By that time photosynthesis had begun on earth. Our atmosphere was changing even as the splotchy appearance of the moon took shape. The new photosynthetic life made the earth unlivable for most anaerobic bacteria and caused the first age of extinction.

Plato crater at lunar dawn, just north of the Sea of Showers (detail)

Near the northern end of the terminator, my camera could pick out the far edge of Plato crater catching the morning sunlight. This crater is as old as the sea of showers (Mare Imbrium) just south of it. If you were to stand inside that crater then and looked up at the cliffs on the far edge, what a sight the morning sunlight must be! At the southern end of the terminator you can see a jumble of craters. Just inside it, at roughly mid-morning, is the bright young Tycho crater, only a 108 million years old. The dinosaurs may have seen it forming. In a few days, the whole of the visible half of the moon would have day. That lunar day is what we call a harvest moon. It was still more than a week away.

In the next two days we were to cross the Tropic of Cancer several times, as we scouted for more of the winter’s birds passing through the Rann of Kutch. It was a funny astronomical coincidence. The Tropic of Cancer marks the furthest point north where the sun can be at the zenith. And we were near that at the time the sun was crossing the equator! As I took photos of the signboard someone remarked that it had seen better days. True enough. So had the moon, by my reckoning.

A desert landscape

Was I looking at the great Rann of Kutch or a microsoft windows display? The Family’s sister had made a film in this area. When she saw the shot that you see above, she said she couldn’t believe it. The peak is an ancient Cretaceous volcanic plug called the Dhinodhar Hill. The area is supposed to be more wet than many parts of the Rann, but the scene before us was definitely an effect of the monsoon. Sharad ritu, the fourth of the six seasons, is a beautiful time in the desert. Blue skies, fluffy white clouds, green fields, and the sight of migratory birds arriving.

I stood on the embankment of the Bhuki dam and took this photo. On one side was a small cliff created by past quarrying. The stone looked like shale,. If one had time one could look for fossils in there. The sedimentary rocks here come mostly from the Triassic period, after the breakup of ancient continent of Gondwanaland. The volcanic plug in the distance came from the time when the Deccan traps were laid down. These two times bracket the era of the dinosaurs. We had arrived here to see the last shrunken but diversified remnants of the dinosaurs: birds. Weird!

Lights. Camera.

Mornings are dark and blue now, at the end of the monsoon. We spotted the colour in the sky as we walked towards the small turboprop which was to fly us to Bhuj. The tarmac was lit up by bright lights as we entered the plane. The Rann of Kutch was our destination. This is a vast swamp formed in historical times by the geology of India. As the Indian plate continues to sweep north-east at the grand pace of five centimeters a year, it raises the plain of the Indus and the vast desert around it fast enough that historical records tell us of the Rann being cut off from the sea to form first a vast inland lake, and then a salty marsh. Rivers come into being and disappear, the weather changes, wealthy civilizations rise, fall, and are forgotten. This is a marvel of geology that few think of as such.

The town of Bhuj was the starting point of our trip. The Kutch was the epicenter of a massive earthquake in 2001, as two geological plates released the stresses due to their movement. Since then Bhuj has not had any buildings more than three stories high. Standing at the edge of the Thar desert, it has had its share of the monsoon rain this season. The place was hot, already 26 degrees as we landed early in the morning. The day gradually became a sultry steam bath. Walking through the crowded lanes of the old town outside the palace walls, we were happy to pass under the shade of huge sheets of cloth hung up overhead to provide shade. The desert sun filtered through them. The vast geographical variety of India spawns varied lifestyles and sub-cultures, more than are dreamed of in some philosophies. We moved from one shade to another, eyes adjusting to new colours at every transition.

The palace complex turned out to be quite fascinating. I had forgotten that this was a rather important kingdom until a hundred years ago. Even sixty years ago it was so rich that the former king bailed India out of crises. My attention was caught by a collection of ancient glass plate photographs. They come from the very earliest days of photography, and are among the first attempts to capture the light of old days and preserve them artificially. I took a photo of the negative on the glass plate. One button on Gimp creates a positive out of it. This image is almost a hundred and twenty years old. The Maharaja, possibly Khemgarji III the Progressive, is seated in the center, flanked by his sons, while his diwan and other ministers stand behind him.

This was planned as a bird-watching trip. We had to leave the city and travel into the desert. This strange land provides a niche for several specialized species. Also, at this time of the year it is a stop-over for several species on their biannual migration. To get there we had to drive. The land is full of nomadic animal herders. Late in the evening flocks of animals, sheep and goats, or cows and buffaloes, or herds of camels would use the road, leaving only a narrow gap for motorized traffic. I tried to catch a photo of such a flock in the scatter of light from our car’s headlights.

The desert is the preferred habitat of scorpions. Most are tiny. All fluoresce under UV lamps. It is easy to walk through the rocky desert at night with an LED torch light set to UV. As you swing it around, any scorpion in the area will immediately fluoresce. Seasoned naturalists will tell you that they even glow in moonlight, but that glow is something I can’t recognize. The UV torch lights that are available in the market are bright enough that you can photograph a scorpion by one.

The scorpion was relatively benign. But the saw-scaled viper, Echis carina, that we nearly ran over on the road later was not. They are among the four deadliest snakes in the country; some say deadlier than the cobra. Our driver, another birder, gently urged it away from the road with a stick. I took a photo in the penumbra of the car’s headlights. You can see the pattern which gives this genus its name. Hopefully this individual won’t be roadkill. It had been a long day. The bird sightings would come the next day.

Wide open spaces

Cliffs, ridges, waterfalls. That’s Khandala for you. Speeding along the expressway, I’ve often looked longingly at the meadows around the Duke’s Nose (that cliff was said to resemble Wellington’s profile, and the name remains even when the association is forgotten). The Family is rather blasé about it. She’s spent weekend retreats in one of those villas every year. This year I followed her into some of those places and saw a view which was new to me. I realized that I have to go wider than wide to capture the sense of what I saw. I had to take a panorama.

The meaning of a wide angle is clear to anyone except a photographer. Fussy lenspeople will talk of focal lengths and film sizes, and try to translate it to digital in terms of ratios. By this definition, most smart phones have wide angle lenses. But that does not take into account the software which chops or adds to images. I wondered a little about this as I took a photo of clouds drifting across the slope and the cliff. But only a little, since I was busy trying to figure out whether I should cross the haha (you see it as the brown line beyond the rock in the photo above) and get closer to the lip of the cliff. I walked up a bit further, and found the slope too steep and slippery and decided not to.

I moved a little and took another photo. This time catching the turn in the expressway just before it gets to Lonavala. If you ever wondered how high the monsoon clouds are, go to Khandala. They drift along the roads here, and drop off into valleys. Since this place is half a kilometer above sea level, that tells you how low monsoon clouds get. The fluffy white cirrus clouds that you can see in other seasons are about six kilometers up in the sky. I love the feel of the monsoon in the Sahyadris, the drifting fog that hides and reveals, the strange light, the startling green of these meadows.

Crouching slouch, hidden hero

Half a kilometer above Mumbai, I crouched to look at a strange flower hidden under a tree. The Family had led me to a hidden wilderness in Khandala. It was raining hard. As we walked through ankle-high grasses and herbs, insects mobbed us. The place was dotted with trees, and it was below one that I had found a flower which was completely new to me. I took a photo and stood up to look for The Family. She was behind me, looking satisfied with a photo of me with ass in the air, head below my ankles. Her photo was already on its way to the clan.

I pointed at the flower. She said wild ginger. This is her patch of Khandala; she knows it well. I shifted and crouched again. Sure enough, there was a rhizome, visible in the mud where the bract had stemmed out. So I could accept family Zingiberaceae, a ginger. It is more commonly called the hill ginger (Curcuma pseudomontana). Like many members of the ginger family, C. pseudomontana seems to be a source of interesting chemicals which could lead to drugs for treatment of several diseases.The pink leaves I was seeing on the flower spike is not the flower. The small yellow flower is what I should have looked at first.

The rain was letting off, and I was tired of crouching over a hollow full of insects, several of which had begun to pierce my face in search of food. We walked on. Close to the edge of a cliff I found another little pink stem. Here more of the plant was visible, including the enormous ribbed leaves. The flowering spike poked out from between them. I took a photo of the plant, growing tangled among other things. Then I bent for another close up of the pink spike. In this photo you can see more clearly that the pink parts are modified leaves. The plant is endemic to the Sahyadris, and other hilly parts of the Deccan plateau, both east and west. Its narrow range is now under “development” stress, and the plant has gone from vulnerable to near threatened in recent years. I was lucky to have permission to visit a stretch which botanists are trying to preserve.

Later, when we went back to the villa where we had parked our car, I noticed that someone had planted a bed of hill ginger. That’s not surprising. It has many uses, apart from the new pharmaceutical possibilities. Traditionally the leaves could be used as a plate instead of banana leaves. The potato-shaped buds on the rhizome could be eaten, or powdered for arrowroot. Getting a photo of the yellow flower was easier here.

Rite/right of Passage

Traffic flows like tar along the highways out of Mumbai these weekends. With the easing of travel restrictions and the simultaneous start of work, people need a break. Mumbai’s youth always had a rite of passage. A teenager would join friends for a trip to the nearest hills in monsoon. Monsoon rains trickle down from the hills over impermeable volcanic basalt. These seasonal streams falls over the frequent cliff faces in these hills to make monsoon waterfalls. Gangs of the young spend drunken weekends under random waterfalls . Even decades removed from that age, The Family still longs to get out to the waterfalls every monsoon. In trying to avoid these crowds we decided to walk around Lonavala one Thursday afternoon.

We drove up for an early lunch and then exited on to the road leading to the lake. Pandemic restrictions have not gone completely. Just past the embankment was a police checkpost where a few people were turned away. We looked decrepit enough to be allowed through. “What are they checking for?” The Family wondered. My speculation was that they are denying the right of passage to gangs of the nearly-adult. Bad times for them. Not only do you face a tough negotiation with parents, but then it comes to nought because of the police. “Your three cameras are passport enough for us,” The Family declared. It was an overstatement; one was a phone.

It had started raining, and it would continue all evening. I wished I had fewer cameras with me. I couldn’t bring out one because of the rain. Even the waterproof camera gets drops over its lens in rain. I huddled over it to dry the cover. The rain had grayed the lake. The clouds had come down over it, hiding the far side. I loved the serenity of the place. Could it make a decent photo? I wasn’t sure as I clicked away. You can always delete things which don’t turn out halfway decent.

On the far side a stream staggers down a cliff every monsoon. We ambled round to it. It had attracted a few other people. Some couples, a family with exuberant children, a small group of young people. The light was getting worse. We didn’t have the right footwear for getting close enough to it. We looked at the falling water for a while and then moved away. Across the road there was an attractive symmetrically spreading tree. It deserved to have its portrait taken.

Even in these sparse crowds a couple of people were trying to run a business. A middle-aged man was selling roasted bhutta (corn). A more enterprising lady was offering everything from her version of a food truck. From under that awning I spotted a group of hikers walking up the slope towards the top of the waterfall. “They have the same footwear as us,” The Family remarked. The lady asked “Do you want a tea?” The Family was torn, but then decided on the tea.

One tree, sky

For about ten years I carried a camera in my backpack wherever I went. Then, as smartphones took over, I began to leave the camera at home. My old photos show that the two instruments are not yet interchangeable. You do different things with them. There is a tree which I pass daily on my way to work. I took photos of it every now and then. I stopped doing it when I began to leave my camera at home.

The featured photo is from one March at midday. The winter’s smog is gone, the sky is a lovely blue. This photo was taken in the late years, after I started carrying a smart phone, but before I began to leave my camera at home. But it is the earliest time of the day that I took a photo of this tree.

The images from the month of April span eight years and cover the time from late afternoon to sunset. This is the time of the day that the western shore of the city gets its best light. The tree is more or less a flat silhouette though.

There is a gaping hole in the record during the monsoon months. The sky is drab, the light is flat, and it is almost impossible to keep the camera dry next to the sea. I think I took this photo in a particularly dry monsoon year.

September is still a monsoon month. The sky is often overcast, but there is less rain. I have a couple of photos from this time of the year. This one was taken in the afternoon, at about the time when, in other months, the shadows would be lengthening.

This is a photo from one October. The sky is clear. The light remains good after sunset. Good enough to see the colour of the sea, and the green of the grass. What a difference the month makes!

Then, as the sea begins to cool in December, smogs begin to envelop the city. The colours of sunset remain spectacular, but the sky fades quicker. Lights come on in the garden early.

I thought I was photographing the tree. It turned out that I was recording the six seasons, and the way the light changes with the weather.

Darkness in Matheran

Good legs and comfortable shoes are what you need to visit Matheran. No cars are allowed on the plateau. You could drive from Mumbai and park at the immense parking lot below the plateau, or take the train in. A century old toy train may run from the station up, but it is often out of order. So you either walk or take a horse. A dozen years ago, we walked up immediately after the end of the monsoons.

No ID for the moth, and I didn’t notice the insect with the long elegant legs until later

Matheran is only 800 meters above sea level, but it seems immensely high when you look up at it. The youngest among us was seven years old. Lewis Carroll’s description “All of us were out of breath, and some of us were fat” fitted us to the last trailing T. Clouds had gathered over the plateau as we drove in. True Mumbaikars that we are, our rain gear had been packed away after the monsoon. We confidently predicted no rain, and began the walk along the tourist route. The hour long walk turns lovely a little way up. We stopped frequently to take photos and prolonged it a little.

After checking into the hotel, we decided to have tea before going out for a walk. It can take a couple of days to stroll all the way around the plateau. Although we were keen to do it, we had to have tea first. It was already late afternoon. A very lucky decision, because the clouds burst into a hard rain. The rain became a storm. And in no time, a tree fell on the power lines up to the plateau. It would take a few hours for Matheran to get its electricity back. The tea became an elaborate affair. Darkness fell before we could go out.

We love to take isolated hotels. This one evening it did not seem like a good decision. The mall road was a smudge of light in the distance. We walked out into a dark and muddy path. You knew there was a puddle to be avoided only after your shoes were wet. The Family did not mind. It was a little adventure, and Matheran is famous for its footwear. Each shop in the market had emergency lights. Power outages are frequent, but commerce cannot stop. Handbags, fancy footwear

I knew it was time for me to leave The Family, The Leafless, and the nieces to their devices. My cousin and I slowly melted into the gloom. The thin red laterite soil overlying the porous rock would drain away the water within a couple of hours. That’s also the reason why this place is not really fit for human habitation. There would have been no people here if it wasn’t for the 19th century craze to take the mountain air. That drew the British, the Parsis, and the Bohras to build little sanatoria here. Their remains, now largely turned into hotels, now draw crowds from Mumbai. The locals turn up to make a living off the city folk.

Leaving the women to the handbags and chappals, we walked around looking at what else was on offer. Training horses for riding across the plateau was a major occupation. Although the darkness was not the best time for it, there were lines of hopefuls who eyed us. We stopped instead at one of the many people roasting bhutta. After all, you need to eat a couple of times between tea and dinner. It was either bhutta or chikki. Why not both, I suggested to my cousin. He is an agreeable sort when you make such suggestions.

The lights came back before we had finished inspecting all the food on offer. We decided to find the rest of the party before less adventurous tourists decided to leave the safety of their hotel rooms. A mall road is a magnet for moths and men after dark. I took a last photo of two men in animated conversation in a small eatery. It was time to go find how many shoes and handbags a woman needs.

A few minutes

Doesn’t everyone need exactly what they don’t have? During normal times I would be so wrapped up in busy-work all day that I had no time to think outside the box. In a life crammed with not-so-necessary meetings, unending traffic, pointless face-to-faces, a holiday was a time to unwind. You wanted the most picturesque. Now, in a time of travel restrictions, any get away is good enough. We are lucky to have spectacular destinations a short drive away. These are destinations that we neglected in the past. Now the idea of wading through seasonal streams in beds of volcanic basalt is wonderful. Everything outside your eyeballs is a source of inspiration. As your body exerts itself, your mind becomes alert. You see new things.

We came to a point where the stream ran below a low bridge. We were forced to cross the road. We weren’t the only ones. A land crab scuttled across the blacktop. I’d never seen a land crab walk before, and I’d expected the same ten-footed sideways gait as sea crabs. This one walked sideways on two feet! Bipedal land crabs should be easy to identify. Unfortunately I have no field manual. So I’ll leave it as belonging to the family Gecarcinidae and move on. I have to move faster than The Family when I’m taking photos, because she gets a little testy sometimes about my frequent photo stops.

Clambering over stones at the edge of the road I saw a mass of pulsating red. A closer look showed me the original inhabitants of India. These were centipedes (class Chilopoda). They have one pair of legs in each segment of the body. This distinguishes them from millipedes, which have two pairs of legs per segment. It seems that their ancestors lived in the Indian landmass 80 to 100 million years ago. The oldest signs of humans here are no older than 1.5 million years ago. I gave these unfriendly ancient natives of India a wide berth, and moved on.

The flooding water had moved loose stones on to the road. These scattered stones now stood in the way of the water still flowing over the road. I looked at the criss-cross of braided flow that resulted. Quite an interesting pattern. Worth a shot, isn’t it?

As we climbed proceeded along the stream on the other side of the road, more inspiration waited to strike. My strides disturbed a leap of grasshoppers (infraorder Acrididae). They jumped from the low grass on to stones. Most of them jumped away immediately into grass again. A few stragglers gave me an opportunity to take photos. Stubby little bodies, light green in colour. Huge hind legs, which could unfold at the knee to allow them to jump many times their body lengths. I saw this species again a couple of times. I should spend some time trying to identify them.

Just ahead, a small caterpillar on a rock in the middle of the stream posed a mystery. What is a caterpillar doing on a bare rock in the middle of flowing water? A mystery worthy of Hercule Poirot, I believe. There were rice fields ahead. This stream led there. Perhaps a clue to the origin of the caterpillar? My little grey cells tickled. I walked on.