Roadside shrine

Walking back to the car, I was halted by the incredible artwork around a roadside shrine in the little lane behind Puri’s Jagannath temple. Odisha takes pride in its living artistic tradition. There is even a small monthly stipend from the state for registered traditional artists provided they attend training courses every so often. As a result, the folk art that you see in this state is often quite competent. I admired the Trimurti: the triad of Brahma with his four faces, each looking in one of the principal directions, Vishu, represented here with dark skin, but clearly identifiable by the conch, disc, mace, and lotus in his four hands, and the bearded ascetic Shiva, wearing a leopard skin. On the perpendicular wall, hidden by the tree were stories from the avataras of Vishu.

In the corner were more stories of Vishnu. He gets more space here in this town which is so closely associated with the worship of one of his two most popular avataras. I love to see the depictions of The One Who Remains: Sesha. Here he is shown as the naag (snake) floating on the sea of milk, with Vishnu reclining on him even as his consort Lakshmi sits on a lotus near him. Below that is a panel showing the ten avataras. I walked on to the car park. I wasn’t able to stop at the artists’ village this time around, but at least I got to see a nice piece of work.

Beach food

Beautiful silk sarees seem to be the choice of beach-wear this year in Puri. You can hardly enter the water in them. It’s also rather stormy, with a chance of hurricanes right now. So the thing to do seems to be to amble on the sand and look for things to eat. The man balancing a whole lot of pans on his shoulder offered four kinds of Odiya sweets, including rasgulla. But I’d stopped at every sweet shop on my way down to the beach, so I gave it a miss.

I was very tempted by the heap of guavas. Nearly ripe guavas, sliced up and sprinkled with salt and powdered red chili is an all time favourite beach food. I’ve eaten it from Goa, down the Kerala coast, up the east coast from Madurai to Bengal, and further east to Myanmar and all the way to Vietnam. I smelt the guavas. Not yet ripe enough, unfortunately. There are some who prefer the fruit very green, but I’m not one of them.

But there was a life save: tender coconut. Just the thing on this hot and humid day. The vendor chopped off the top and gave me the water. Then he split the coconut into two to give me the gelatinous white flesh, still sweet and tender. You scoop it up with a piece of the shell. Very eco-friendly. No single use item there. Not even the coconut. After you’ve finished with it the shell and the coir are used. Perfect beach food for the day.

In autumn winds

Sharad ritu, the season called Indian summer, is on us. Even though it looks like varsha ritu, monsoon, has not gone, you can tell it by the festivals (the long nights of Navaratri, or Durga Puja, or whatever you like to call it, seem to have disappeared before you could properly shake a stick at it). You can tell it by the heat and the humidity between the unseasonal showers. You can tell it by the flowers of grass blooming everywhere.

Was there such a variety of grass flowers before I got my macro act together? I hadn’t noticed it. And all the eight grass flowers you see here (two photos have two flowers) grew in one small patch of wasteland I could take in ten strides. Now I wish I could identify grasses. I know you have to look at clues like like the shape of the leaf, and how they attach to the nodes. But there is no field guide to grasses, so I can’t get further. I hate the situation when you find something of interest and realize that no one else has thought to write a guide for you. Such a slog, to have to write your own guide.

Decoration

Puri, an old temple town, is a hodge-podge of architectural styles from many periods. But the Grand Road, the road along which the massive vehicle of Jagannath passes, is lined with buildings from the last century. Early 20th century architecture is very decorative. Even ordinary houses here have ornate plaster work balconies: botanical curlicues and peacocks are common, as are very bright colours. And what I saw were not ordinary houses.

When it comes to the ashrams, the decorations become mesmerizing. Mythological scenes abound. What could be done earlier in expensive stone or fragile earth, was now done in plaster. Some are executed in the then newly popular westernized style picked up from Raja Ravi Varma and his followers, but others recall temple statuary from the region. But the exuberance of the colours is completely local. Driving through the countryside outside Puri you’ll see modest houses painted in the same bright colours, standing out against the greenery of fields. All of the decorations you see here belong to gateways. In the last picture in the gallery above you see one of the gates, a massive made-to-order cast iron affair (interestingly, of all the gates I saw, this was the only one in which the dwarapala was not a lion). The iconography is largely of Vishnu, of course. The small icon of the Varaha avatara (featured photo) was a wonderful example of this style.

Across the road from these ashrams was a building with totally different aesthetic on its frontage. The colours and the style were imitation British. I wondered why it was so different. There was no clue from its current use. It had shops on the ground floor and a hotel in the upper floors. Quite a good spot if you want to take photos of the rath yatra, I thought.

Midweek mobile 8

Puri, an ancient temple town, is the perfect place for street photos. No camera can be more discreet these days than a phone; bystanders can seldom tell whether you are taking a selfie or a photo of the street. Gone are the days when you saw a photographer and you would walk around them. These days you could land up photo-bombing a selfie. I walked about taking more shots than I could ever use. I had a few destinations in mind, and since these small lanes are a little confusing, I had my maps and location service on. I knew that all this can eat charge like a hungry spider. This time I was going to track exactly how much.

Normally I charge the battery fully, and it gives me a low battery alert when the charge has fallen to 15% of its capacity. On the average I have to charge my phone every three days. That means in an average hour I use 2.3% of the charge. After an hour of walking, I saw that maps and camera had each been on for the hour. Maps had eaten 3% of charge, but the camera had eaten just over 10%. This was just the camera software, since the display is counted separately. This agreed with my previous experience, that I would need to charge my camera after a day’s shooting.

To understand why, back up a little. These photos are zoomed in by a factor of about 4 to 8. With a DSLR setup you would not expect to capture the details of the old man’s mustache using a 15 mm diameter lens which has a focal length of 26 mm. The sensor size on my phone is almost 8 times smaller than that on most DSLRs, and therefore catches that much less light. The sharpness that you see comes from the number of output pixels in the image. That pixel density is due to intense computation, including two components that I’ve explored before: computational super-resolution and image averaging over a very large number of images. Driving the software that tries to compensate for the hardware limitations is what uses up so much charge. Algorithms will improve in future, mass market hardware will become better, and processors will run cooler. But until then, the carbon footprint of phone photography will remain several times larger than that of communication.

Phone photography changes our expectation of the interaction of camera hardware and image so dramatically that it is worth rethinking what photography means. I intend to explore this a bit in this series.

Mustachioed guardians

Odisha has its own modern style in temple guardians. In other parts of India and south-east Asia you might find fearsome Yakshas, or the temple god’s familiar, perhaps a monkey warrior or a bull, perhaps a figure of a Garuda. In Odisha this diversity of guardians is visible in temples which are more than a century old. But now, the dwarapalas are almost always a pair of lions.

I walked through the lanes around the Jagannath temple in Puri taking photos of these lion guardians. Most of these secondary temples are small, and the lions are the smallest element in them. But large or small, they have heavy dark mustaches, turned upward and often stylishly curled. In fact I saw only one pair of lions which had a representation of whiskers. One of the pair is shown in the featured photo.

Here is the last guardian I saw. I advanced on it, with my phone held out towards it. Undaunted, it stood its ground, refusing me entry. It was guarding a plastic chair, not a temple.

Past the wrack line

Whenever I pass the wrack-line at a beach I know I’m out of my depth. At least metaphorically. The line is strewn with a kind of life that I know almost nothing about. A whole hidden world has been reaped of it’s dead and dying creatures and deposited by the cleansing tide along this meandering line on the beach. What are these long stems that I see? Is it kelp? The stem would be called the stipe then, and the round green things could be gas bladders. They are green, full of chlorophyll. They must be among the places where photosynthesis happens. Everything is turning black quickly in the air; it is like making sense of a garden from a compost pit. The black ribbons wrapped around the stipe were probably the photosynthetic blades. I have a camera that can enter the water without damage, but I didn’t prepare for a beach when I got into the car.

I step across the wrack line to watch the incoming tide. It’s a miracle that it hasn’t deposited more plastic on the beach. But as always I’m enchanted by the deep boom of the surf. The Bay of Bengal is one of the most restless seas that I know, a nursery for deadly hurricanes. Even on this rainy day, many of us are cramped into a small part of the beach, although it extends for thirty-odd kilometers around here. The tides have been eating the land here, and large parts of it are not safe. A warming earth has extended the season of the monsoon, even as the waters rise. A hotter earth will be a wetter earth. Water vapour is a greenhouse gas, even more than CO2. Are we at the beginning of a runaway hot house?

Fresh catch

Many years ago, on our first visit to Chilika lake, we stopped at a small and unremarkable looking eatery on a side road. Our guide and driver was clearly looking forward to the meal. One of the three tables was occupied, and we parked ourselves on one under a tree in the little yard. The lobster and crab were the freshest I’d ever had, and cooked lightly and with a delicate touch. I went back on every visit to Odisha which took me near Chilika, and it remained wonderful. The single soft-spoken owner-cook-waiter was later joined by a couple of assistants to wait on tables, but the kitchen remained the exclusive domain of the old man.

In early March, on my last trip before the lockdown, I passed near Chilika again. This is a huge lake, with a surface area of over a thousand square kilometers. This time I was on the end near Berhampur, not Puri. But I was told that there was a Chilika dhaba nearby. Late in the evening we dropped off the highway and detoured into something quite different. This was one of the large productions which cater to busloads of tourists.

Fortunately, in rural Odisha, freshness is a fetish, as a result of which I’ve seldom had bad food on the roadside. The dhaba was out of lobster, but crab and two varieties of fish were available. We decided to share one of each thing on offer. The ingredients were as fresh as I’d expected; they can’t be otherwise next to one of the biggest fishing grounds in this part of India. Although the cooking was uninspired, the freshness of the crab was good enough to keep us plodding through the meal. I resolved to go back to the other dhaba as soon as possible. Now this is a promise to oneself which seems hard to keep.

On the way out I passed this large image of Kali painted on one wall. I find the simplification of this image wonderful. In Odisha it is enough to draw the eyes to signify Kali, time, the goddess of death. Every other piece of this image is dispensable. The dhaba had emptied out, and it was time to hit the road again. Kali stared at us as we climbed into the car.

On the road

We had a bit of a drive ahead of us and our driver pulled into a petrol pump almost as soon as we got on to the highway. I looked out of the window at the truck filling up next to us. I’ve written about art work on Indian trucks many times before, but this looked different. At eye level with me was some of the usual kitsch (featured photo), but it was executed perfectly. None of the distortions of naive art. This was a master at work.

I got off and walked around the truck. No amateur, the artists who worked on this truck. Stencils had been used. This medium is becoming commercial! But just look at that swan: wonderful lines. Never seen something like that on a truck. This could be a well-trained commercial artist, one who could as easily design a logo.

Around another tyre-well, more kitsch, this time from some cartoon. But look at that repeating motif that arches around the tyre. It is not only executed flawlessly over and over (see also the featured photo), but has been designed to be easy to execute.

An elegantly executed Hanuman was spray painted on with a stencil elsewhere on the truck. There were numerous small pieces rather than a single overall theme which I’ve seen before on trucks. Is this good or bad? Am I seeing the beginning of the commercialization of truck art? Is this the end of King Rat? By all accounts small businesses have given way to large conglomerates over the last three years. Perhaps in future large fleets of trucks will be decorated by one commercial artists’ firm, instead of one truck one artist.

Closing time

I had dinner in a small town in Odisha. The restaurant was very full when we walked in, but emptied out before we finished. One of my colleagues had to catch a train later. So we took a short walk through the town. It was about nine, and most shops were shutting down. The wide street was lit by dim lights placed along the divider. This meant that most of the illumination came from shops, and once they started closing, the street began to get much darker. It was enchanting in its own way. We saw a line of bright yellow doors separated by blue walls; little kiosks which had closed.

Further along the row one kiosk was open for business. The vegetables on display were extremely fresh. A long cold chain is not needed to bring these to the town. The chopping boards are big and solid pieces of wood; seemingly cross sections of the trunk of a small tree. Banana flowers and jackfruit are two of the things that I would not normally find in a shop in Mumbai. There were also some long beans which I’d not seen before.

Next to the fresh vegetable stall was this tiny “supermarket”. Any grocery store with open access to the merchandise now calls itself a supermarket no matter how small it is. This was an interesting contrast to the vegetables. While that only stocked food which was fresh and had to be cooked, this had nothing which was fresh. Everything came inside a plastic package and was ready to eat. This was also much costlier per helping than fresh food, but the very price makes them an aspirational thing in these small towns.

Nearby a roadside eatery had served its last customers and was busy shutting down. The helper was carting the last chairs from the pavement into the shop. The counter was definitely closed. As I took this photo, I heard the sound of running water from the kitchen. I suppose the cookware and plates were being cleaned. There was much animated consersation between the cook and the helper, as I quietly took this photo and moved off.

I don’t know what this interesting looking stall was for. The man you see in the photo looked at us curiously as I took the photo. He spoke only Odiya, and none of us counted that as a language we could express ourselves in. My best guess is that this stall serves ready-made food of some kind. Perhaps things that supplement the food made in the home kitchen, but maybe largely aimed at labourers and other immigrants who have been drawn to this region by the large amount of construction under way. If this were so I think the stall would also have some of the wonderful local sweets.

This was the second of the odd juxtapositions. Right next to that temporary stall was this more permanent structure with ice cream and cakes. Even as the town wound up for the night there were customers here. A savvy sweet shop does not miss a trick. There was also a counter with the local Odiya sweets; that’s what the lady in the sari is looking at. The cold drinks and the toffees in bottles in the front counter would have attracted children a couple of hours before I took the photo. I liked the expectant look of this shop.

This junction of two major local roads was more typical of the time in this town. Once the lights went off, the town was generally dark. A couple of open shops provide the only light in the place. Everyone hasn’t gone to sleep yet. Parked motorbikes show that there are some people who still come to the shops at this hour. After all a major railway station is less than ten minutes away. We went there to drop my colleague, and that place was brightly lit and bustling with traffic.