INDIANS AT WORK VI: Religious Business and Spiritual Labor

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    Maker of Talismanic Masks to Ward Off Evil (Madurai, Tamil Nadu)

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    Brahmin layman consults Hindu priest for personal advice by ritual means (Bhubaneshwar, Odisha)

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    Artist creating a traditional Patachitra painting on cloth coated with paste of chalk and ground seeds (Home studio in the heritage crafts village of Raghurajpur, near Puri, Odisha)

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    Painting a Mata ni Pachedi—an image of the goddess Durga painted on cloth, originally used as a portable altar by the nomadic Vaghri tribe—here being painted in the home studio of one of the last remaining families to create them (Ahmedabad, Gujarat)

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    Maker of Murtis (images of Hindu gods) (Kumartuli, the Potters' quarter of Kolkata, West Bengal)

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    Decorating an image of the goddess Durga (Kumartuli, the Potters' quarter of Kolkata, West Bengal)

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    Artisans on a lunch break in the workshop where they are making festival images of Hindu gods and demons (Kumartuli, the Potters' quarter of Kolkata, West Bengal)

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    Workers pulling a finished ensemble of sacred figures from the workshop to the place where it will be temporarily displayed and worshipped (Kumartuli, the Potters' quarter of Kolkata, West Bengal)

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    One of the few remaining makers of Phad paintings (Rajasthani narrative folk art) displays his work in his home studio (Shahpura, Rajasthan)

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    Phad performer, using his bow to point to the episode represented in the Phad painting about which he is singing (Shahpura, Rajasthan)

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    An assistant prepares palm fronds for use in a Theyyam performance (Village in Northern Kerala)

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    An assistant prepares the costume to be worn during a Theyyam performance (Village in Northern Kerala)

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    The Theyyam performer, in a trance and possessed by the goddess (Village in Northern Kerala)

  • INDIANS AT WORK VI:  Religious Business and Spiritual Labor

    Masked Theyyam performer possessed by the god, surrounded by assistants, local dignitaries who have commissioned the performance, and audience of villagers (Village in Northern Kerala)

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    Teachers and Pupils (Madrasa attached to a Mosque in Srirangapatna, Karnataka)

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    Vendor of flowers for offerings at a Dargah (Sufi shrine) (Near Unjha, Gujarat)

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    Muslim Maker of Hindu Household Shrines ( Dharavi Slum, Mumbai)

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    Buddhist Monks Creating a Sand Mandala (Monastery in the Zanskar Valley, Ladakh)

  • INDIANS AT WORK VI:  Religious Business and Spiritual Labor

    Volunteers Serving Sweets to Sikh Worshippers at the Golden Temple (Amritsar, Punjab)

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    Shopkeepers selling religious objects and supplies for offerings, in the Outer Arcade of a Hindu Temple (Madurai, Tamil Nadu)

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    Vendor of flowers for Hindu offerings (Madurai, Tamil Nadu)

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    Vendor of Flower Offerings to Float on the Holy Ganges (Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh)

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    Hand rolling incense sticks (Home Workshop, Mysore, Karnataka)

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    Boy vending slices of Ram Kand Mool, a huge edible tuber said to have been eaten by Rama (the hero of the Hindu epic Ramayana) and his companions during their forest exile (Hampi, Karnataka, the place traditionally identified as the location of Rama's forest exile)

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    Barber Shaving the Head of a Mourner, on the ghats along the Ganges where the dead are cremated (Varanasi, Uttar Pradesh)

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    Cremation Grounds Attendants place a body onto a pyre (Puri, Odisha)

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    Shaivite Holy Man with Bell and Begging Bowl (in the streets of Pushkar, Rajasthan)

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    Hindu Priest Performing Evening Fire Ceremony (Aarti) honoring God Shiva (Small Temple Atop the Rock Monolith at Narlai, Rajasthan)

For many in the West today, the phrase “Indians at work” is likely to evoke remote call centers; or, for those attuned to the global economy, perhaps the steel, pharmaceuticals, or IT industries. But beyond or beneath the dynamic contemporary India of the cosmopolitan urban elite persists another India—primarily agrarian and poor and deeply traditional in its culture, including in its forms of labor. It is these latter Indians at work in their towns and villages or in urban ghettos who are the primary subjects of my project. Here it is worth noting that the Hindu caste divisions that have organized Indian society since antiquity and still hold deep if attenuated power, especially in rural and village India, are a system of social stratification based upon occupation. The four basic categories (varnas), in descending hierarchical order, are priests and teachers; rulers and warriors; farmers, traders and merchants; and laborers. Outside and below this hierarchy are the achhoots, dalits or “untouchables,” whose traditional occupations were (and often still are) considered polluting. There are said to be more than 25,000 sub-castes, each tied to a particular occupation and traditionally hereditary. In this system, one’s occupation was and, for many, still is not only a means of livelihood but an essential identity and set of responsibilities, grounding one’s place in the world. To an extent far greater than is the case in the contemporary West, in village India who you are remains inextricably tied to what you do.

Although photography was a primary motivation for my first visit to India in 2007, I did not arrive with the intention of documenting Indians at work. That project spontaneously arose in the first few days after my arrival, as I was drawn to artisans practicing their crafts and others engaged in traditional forms of labor in the villages and small towns of Rajasthan. Over the course of eleven journeys through various parts of India between 2007 and 2020, I have continued to seek out opportunities to photograph Indians at work earning a living in traditional occupations—as laborers and artisans, street vendors and shopkeepers, merchants and traders, artists and entertainers. Over time, this project has taken shape as a documentation of local and traditional modes of labor persisting under pressure during a period of profound economic, social and technological change. But it has also become an attempt to shape the visual record of my personal experience into an artistically compelling form, in images that capture something of the bewilderingly rich, complex and contradictory Indian ethos as embodied in the daily lives and activities of people whom I have encountered. In other words, while making images of individuals or groups of people actively engaged in a particular kind of work, I am also gesturing toward the complex web of cultural values, understandings and experiences which makes that work meaningful within the world those people inhabit. These are cultural portraits in the sense that, merely by going about to make a living by doing their jobs, the people I photograph are at the same time constantly in the process of creating and recreating their culture.

The body of work represented in these galleries includes images from all eleven of my journeys to India between 2007 and 2020. The arrangement into multiple galleries is for convenience in navigation, and the present classification represents only one possible solution; there are connections among many of the images scattered into separate galleries here. Hover over an image for specific information regarding the subject and location.