Sunday August 5, 2001

I wrote this little essay for Heather but I figured I might as well post it.

This photo, called "Tourist Panni" is one of my favorites to "explain". It has so much loaded up in the accidental moment my camera went off. I like to use it to talk to people about India because it's not what it seems at first, and most people have wildly romantic visions of India.

For me, this photo is the best example of how the tourists --Indian and western -- interact. It's not what you would expect. During the annual camel fair, the villagers that stream into town get to see a lot of things that they don't normally see, (carnival rides, strange food, people from villages hundreds of miles away), but the foreign tourists must be the strangest. At the height of the festival there are hundreds of thousands of people swarming the streets as this photo shows:

As I was moving through this crowd I spotted the guy in "Tourist Panni" and felt compelled to get a shot of his bottle of water. The bottle of water identifies the guy with the backpack as the tourist literally but in fact, he's the "attraction". He's come from half way around the world to look at the exotic things around him but actually he's creating a spectacle even greater than the one he's watching.

If I was to guess who was having more culture shock at this moment, I would have to say the local. The villager woman looking at him, who is making the "pull my sari to cover my face" gesture, may have never seen a white man in person before but what she's really shocked by is the fact that he's not wearing any pants. I couldn't get that in the picture but she's gawking at is his BARE LEGS. Sure, men wear shorts in India but only poor laborers and boys. Men of status only wear pants. To her, a rich westerner is astronomically high in status and yet displaying himself as if he's a beggar.

On top of all that, this display is sexually explicit and that's why she's trying to cover her face. She's not trying to cover it so she won't look, she's trying to cover it so he won't see her. His gaze, especially when he is half naked, defiles her in their culture. Seeing a woman's beautiful face is one step removed from seeing all of her -- and since women and their beauty are possessions, one step from possessing her. Her urge to cover her face is the result of being trained in self-shame, yes, but it's also an attempt to discharge the sexuality of the gaze. Indians are so repressed; they're more sensitive to the power of gaze than westerners are.

When I walked through a new town as stranger looking for a human connection in the faces of the people, and had women cover their faces when they became aware of my presence, I got a palpable sense of what I was being denied. But I could infer what they were being denied: they'll never know a man other than their husband or his brothers.

Purdah, or the traditional practice of covering the face, is one of the things that bugged me most about the northern region of India. When you know why they do it, it becomes a symbol of repression that you see every where you go. After months in India, when so many of the things I saw had become symbols of corruption, repression or stupidity, I had to get out. I loved the moments of revelation and understanding but soon they turned to disappointment and frustration.

All these photos were taken in Pushkar, in the state of Rajastan, India.

Pushkar Village Goddess

I have a lot of opinions about the beautiful yellow piece of fabric that the woman has to wear over her head. I want her to read this web page. Yeah, right. Never gonna happen.