Date:30/06/2011 URL: http://www.thehindu.com/thehindu/mp/2011/06/30/stories/2011063051190600.htm
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The right spirit

The coffee table book, ‘Kumbh Mela: Haridwar', is a welcome peep into the world of sadhus



By the shores of the Ganges A picture from the book

It is a classic case of faith being held to question by the stereotypes of our society. As a layman, think of the Kumbh Mela and immediately the pictures of ash-smeared sadhus, their hair long and knotted, their beards longer and unkempt, leap to mind. Think a little more, then the image of Naga sadhus rushing for Shahi Snan strikes the mind. The sadhus are all in nir-vastra, the holiness of the condition being overpowered by an image so derisive, so misleading.

Now, finally, an attempt has been made to right the wrong with a coffee table book, Kumbh Mela: Haridwar. With an introduction by Prem Bhalla, this pictorial exercise is the brainchild of Sanjeev Mehta, a lensman, documentary filmmaker and an adventure enthusiast. Of course, he has a brother-in-arms, Gagan Mehta, for company.

Says Sanjeev, “The idea for this book started with a documentary film I had done way back in 2001 for a German channel. While doing the shooting, I realised there was space for a book on the subject.” That “space” has now been occupied by a 120-page book that aims to take the reader through a pictorial tour of Kumbh Mela.

Of course, there are photos of Naga Sadhus, their akhara gatherings, their unique ways of worship, the famous linga kriya and the like. But look a little deeper, the book is also about the common man.

Gagan points out the reason why they chose the spelling ‘Haridwar' and not ‘Hardwar', “Haridwar is the gateway to Badrinath. When the British realised its importance, they could not get the pronunciation right. Thus Hari-dwar became Hardwar!” That is fine, but isn't the book guilty of perpetuating the same stereotypes about Naga sadhus that it seeks to clear?

“The book is meant for those who don't stay in Haridwar or those who know nothing about Kumbh Mela. As for trying to capitalise on the nudity aspect to sell the book, you have to see it from the eyes of a believer. “People come to get the blessings of the sadhus because they otherwise stay in caves and forests. They are Saiv bhakts who are detached from all pleasures. They are called the ‘Army of the Gods',” says Sanjeev. Gagan adds that the book has unique exotic value. “We want to tell the West that our culture is alive. We want to project our mythology.” Sanjeev adds, “The book is meant for those who want to experience the Mela without having visited it.”

Sanjeev is next planning a feature film on the Allahabad Kumbh Mela. ZIYA US SALAM

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