have we got signs!
have we got signs!

i will miss the signs in chennai.  they were part of the intense visual detail that drew me to the walls project, but moreover, they’re revealing in their own right. while plenty of signs use indian models to advertise merchandise, cola, eyeglasses, etc., you still find some signs using blond, white models, and usually these models have absolutely nothing to do with the products being advertised.

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as i noted in an earlier post, it’s nice to see someone get so excited over flame retardant p.v.c.-insulated wires and cables. (the company’s iso 9100 certified!)

i think the older signs are more useful. you might not know exactly what you want, but you’ll know whether the shop has it or not.

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if anyone knows what the things in the second-row middle and right photographs are, let me know.

the transience of walls

one aspect of my abstract wall details project is that the walls change over time; that when i go back to them (as i have, to take additional photographs), i see that someone has added graffiti, the weather has distressed the paint even more, or – sometimes – someone has obliterated the image completely. sic transit gloria muri.



the original wall, circa march 2013

Jazz composition

the artwork


the wall as of june 2013

going through old photos …

… i came across photos of the southern railways sports association 76th all-india railway men and women’s athletic championships, from 2011. one of my fellow “husbands of chennai” friends invited me along (he knew one of the competitors), so i brought my camera: when else do you get the chance to photograph sports close up? at the chennai tennis open, actually, but what the heck.

the romance of the railroads … the railways are a very big deal in india. indian railways is the largest railway system in the world with 115,000 km of track and 25 million passengers daily, as well as one of the world’s largest public employers with over 1.4 million employees. around chennai there are “colonies” (housing estates) for railway employees and railway manufacturing employees – many state bodies provide living quarters for their employees – so the idea that they have a sports association is not surprising.

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enter the competitors.
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real competition, albeit to an empty stadium.

click on the arrow keys on the slideshow to make it go faster.

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mariamman festival

the portraits i posted in the previous few posts began from this image … i was walking through one of the many metal-working districts in chennai last week when i came across these figures. the guys working on them told me they were for a festival down the street, so i walked into the neighborhood and learned that their mariamman festival was starting the next day.

the mariamman festival started with the setting-up of the stage and the idols, followed by a neighborhood meal; afterward, the temple priest held ceremony in which, traditionally, he asks mariamman if she is ready for the festival, if everything has been prepared correctly. there were a number of women dancing in front of the temple in an ecstatic trance, and one of them took on the role of mariamman and gave what i assume was the appropriate answer.

an artist decorates one of the mariamman statues while other workers prepare the main stage; the initial blessings (pooja) before the dance ceremony.
women dance in front of the temple – a small building tucked in at the end of an alley – while channeling mariamman. given the constrained quarters, my angles weren’t great here, but as people got used to me over the weekend, they made sure i got the best views, as will be evident further on.

i came back on saturday, but not much was going on: kids were playing on the stage, and the girls had had their hands painted with henna. i was tapped to take more portraits, and a few people told me that not much would be happening that afternoon, so i spent about half an hour there and promised to come back.

sunday began with a procession. there was a set of drummers and, behind them, a string of women carrying burning pots. they brought these to the temple to offer prayers to mariamman. the pots smoked a lot, which may have been the point, since the prayers go up to the gods with the smoke, but they didn’t look comfortable to hold, and my eyes stung after just a few minutes of walking with them. after the offerings, the games started, specifically a game that is very much like a piñata, except that the players swing at a clay pot filled with water. the guys running the game invited me to take a swing at it, but i declined. eventually, the pot shattered, the woman who hit it got showered with water and won a plaque, and then the band played and everyone danced.

*           *           *

those of you who are squeamish about extreme body piercing probably should stop here.

at 3.00 that afternoon, people began preparing for the main event – the religious procession that would wind through the surrounding neighborhoods. the worshippers of mariamman show their devotion by piercing their bodies with needles, vel (spears), and in some cases, hooks. this is not dissimilar to what i’ve heard about in other religious celebrations, such as ashoura or semana santa, and i’d even seen one of these types of processions last year; but i’d never seen how the spears get from a, through b, to c. this time, the people made sure i would.

i’d gone home for a few hours after the dance, so when i returned i was surprised to come upon a man wearing a shirt of apples. “interesting garb,” i thought, but on closer inspection i realized the fruit had been literally sewn into his skin with thread; then i saw men and children all around with fruit dangling from their chests, backs or ears. the adults (and the older kids, some of whose, whose faces had been painted for the occasion) do it for devotion, but when the little ones are sewn with the fruit, it may be because the parents were making this offering in exchange for an answered prayer when the child was sick, or something of the sort. the babies didn’t take to the needles … philosophically, let’s say.

soon it was time for the men and women to line up in front of the temple for their vels. the priest made some incantations for each one, and a guy whom i can only assume is the local expert rubbed their cheeks and “sterilized” the vels with a powder made from burned cow dung, and then …

this went on for a while. meanwhile, on the main street, other worshippers were getting ready for the procession in their own ways.

a boy waits for his turn while another one gets his piercing, and then stiffens as the vel pierces his cheek during his turn; neighborhood boys look on
the master piercer cleans up his work; a devotee is fitted for a harness of vels; a rather unhappy girl waits for the procession to start.

all of this was amazing, and i was grateful to the community for allowing me nearly free rein with my camera; and as they say at passover, “dayenu“. nonetheless, there was only last tableau of the procession that pretty damn remarkable. i saw some guys on a truck and wasn’t quite sure of what i was looking at, until suddenly i was: