Photo Feature: The Tightrope Walker

The-Tightrope-Walker1

About the Photograph

Of the many religious festivals that are celebrated in India, Janmashtami, or Lord Krishna’s birthday, is one of the most popular ones. Krishna is a Hindu deity and stories of his birth, childhood and adult life feature strongly in Indian scriptures and mythology (notably, in one of the longest and most ancient Hindu epics, ‘Mahabharatha’). There are many traditions and celebrations associated with this particular festival and even non-Hindus are swept up in the song-and-dance of it all over 2-4 days. Every major state or region has their own particular approach to these celebrations as well.

In the Western state of Gujarat, across villages and towns, typically, large all-day fairs (called melas) are held. Like fairs or carnivals the world over, these also feature many rides, food stalls, games, shows, races, music/dance performances, and so on. People travel far, often, to visit particular fairs — either back to their hometowns or to ones that are renowned for some reason or other. Some of these fairs date back to colonial times and, though they are now more modernized, there is still that old world charm that still draws men and women of all ages to sample their fares.

Over the past weekend, my family and I visited just such a fair in my father’s hometown of Dhrangadhra — a city that had enjoyed royal status before and during the British Raj due to its affluent cotton and salt trade, which continues to this day. Among the many sights we saw, this one, of the young tightrope walker caught our attention and has stayed with us.

The girl in the picture cannot be more than eight years of age. And, in keeping with the traditions of this age-old performance art, she, likely, started her career at the age of four or five. This means that she must have started practicing as soon as she started to walk. Long, unimaginable sessions of five or six hours of rigorous work under all kinds of weather conditions, from unbearable heat to torrential rain.

The look of sheer concentration on her face and that poise in her arms, as she walked the rope with that heavy pole, while crowds of people thronged close beneath her, was mesmerizing. In all the time that she performed, she barely took her eyes off the rope. When she got to one end, she’d squat, turn gracefully around, stand back up and start again. Somewhere in the middle of the act, a man or woman would hand her a stack of small pots to balance on her head so that she could do her walk balancing pole and pots together. Through all of this, not one of them, child, man or woman, said a word to anyone in the crowd or to each other.

The life of such child tightrope walkers is rather short. Their intrigue wears off as they veer into adolescence, for some reason. In fact, the only other tightrope walker we ran into at this massive fair was also another girl-child about the same age — boys and grownups conspicuous in their absence.

On the one hand, it seems inhuman to subject children so small to such hardship for barely a few hundred rupees a day. On the other hand, tightrope walking is a physical skill and a performance art form worth preserving. And, where do these children go when they stop performing? How do they put that kind of well-developed mind power and physical strength to use? Likely, given the lot of women in rural Indian societies, many of them, lacking any proper education (after all, they cannot spend their formative years at school), are married off by fourteen or fifteen years of age and spend the rest of their lives tending home and hearth for their husbands, children and large, extended families. There is, perhaps, both an individual loss here as well as a larger, societal loss.

About the Composition

It was a steamy hot, blindingly bright afternoon when I took this shot. So, definitely no flash or reflector needed. And ISO of just 80.

Given the thick crowds, I made good use of the mega-zoom lens in my Sony DSC-HX400V, using a focal length of 30 and aperture of 5.0.

I did, however, do some basic post-processing in iPhoto. Just sharpened some colors and shadows and cropped the bottom a bit to center the girl.

A different angle shot would have been more interesting, perhaps — for example, if I could have captured her image from directly below. But, the crowd was too much to wade through. I did take some more closeups of just her face but, by themselves, these pictures don’t tell quite the interesting story as the full shot here does.

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