Ascetics with Cameras and Kumbh Mela: The Journey thus far…

A lot has happened in 12 years since we first embarked on the making of Take Me to the River. After each Kumbh Mela I’ve attended since, I’ve somehow managed to get inside acceptance into India’s oldest and largest orders of naga sanyasis, Juna Akhara. Once again for this coming Kumbh Mela I’ve been offered a camp to host my friends. Less than 6 months to go, this coming winter 2013, a twelve year cycle will come full circle and tens of millions of people will once again converge on the banks of the Sangam (Yamuna, Ganga and Saraswati Rivers) at the Maha Kumbh Mela. I want you to be a part of this magical journey with me.

– In 2001 Casey Meade lured nearly 20 of us to India for the most-craziest adventure of our lives. Converting the 2nd floor and rooftop of a local family’s house, we created a live/work space and most likely the first international household in the village Arail. Dave Rothstein designed and guided us in constructing 20 bunk-beds out of bamboo, Babatunde Ajiboye sewed and conceived his next fashion collection, Vernon Woodroffe painted murals on the walls of our balcony, Aarona Pitchinson and I shot zillions of photographs, Josh Geisler and Shane Shanahan mingled with local musicians and hosted recording sessions in our house, Saugat Datta and Rehan Khan did their best to translate, conduct interviews and guide us around, while Colin Bressler shot Projectile Arts’ very first 16mm documentary film. And because Producer, Melanie Blair got lost, found herself at the gates of Prabhu Premi Sang, and was mis-recognized as Malini (one of Swami Ji’s staff members) we accidentally connected with the leader of Juna Akhara, Acharya Mahamandaleshwar Swami Avdheshanand Giri Ji. So while most big film and television crews stood on look out towers, we rode on his chariot well protected through the chaos of the Sahi Snaan procession.
Upon our return to the States with Casey Meade as our fearless leader, we set up Projectile Arts and began hosting a series of multimedia performance events influenced by our experiences there.
Having become one of the star characters of TMTTR, just a short while after 9/11, Swami Avdheshanand Giri Ji toured around with us in NYC, including a visit to the Projectile Arts studio in South Williamsburg.

– In 2002 Kenneth Eng and I joined Sagaut Datta, Rehan Khan and Sachindra Mehra in Bombay to transcribe, translate and subtitle footage for TMTTR, where we met another filmmaker (now living in NYC) Akhil Bali (who has since joined us during the 2004 and 2010 Kumbh Melas).

– In 2004 Saugat Datta and I reunited again to tour TMTTR around India, first with a screening to a global audience at the Goa International Spiritual Film Festival in Anjuna. Then we hosted a free screening to hundreds of villagers on the bank of the Yamuna in Arail, the village where we lived during its production in 2001. A few days before the screening (my 29th birthday), I fell off a bicycle and tore all the major ligaments in my left knee. Despite my leg being in a brace and limping with a bamboo stick, Saugat and I took a tent at Prabhu Premi Sang, Juna Akhara’s Acharya Mahamandaleshwar Swami Avdheshanand Giri Ji’s camp during the Kumbh Mela in Ujjain, where we hosted a screening for another several hundred of Swami Ji’s staff and devotees as well as several more intimate screenings in various other camps throughout the Akhara.
After our first morning snaan in the Shipra river, a rumor Saugat started accidentally launched what is today known as Ascetics with Cameras. Matsyendra Giri was the first Naga Baba, using my digital camera, to get his mela photos published in a local newspaper and Mahant Hari Giri, using my miniDV camera, got in the water alongside Swami Avdheshanand Giri Ji to shoot him instructing 100s of nagas on their final snaan during men’s sanskar initiation rites in the middle of the night.
That year I also got connected with the senior female members of Juna Akhara and was invited to be the first to ever document their own sanskar initiation rites.
Later that year Saugat Datta shifted to Canada and has been there ever since (the 2013 Maha Kumbh Mela may be his first return trip home in over 6 years)

– In 2007 I returned with former Projectile Arts Intern, Jessica Windt (flying in from Korea), hundreds of photographs to give away, a small pile of hand-me-down cameras from my late grandparent’s collection, 40 disposables cameras and two 4×6 printers brought in by my Kodak hook-up DeWit Davis, to see if this Ascetics with Cameras concept could actually take off. Casey Meade (bringing in an international crew of lovely misfits from Goa), further trained naga baba Mahant Hari Giri in using my miniDV camera, where he began what is now becoming our AWC Juna Akhara Doc. Project, interviewing various level members of the Akhara as well as documenting men’s sanskar initiation rites. I also gained closer access to shoot women’s sanskar initiation and they covered me in vibhuti (sacred ash), pulling me away from the sidelines to join them in the Sahi Snaan procession.

– In 2010 Witt Davis and I reunited with more cameras and a much larger batch of participants for AWC. I gave away hundreds of photos and DVDs from previous years sanskars and snaans. Witt & I churned out print after print (everything given away to Akhara members). I continued to shoot women’s initiation, participate in sahi snaans & bhandaras and honed my guiding skills hosting another batch of pagal videshis (crazy foreigners) in the tent I shared with Mahant Hari Giri, who continuing to build upon his archives improving his shooting and producing skills, networked Vikram Gandhi (aka Sri Kumaré) around the Akhara and we witnessed how easy it is to play guru and fit in.

I’ve not returned to the States yet… and in over 2 1/2 years I’ve gotten to see side of the Akhara foreigners rarely get to see… I’d like to share it with you.

Who’s down?

Ascetics with Cameras and Kumbh Mela: The Journey thus far…

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