Portraits of India

by Sumit Dua

In the summer after my first year of medical school, I decided to travel to India to visit family. At the same time, I wanted to really learn photography and had purchased a Canon film camera during that first year. So I took the camera with me to craft images of India as I traveled. Plans came together quickly. After wandering into a travel agency, out of curiosity, I left with plane tickets for a two week counter-clockwise circuit through India. This extended from Leh and Ladakh in the north down to the backwaters of Kochi, in the state of Kerala, in the south of India. No hotel reservations or other plans, just plane tickets—and my camera. I figured it would be a great opportunity to learn photography, and the trip launched an enduring passion for photography and travel, especially in India. In my photographs there, I have tried to capture the happiness that exists even with the simplest of means. In America, we tend to live in a very fast-paced environment. It is remarkable to see, in parts of India, a simplicity and happiness that exist alongside a different pace of life. People celebrate festivals, live close to the streets, and play outside. It’s also a very colorful world. Life is vivid and visible there. All this makes for a luminous backdrop to capture such radiant public portraits of India.

My cousin is from a town called Muzaffarnagar. On a visit to his small town, he took me to see his farmland. The boy seen here is from the family who manages the land. We were at his home and he was showing us his doves and pigeons as he found out I love birds. We were in a small room with cattle and very little light that was coming in from small windows like the one seen here in the background.
In Ahemdabad, lots of the kids were very excited to be photographed and this one was a bit shy and tried to hide behind a magazine as his buddy wanted to take a picture with him.
Dharamsala is set in the mountains and is where the Dalai Lama now resides. Our adventure had taken us into this region and I was out photographing monasteries and landscapes. I came across this very young kid who was taking care of a baby. There was such responsibility at such a young age and his eyes showed it.
During our drive around the region of Gujurat, we ran into many shepherds and cattle. Here, a shepherd takes a break under the hot sun as the cattle graze.
For this image, I had to climb on top of the car to give me the right vantage point, as my cousin drove slowly so I wouldn’t fall off. My other cousin ran along side and made a video of my shenanigans.  All in the name of photography.
Rann, Gujurat is one of the largest salt flats in the world. For miles, it is deserted land with not much in sight. These were school kids, apparently on a field trip headed to the salt flats. You can see their school bus in the background.
Kids bathing on the street is quite a common scene in the poorer neighborhoods where they lack running water. And it seems like a fun thing to do. This kid was having a blast and I have several images of him enjoying himself. Here I was able to capture him milliseconds after he had dumped more water upon himself.
Pahalgam is located up north in the himalayan region in Jammy and Kashmir and is famous for its scenic beauty. The indigenous people in the mountains live under harsh conditions. They live in small huts and raise animals, apart from which their entire possessions consist of their huts, clothes, pots and pans. This is a family we visited that prepared lunch for us. As we sat inside eating the kids played around us and would run outside and playfully glance inside at me through this tiny window.
I have a fascination with hands. I tried to capture the time evident in this lady’s hands, but was having no luck. It was missing the background. Her wisdom on her face served as the perfect background and the tiny hair on the left of the image brought it all together. When I look at this, I feel as though the wrinkles help to visualize all the years she’s lived through and her life experiences.
In Manali, we pulled over to a small area where people had built tiny homes on the side of the road. I met this girl in one of the houses and she was adorable. There are a few times in life where I have had an amazing time photographing. This was one of them and this is one of my favorite images. The color version of this photograph hangs in my house so that I can see it everyday when I go upstairs.
Ahemdabad: Here, you can see how excited some of the kids were to be photographed. I had to climb on the side of a wall to be able to photograph as many as possible within the frame. Even then they were jumping with excitement and one was right in front of the camera and their enthusiasm is obvious.
Vrindavan: This was shot in Vrindavan, the birthplace of Lord Krishna. Holi is a festival to celebrate new beginnings. When I was a kid it was one of my favorite holidays, but the grand level I saw it celebrated in Vrindavan was extraordinary. Usually we just put colors on each other, but here the entire temple was full of color. It looked and felt like a different world, a brilliant and colorful world.
I traveled to Jaisalmer in the desert state of Rajasthan and then drove around until I found a small community by the side of the road. I walked around and was photographing when I came across this girl.  People in India love having their photos taken and she allowed me to take pictures of her. Her eyes were mesmerizing. All of a sudden, she got very shy and tried to hide behind her veil. The sudden genuine emotion which made her want to hide behind her veil perfectly framed her smile.
This is one of my favorite photographs from Kolkata (formerly Calcutta), India. It is very unfortunate that many kids end up having to beg on the streets to make a living. This boy had wandered to our taxi window while we were stuck in traffic.
Ahemdabad, Gujurat: Seeing a person napping during the day on the streets of India is a very common scene. It speaks to the laid back slow pace of life or maybe it speaks to the great sleep you get after being out in the sun a bit too long. I presume he had hung all the orange scarves to attract attention to his makeshift shop. There are many old bikes with great charm and I often try to photograph them.
In Jaisalmer, a girl carries dried cow dung (it’s used for burning) back home. Her smile was so infectious and she was a happy child, despite not having a lot and having to contribute to the household work at such a young age.
Jaisalmer: In India, a lot of kids come up and want to be photographed. This second girl was outside her house and was happy that I was willing to photograph her.
On many trips I end up traveling from one town to another in a car and stopping along roadside developments whenever we find them. Sometime to eat, sometimes to photograph, and sometimes to rest. This was in Gujurat where we pulled over to this area that looked interesting and found many interesting stories and faces.
Ahemdabad, Gujurat: I had photographed this little girl as I walked through a very poor neighborhood. A lot of kids followed me around – very excited by the camera. I cannot recall exactly, but I think she had found her goat a bit later and wanted me to photograph her with the goat. The texture of the surroundings, her eagerness and the perfect light made for a great moment.
Sonepat: I am very nostalgic and every trip to India I make it a mission to travel to the town where I was born and lived for part of my early childhood. One of my favorite things as a child was to go to my neighbor’s house and play with his pigeons. I went to visit him and when I reached there, he was on the roof waiting for the pigeons to return after their evening flight. At sunset, the perfectly lit wall created a canvas on which the shadows made a perfect painting. This is a very meaningful photograph for me for these reasons.

Sumit Dua was born in India and moved to the United States at the age of ten. Later in life, he developed a love for photography. A spontaneous trip through India in 2004 sparked a passion for traveling and photographing the people, places and landscapes of this beautiful, colorful country. In 2008, Sumit spent seven weeks rediscovering his beloved birthplace. Sumit currently lives in Los Angeles, where he continues to capture the beauty of his dynamic, fast-paced, multicultural state. His photography can be found online at sumitdua.com.

© Sumit Dua