Re-enactment by fire – The ritual of storytelling

Re-enactment by fire
Re-enactment by fire

Re-enactment by fire

“Re-enactment by fire” looks at the receipt of a narrative and propagation and evolution of a belief through communal ritual and in particular amongst migrant communities.  The photographs follow the practice of Hindu festivals such as Holi and Dasera in Britain. The images have been created over five years.  The work also questions the motives of photographers who create exotic images from the lives of people in remote parts of India.  The images attempt to capture an Indian exoticism in a European context.

As a child I was taken to celebrate various festivals some of which included communal bonfires.  In particular the festival of Holi was particularly interesting because as soon as we arrived I was enveloped by a sea of people engaged in cacophony of rights and rituals.  The festival was particularly inclusive, as I would see many of my non-Hindu friends at the bonfire (many of which would come for the Prashad- which to them was free food).  The Prashad (blessed food) at Holi was different, instead of the normal sweetmeats devoured at other festivals people here given popcorn – which to me spelt party food.  The whole festival was more like lots of private parties that had converged in one place.  Many of the people walked clockwise around the bonfire dripping small amounts of water from copper vessels or chanting mantras with a tray or plateful’s of rice powdered colour beetle nuts and coconuts.

The water that fell on the grass and turn to mud.  Many of the old ladies came dressed in Chappal (slippers) which would get stuck in the mud and cause a myriad of other problems. As time passed the flames got larger and the crowd more excited. Volunteers hurled coconuts and popcorn into the flames as offerings.  The half-burnt coconuts were dragged out of the flames and taken away.  There is a strong belief in sin amongst the hindu community and a willingness to be purified of sin. To me the coconuts symbolised a body and its immersion into the fire can be seen as an aspiration to be cleansed.

Watching the festival unfold was particularly poignant as this Hindu Indian festival was being played out in the heart of England.  The festival was being practised by a what was seen as a minority community which in turn was made up of migrants from different parts of India and from different Hindu caste groups.

As a result although the core story from which the festival was derived was the same the rituals and portrayals of the main characters in the story were all different.  An example of this is the way in which Holika (the sister of demon-king Hiranyakashipu) is portrayed as a positive character that tries to save her nephew Prahlad.  Others see Holika as a wicked demon who tried you misuse her power for evil.  These views are not as polarised as they seem and there is a large grey area of belief in between the two arguments.

Every time I visited India I noticed differences in the practice of festivals compared to the Hindu community in England.  The migrant communities seemed to want to hold on to particular traditions that had died out in India.  Also if the migrant community were unable to take part in a particular ritual in a particular way they would “make do” or offer a symbolic gesture in its place.  This has led to rituals and traditions to evolve and take on different meaning as the migrant community has taken root in their new homeland.

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