Last year’s fabulous joint project ‘Seeking the Sacred,Viewpoints-Strasbourg-Udaipur’ found its culmination during the World Living Heritage Festival 2014, when His Excellency Mr François Richier, Ambassador of the French Republic to India, Embassy of France in India inaugurated the photography exhibition in the company of Shri Lakshyaraj Singh Mewar of Udaipur, Trustee of the Maharana of Mewar Charitable Foundation.
Taking the Ambassador through the exhibition, of particular interest to him were images depicting the ‘sacred secular’. Those that evoked a universal spirit of brotherhood and living with peace. He mentioned how with the European Parliament in Strasbourg, Germany and France were putting aside their differences and history. Infact now a German army battalion is even stationed in Strasbourg. Makes me think, that in Europe atleast, the happenings of the last century may indeed be truly events of the past.
The project ‘Seeking the Sacred,Viewpoints-Strasbourg-Udaipur’ was a collaboration between Mr Albert Huber and myself that was initiated by the office of the Mayor of Strasbourg. It was part of the many exchanges that happened under the Joint Cooperation Programme through which Udaipur and Strasbourg are Twin Cities.
Making the exhibition possible were the entire teams at MMCF and The City Palace Museum, Udaipur. As always it’s been a delight working with you!
One Sunday morning in February, I was asked to photograph the WHO Regional Director for South-east Asia Region, Poonam Khetrapal Singh, as she participated in a Polio Eradication Camp. A few weeks later, on 27th March 2014, India and the entire South-East Asia Region was declared Polio free!
This photograph from the shoot was selected to announce the news to the world.
On May 22nd, 2013, the exhibition “Seeking the Sacred in Strasbourg and Udaipur” opened to a grand crowd at the Librairies Kelber in Strasbourg. Four major religions of the world: Hinduism, Judaism, Christianity and Islam on display on the walls. Striking in their similarities of emotions and just as striking in the diversity of their visuals. The fifth faith, Buddhism found expression in the presence of Monks from Nepal, in Strasbourg to take part in the Sacrées Journées of Strasbourg 2013 of which the exhibition was also a part.
The exhibition now shifts to the large Saint-Thomas church, the protestant cathedral in the old city of Strasbourg. It will be on display here across July and August before coming to Udaipur, India towards the end of the year.
Early Sunday morning, I was waiting at the hotel reception for Mr Albert Huber. A renowned photographer from Strasbourg and my ‘partner-in-crime’ so to say for this assignment. While I was to photograph the ‘Sacred in Strasbourg’ he was soon off to Udaipur to capture sacred places, monuments and ceremonies there. Together our photographs form the exhibition “Seeking the Sacred,Viewpoints-Strasbourg-Udaipur” which is part of a joint activity of the City of Strasbourg and the Maharana of Mewar Charitable Foundation, Udaipur.
Today however he was driving me to the old village of Bischheim. Now a suburb of Strasbourg. There the Pastors of the Lutheran church had consented to my photographing a charming ceremony. About 20 members of the congregation, now in their 60s were celebrating and reaffirming their faith in their religion and church.
Albert arrived and within minutes we had connected. Talking photography like photographers across the World. It helped that he spoke excellent English since my French is non-existent.
The ceremony, conducted by the Pastor, a young lady of commanding presence, brought together the entire community for I could see the church slowly filling up. The bond she and her colleagues share with the community was evident: Each parish-member was greeted by name and welcomed.
I was an outsider but they welcomed me in their midst. Despite the language barrier, each person I interacted with welcomed me and their pride in the Church and its history was evident.
I took almost 200 photographs in the span of the 90-minute ceremony: The people, the place and the Church’s beautiful details.
Initially I stood at the back, not wanting to distract or disturb the ceremonial rituals.
Then towards the end of the ceremony, the parishioners stepped forward to the altar. The light near the altar was more subdued. They stood in a circle, beautifully backlit. A prominent parishioner went around passing the chalice with holy wine to each one. I was at the back, with the 300mm telephoto lens capturing this moment through a gap. I wanted to focus on the chalice but did not want to miss out on the people on both sides of it.
Later, while sorting the 200-odd photographs on the computer, I wondered why I this frame was a cut above the rest. It was the moment which summed up the ceremony: The interaction between two elderly parishioners, the bond between them for they probably had known each other all their lives. It is with this ritual sip of the Holy wine that they were reaffirming their faith in their religion, their humanity and between themselves. The significance of the ceremony was evident in the look they share over the chalice; the depth of their faith as firm and steady as the grip with which they hold the chalice. This was my moment of capturing the ‘sacred’, this feeling of belonging and continuity in a community. Isn’t that what human civilisation and its spiritual well-being is all about?
Tall and grand and in every way the heart of Strasbourg is the Cathedrale Notre Dame de Strasbourg. I soon learnt to navigate my way around the city with glimpses of its Spire for guidance.
But before it’s super aid as a navigating device, a bit more about the building itself.
The present building was completed in 1284 with the spire (the North Tower) finished in 1439. The stone was quarried in the Vosges Mountains near Mont Sainte-Odile. Saint Odile, the patron saint of all Alsace, specially Strasbourg.
The present visitor entrance to the Cathedral is from the West front. A gorgeous waterfall of sculptures. Each level narrating biblical stories and offering material for many minutes of quiet study.
That is if you can bear the strong cold wind that rushes around the building seemingly without stopping. Locals believe the wind is the devil looking for a way inside.
And it’s surely gave me many shivers!
The wealth of sculptures on the exterior walls of the Cathedral reminded me of the intricately carved temples back home in India. In the temples each level of sculpture follows laid down religious principles carefully detailed out in the shastras. In churches I think it’s more open to the desires of the individual church designers.
Inside the Cathedral are huge stained glass windows. Breathtaking in their magnificence. So beautiful in fact that during World War II, the Germans packed them away in cases and stored them in salt mines near Heilbronn, Germany. Saving them from the destructions of war. When peace returned the American Army returned the windows back to Strasbourg and they were restored to their original place.
Inspite of all our differences, this love for beauty, for fine art is an inherent human trait. It seemed very natural then that Udaipur in Rajasthan and Strasbourg in France, two such different cities are united in their desire to preserve their living heritage. So much so that they are now twin cities through a Joint Co-operation Programme (JCP) signed recently.
These windows were for me, the most attractive feature of the Cathedral. Over my days in town, I kept returning. Hoping for a bit of sunshine outside to make their colours glow even more. Sadly that was not to be but I got instead a crown of light from the shining candelabra. And I was happy 🙂
Also inside is a very grand suspended organ. Built by Andrew Silbermann, in 1704, it was pierced by a shell during the bombardment of Strasbourg in 1870 during The Siege of Strasbourg. It has ofcourse since then been repaired and today houses mechanism and registers by Alfred Kern.
The most talked about feature at the Cathedral is the Astronomical Clock. All visitors have to vacate the building at noon in preparation for a special show because daily at 12:30 the clock displays a procession of 18 inch high figures of Christ and the Apostles while the life-size cock crows thrice. It’s a ticketed show for which people collect in large numbers.
Outside again I bought a ticket to climb up the tower. At 466 ft, it made the Cathedral the tallest building in the world from 1647 to 1874 AD. Since I was blessed with a cold grey day and lugging a heavy camera bag and tripod, each step was a small mountain to climb but reached to the top I did!
Finally when looking down at the city spread around. Dotted lavishly with spires of churches. It’s definitely worth every foot of the climb.
And for navigating through the city? Here’s how the Spire stands like a compass from almost all the Alt Stad!
A selection of my photographs that captured the sacred in the Christian, Jewish and Muslim communities that are predominant in the city are now on exhibition at the Librairie Kléber, Strasbourg. A popular and centrally located venue. Mr Albert Huber a very senior and well-regarded photographer from Strasbourg exhibits with me. His photographs depicting the sacred in Udaipur which he visited concurrent to my stay in Strasbourg. Together our photographs aim to show the human values and strengths that remain constant across different religions, cultures and races.
The exhibition is part of the festival ‘Sacrées Journées of Strasbourg’. A three-day celebration of sacred music from across the world. It’s programme for 2013 includes 16 performances, devoted to 6 different religions from 10 countries.
It all started in early February when I got a call out of the blue offering me a chance to visit and photograph Strasbourg in France. Needless to say I said YES!!! without a moment’s hesitation 🙂
Recently a Joint Co-operation Programme (JCP) has been signed between Indian Heritage Cities Network Foundation, UNESCO India Office, New Delhi; Udaipur Municipal Council; The City of Strasbourg (Municipalite de Strasbourg), France and Maharana of Mewar Charitable Foundation (MMCF), Udaipur for three years 2011-2013 to strengthen Udaipur’s knowledge base, develop a framework and undertake activities to preserve its heritage and develop international collaboration and partnerships for heritage-based projects in Udaipur.
Then followed all the organising, co-ordinating and all the other backroom stuff that makes assignments happen. Also the reading, researching that make photography happen.
Strasbourg. A very pretty town with lots of churches.
Strasbourg, I found, was an old, very pretty city on the German-France border. Capital of the Alsace region of France. It’s ancient and medieval history, almost like a chessboard of political maneuvers between the Germans and the French. Though all the turbulent centuries however it not only survived, it became a remarkable town with cross cultural diversity, a very rich blend of multi-religious communities and a tradition for equality. No wonder then that present day Strasbourg is home to the European Parliament and the European Courts of Human Rights.
The European Parliament building, Strasbourg
Soon all paperwork done. My camera, tripod and I were on our way to France…