Ram Rahman’s note the day before about Pepita Seth‘s lecture and slide show on Kerala’s Guruvayur Temple brought me up towards 116th and Broadway. I found Barnard Hall, but the presentation had already begun. I was running late and I struggled to find a seat, creating a minor ruckus. With two bags full of tchochkes from the PhotoPlus Expo, you can imagine how I was a bull in a china-shop.
Ms. Seth read from her notes. Her diction was superfluous. The content, simply amazing. I learned a great deal about this very special South Indian temple. She is most definitely an insider now, having lived in India for over 20 years. I am willing to bet that she knows a great deal more about the temple’s history and current working conditions than any local.
The photographs, however, were a mixed bag. I don’t really know, perhaps the person manning the slide projector may have been at fault. I found a lot of her images to be out of focus. The exposures on the images, too, were all over the map. The text she was reading synched with the images she was showing. But this in the end just made those images a tool of illustration.
I felt she had missed an opportunity to visually explore such an electric setting. Take for example her lovely description of the temple drummers. She read out aloud that they sometimes spend hours drumming into the night. But given that she has full access to the temple, I can’t at this time recall even one image of a drummer shot tight and up close. Who are these people? Allow me to gaze into their eyes. Pull me into their lives. Most of the images appeared to have been shot from about the same distance, with about the same focal length camera. In short, there wasn’t any visual variety.
It may perhaps be wrong on my part to compare and contrast her work to another ethnographer I have run across. If you see Stephen Huyler’s work you may see some similarities in the content and quality of the work that is presented to us. He too conducts some amazing studies about village rituals, but his images are far from what I would call “professional standard.” They aim to instruct; nothing more.
To her credit, the images don’t appear to have been taken by a voyeur. They do say, “I was here. This is what I saw. And this is likely what you will see as well.” There is no attempt in her work to sensationalize the temple. I suppose as a matter of record, her research is very convincing and on the whole successful. I was moved by her sense of sheer awe and respect for the Guruvayur deity.
A profile of Ms. Seth by Priya Malhotra indicates, Ms. Seth has been involved with several forms of performance ritual in Kerala. I don’t know what Ms. Seth’s background in photography is, but her strengths, in my opinion, reside in her deft ethnographic research, her approach to people and her story-telling abilities.