This breathtaking black-and-white photograph of yoga artistes from the yoga capital of the world (Mysore), shot by Tomasz Gudzowaty and Judit Berekai of Poland at an akhada in the religious capital of India (Benares), has just won the third prize in the World Press Photo Contest 2008 in the “Sports Features-Single Photo” category.
The intercontinental project was coordinated by freelance sports journalist C.K. Muralidharan who also plays cricket for Bharat Earth Movers Limited (BEML), Mysore.
Here, he describes how the project came about; how the award-winning picture was shot at the “Sri Akkada Murchali Birbaba”; and how three artistes—artists, really—of the Maruthi Yoga Kendra (S. Suhas, K.V. Anantha Kumara and B.S. Nikhil) became a part of photography history.
World Press Photo 2008 received 80,536 images from 5,019 photographers in over 125 countries.
It is a matter of great joy and satisfaction that a picture shot with yoga artistes from Mysore in Benares has won one of the world’s most coveted photography awards. It is a tribute no doubt to the photographic artistry and work ethic of Tomasz Gudzowaty. But it is also a richly deserved salute to an ancient Indian art form on the international stage.
My association with Tomasz began in 2003 through the portal www.mysoresports.com launched by me and my friend Yashasvi Shankar (a former Mysore University and State shuttle badminton player now settled in USA). I had written about nadu kusti, the traditional wrestling style of Mysore and Tomasz evinced interest in photographing it.
In November 2005, with the help of L. Manjappa, the Mysore University wrestling coach, and Shankar Chakravarthy, the KSP wrestler who has won the Dasara Kanteerava title, we visited nearly 20 garadis. Tomasz chose six locations, returned the following month with his associate Judit Berekai, and shot around 5,000 black and white photos over three days with wrestlers from the University and the garadis in action.
The main sequence, shot at the Gopala Swamiawara garadi on Nala beedhi, won the third prize in the World Press Photo Contest 2006 in the sports features category. The wrestlers involved were Shankar Chakravarthy, Prahlad, Hemanth Kumar, Harish and Kumara. Manjula sound system of Sunnadakeri supported us with the light and generator back-up for the shooting.
I was sponsored by Tomasz’s company Yours Gallery to attend the award ceremony in Amsterdam. It was a great experience seeing a slice of Mysore being served up to a global audience. And it was even more touching to be mentioned by Tomasz and Judit in their acceptance speech.
My heart swelled with emotion that I could do something for Mysore’s wrestlers.
The award-winning picture became part of an exhibition that went to 24 different countries and it was also displayed in the UN headquarters in New York. During the Festival of India in France in 2006, a French company called Manison de la Photographie brought out a Photo Book called “Indianscope” which had the picture of Hemanth Kumar on the cover.
Once they came to know that their photographs had won international acclaim, the wrestlers were very happy and thankful to Tomasz and his team. In turn, Tomasz was kind enough to give some financial assistance to all the garadis he worked with, and to all the wrestlers too.
In December 2006, I floated an idea for a second project: Kalari Payattu, the traditional style of martial art practiced in Kerala. I and my BEML team-mate S. Ramachandra (who has a passion for photography) visited Kollam and took the pictures of kalari artistes in action in different locations and sent them to Tomasz.
Tomasz liked what he saw but wanted a different background.
He came to Kollam. With the guidance of the Kalari Gurukal Shivakumar, of CVN Kalari, we shot Kalari Payattu. The artistes were Shivakumar, John and Monichan. They demonstrated the flip, fighting with the sticks, balancing on the beam, summersault, fighting with sword, hanging upside down, and other forms of exercises. A series of 12 photos were wanted by Tomasz and shot accordingly.The second day saw the kalari artistes perform on an artificially made bamboo wall and Tomasz captured them in action along with Judit. Around 3,000 black and white photographs were taken. From the fourth day, we shifted to the Lal Bahadur stadium, where action photographs of women boxers in the ring (both sparring and boxing), were taken. Different positions with different combinations of boxers were shot with the help of coach Chandralal, the SAI boxing coach who won the Dronacharaya award in 2007.At the stadium, we also had a extended session with the artificial boxing ring positioned outside and Tomasz shot from the top of a crane to get the picture from a good height. Kerala’s women boxers are the second best in the country after Manipur, with P.C. Lekha, the world boxing champion, amidst them. They were in-charge of coach Chandralal.
The photograph of C.V. Ashwathymol relaxing after her bout in the ring won the “Award for Excellence” in the Pictures of the Year contest conducted by the University of Missouri, USA. “The Story on Kalari” (12 photographs) also won the “Award for Excellence” in the Pictures of the Year contest.
Sometime last year, Tomasz suddenly contacted me and said he would like to do a photo feature on yoga. As he was doing a project in China, initially he wanted the location to be in China. He wanted me to find yoga artistes who could travel to China. So, I had in mind Jalendra Kumar of Maruthi Yoga Kendra in Mysore whom I had known for a long time.
As there were students of his in China, I thought it would be a wise move to get in touch with his wards so that they could help us in the project. He sent me photographs of yoga artistes in action and asked me to get the artists to do the same poses.
After I sent the photographs, Tomasz informed me that we could do the project in Benares and if the locations there did not suit his requirements, then we could hop over to Nepal.
I contacted Jalendra Kumar and apprised him of the situation. I asked him to select the best of his boys and arrange for a photo session. Myself and photographer Gopinath shot the yoga artists in action at JSS high school in Metagalli.
We shot pictures of Jalendra Kumar, Jagadish, K. Adarsh, K.V. Anantha Kumara, B.S. Nikhil, S. Rakesh, Komal Raj, Mahendra, Shivakumar Nayak, K. Raghu, S. Suhas and Suresh and sent them to Tomasz to check if this is what he was looking for.
He mailed back saying that he needed a minimum of 12 people and that they should travel immediately to Benares on November 4, 2007. He would join us the next day. Accordingly, I informed the boys’ parents who were a little apprehensive initially to send their young wards so far.
I explained to them that I would ensure their safety and also take care of all the expenditure of travel, boarding and lodging.We left in two batches of six and eight members respectively on November 4 and 5. We went by train to Bangalore and took an Indian Airlines flight to Delhi. From thereon we caught the connecting flight to Benares. (I also took my mother along on this trip!)
I had a Mysore connection in Benares, Suryanarayana Sastry who hailed from Talakad. He and his family had settled down in the holy city over 40 years back and I had contacted him prior to my departure and asked for his help during our visit.
He had booked hotel rooms for 14 of us at Hotel Siddarth and once we arrived we were received by Sathyanarayana Sastry, Suryanarayana’s brother. The rooms were comfortable and everyone had a day’s complete rest. Tomasz soon arrived, and he called me to meet and discuss the shooting schedule.
We spent a whole day choosing the locations. Tomasz and I, along with Sathyanarayana, went round finalising the venues. We zeroed in on: 1) Ram Singh akhada, Dhaniabad, 2) Sri Akhara Murchali Birbaba (Ganshu pahelwan), 3) Guru Gaya Set akhada, 4) The old house roof at Swasananda Ashram, Bengali Bhavan, and 5) The ghats near the Ganges.
We had to take the permission from the police to shoot pictures at each of the ghats and we had to cough out Rs.10,000 each for the licence for the eight ghats. I had to arrange for the lighting and back-up spot boys. A generator van was also arranged.
Initially, the boys had a full day’s rest and were asked to practice on the asanas which Tomasz had preferred. He wanted the hand stand, the head stand, the Mayurasana, and the split to be perfect, and he wanted them to be seen in action the next day before commencing the shooting on November 6.
He saw the artists in action on the evening of November 6, and was only satisfied with the performance of Mahendra, Jalendra Kumar and Anantha Kumara. He asked the others to work hard for getting the needed perfection.
November 7: We did shooting at the Ram Singh akhada with Mahendra in different asanas. Suresh also performed certain weight training warm-up exercises which were shot. The day ended with only one venue covered and the next day’s programme was fixed at 7 am at Guru Gatya set akhada.
November 8: At 5.30 in the morning, I woke up everyone and took them in a taxi to the venue and asked them to get warmed up before the shoot. The artists had to wear dhotis and perform warm-up exercises in tandem, which would be shot.
The lights and generator van arrived an hour late, and Tomasz was irked at the impunctuality which resulted in his not being able to use the early morning sunlight for shooting. Mayurasana and Shirasana were performed by ten yoga artistes and around 100 black and white photographs were taken in different sequences.
Around 9 am we packed up and went to the next venue, the Sri Akkada Murchali Bhirbabad in Katvapura. Here a portrait picture of the yoga artistes with the Gurukal was taken in banians and dhotis.
Then, the prize winning picture (above) was shot. For this I purchased four pipes, inserted them into the wall each at an interval of four feet, and plastered them. 14-year-old S. Suhas performed the Mayurasana, while K.V. Anantha Kumara performed the split on the bars. B.S. Nikhil stood by the side of the wall.
The same shot was photographed at least 50 times by Tomasz in different angles and one of them proved to be the prize winner!
Next, we went back to the ghats and shot on the banks of the Ganges and also at the passage in the Birla ashram.
November 9: We shot on the roof top of the house belonging to Suryanarayana Sastry. Around 500 photographs of the boys performing asanas in different postures were taken. The boys were then asked to come to Swasananda Ashram where the hand stand and other exercises were picturised.
We shot at the roof top and also came down to the Ganges for shooting besides the background of the temples at the ghats. Photographs of Mahendra in different poses were taken.
November 10: The day was full of shooting at the Ram Singh akhada and shots were taken of Mahendra and Suresh. In the evening, everyone departed from their hotel to catch their flight at 4.30 pm to Delhi.
Thus ended the week-long shooting spree in Benares which was combined with work and pleasure. It’s a wonderful feeling that the hard work put in by the younger lot has yielded such results. Like a true leader, Tomasz didn’t just up and leave; he was kind enough to help the yoga artistes financially.
Also read: Yoga may be good. Not always, not everywhere