Laxmi Kaul is a self-taught, professional photographer. She first discovered her interest in photography as a young girl when she saw her father’s passion for capturing images, as he saw them. Laxmi reads mythology, connects with spirituality in daily life and travels with a patriotic zeal. She believes the camera is her tool and photography an extension of her very being. Read on to find out how she captured the Naga sadhus during the famous Kumbh Mela in India.

Q: How would you describe your photography?
A: It is a quest for capturing the emotion in a moment: silently, quietly, spiritually, hopefully, fiercely, with pride and positive impulsiveness, yet always naturally and as if telling a very human story.
Q: Your description of your photography is eloquent and moving. Capturing the emotion in the moment is a characteristic of most forms of artistic expression, and telling a human story is the essence of documentary photojournalism. Do you think it is appropriate to describe these images as “the fine art of documentary,” and how do you actualize a mindset that includes spirituality, ferocity, hope, pride, and positive impulsiveness” when you’re actually out there taking pictures?
A: Photography for me is my freedom of expression. How and what I feel is all depicted through my lens. Some see it, feel it – some don’t. Whilst there are some who only see the image quality and the colour’s for its significance in art, some are able to move beyond that and feel how I felt then and also connect with my depiction of that moment.

I also like to show things to make people think… so yes, “fine art” of “documentary” both fit the bill. Obviously, there is a deep thought given to my subject, but at that moment, it’s the subject that is most important and what brings about all the feelings to shoot him/her is the story or the conversation we are having and not me and what I am built of. Perhaps you can say that it’s my inherent nature to think the way I do. And my endeavor is to bring forth my connect with the emotion, thoughts and drama, if you will, to my audiences. I also think if a camera is the tool to capture the photograph, I am the tool that captures the soul of the photograph.

Q: Aside from their compact form factor and outstanding image quality what are some of the features and characteristics of the Leica cameras you use that make them a good choice for your kind of work?
A: It makes me think before taking every shot, light in weight and easy to use & navigate compared to other brands, it is very discreet and not fancy from appearance so that I can go closer to the subject. When people see me with a smaller camera they think I am not serious photographer so it’s easy to communicate & also I am not in their face. So more than just capturing the moment I am experiencing the moment with them and I have a story for every picture as I am able to have a conversation alongside.

Q:  Can you provide background on the images in your portfolio?
A: Kumbh Mela is a mass Hindu pilgrimage of faith in which Hindus gather to bathe in a sacred river. It is held every third year at one of the four places by rotation: Haridwar, Allahabad, Nashik and Ujjain. The rivers at these four places are: the Ganges at Haridwar, the confluence of the Ganges and the Yamuna and the mythical Saraswati at Allahabad, the Godawari at Nashik, and the Shipra at Ujjain. The pilgrimage of Kumbh Mela takes place every 12 years and is attended by upwards to 70 million Hindu people, which I captured in 2013.

The pilgrimage is held for about one and a half months at each of these four places. The festival is billed as the “world’s largest congregation of religious pilgrims.”. There is no precise method of ascertaining the number of pilgrims, and the estimates of the number of pilgrims bathing on the most auspicious day may vary.

Q: How would you characterize the images in this portfolio?
A: Naga sadhus are worshippers of Lord Shiva. They give up every single piece of clothing while taking the pledge of Sanyaas (renunciation); these saints remain completely naked even in the bitter cold months. They hold tridents crowned with human skulls. Their bodies are smeared in thick ash and they wear heavy coils of matted hair on the head. The ash is not only considered to be holy, but is also said to possess curative and protective powers. The Naga sadhus renounce the materialistic world and practice celibacy to escape the cycle of birth and death to attain salvation.

Q: Did you have a specific goal for these images? If so, do you think you achieved it?
A: To share with those that are interested about Indian culture, spiritualism in various forms, ways of life of different sects and sadhus. While India is the largest democratic country in the world and a strong economic power to reckon with, it is still very deep rooted in tradition, culture & values. These few images portray the same in a positive and proud light. They show unity in diversity, freedom of expression.

Q: What approach do you take with your photography or what does photography mean to you?
A: Photography for me has always defined “the truth” and showing the truth. Life, people, cultures and feelings in their truest forms.

Q: Obviously one of the first requirements for creating great images is finding a great subject, and you certainly have done that. Walking around the sites of this mass pilgrimage as a woman with cameras hanging around her neck must have been quite challenging despite your empathy and respect for the people in front of your lens. Can you tell us something about your visceral experiences in executing this project and the physical and emotional challenges you faced?
A: When I photograph, I am in my own state of meditation. I am totally engrossed and engulfed in it. I forget the weight of my gear, the weather, hunger, thirst. Because I enjoy the whole process, it doesn’t matter to me; it is not a challenge. But whilst I say this, I must mention that it was a little tough breaking through to the sadhus, some are receptive and some are not approachable. It took me a day or so before I could establish a rapport with a few. They were a bit vary of a woman trying to talk to them given the path they have chosen to walk on, but once we broke the ice, it was much easier and then on they would invite me whenever they saw me, sometimes for a cup of tea with them.

My name Laxmi (represents an Indian goddess) resonated with them and helped me establish a small little relationship. What made me sad during this exercise was when I saw some other photographers paying money to these Sadhus and making them commercial subjects thereby loosing the purpose and focusing on the pose.
Emotionally, it was a riot of colour’s. It was a riot of all sorts of emotions – there were families celebrating the birth of a child and just a few meters ahead I saw a cremation-taking place. Made me stop and think a lot about “this journey of life.”

Q: This image was apparently shot on a busy urban street taken over by the Kumbh Mela pilgrims. The main subject is a bearded man who looks like he’s in a state of reverie and there are hands seemingly outstretched to acknowledge or beseech him. What’s actually going on here, and from what vantage point did you capture this outstanding image?
A: This is an image very close to my heart.

Maha Shivratri is a Hindu festival celebrated annually in reverence of the Lord Shiva. It is the day Shiva was married to the goddess Parvati. This date comes in conjunction or follows shortly after the Kumbh mela. Varanasi has one of India’s biggest and holiest temples dedicated to Lord Shiva, the Kashi Vishwanath temple that lies on the banks of the holy river Ganges. By right of being the biggest and strongest disciples of Shiva, the Naga sadhus have the first right of entering the temple to pay their respects on the morning of the pious day.
This image was taken early morning after they had paid their obeyance and got the blessings. The hands you see are of people who have been waiting in queues since many nights and days, to seek one visual and blessing of the God. I used to think I am a religious person, but after seeing this view of people waiting for days on end to just get a few seconds of time with their faith.. I was totally blown away!!
Their dedication, passion and love for Shiva amazed me beyond belief. As I walked around the city, I witnessed the queues building up from at least 48 hours prior to the festival. The old and young all waited patiently in the queue for their turn, which they got only after the pecking order was followed, starting with the Naga sadhus. Many sadhus came out and handed over whatever they had got from inside the temple, be it flowers or sweets.
Moments such as these humble me. These visuals in the flesh brought me to tears and stirred emotions that I did not know existed within me.

Q: The close-up of a pilgrim’s hand adorned with colorful rings and holding a cigarette seems to capture the intersection of the material and spiritual in an almost whimsical way. Do you agree? And what aperture did you shoot at in order to accentuate the hand but also render the subject’s head as blurry but still recognizable?
A: I totally agree with you and as you have creatively put it into words. He was sitting there as if in a state of trance and enjoying his Beedi (a local Indian hand rolled type of cigarette). He sat there so pensive and in a state of bliss at the same time. I was enamored by the jewelry he was wearing – many rings to serve various purposes and beliefs, got me curious and left me thinking to myself as to why he perhaps was wearing each one. I sat with him for a while and watched him just be. He was receptive and not awkward even in that state of mind. I am lucky to have met some amazing people who have helped me grow inwards.

I shot it at f/4.

Q: This is one of the most iconic photos in this portfolio. The figure himself is cast in a striking bluish hue suggesting that he was illuminated by some cool light source. Did you do any post- production work on this image to create this effect, and if not how did you manage to capture the arresting color balance that takes the image to a whole new level?
A: It was a bright sunny day and he was sitting under a blue plastic tent, the hue you see is sunlight on the tent glowing through. It was as simple as that! The distance between the garland and the Sadhu is a fair bit, it was hanging at the entrance of the tent, but framed the Sadhu perfectly and in a superb symmetry.
I liked the composition, the colour’s caught my attention and I framed the shot. I believe in simplicity and honesty in images. Things are not as complicated as us humans sometimes make them out to be.

Q: One of my favorite images in this portfolio is a head-shot of a man wearing a beaded headdress, his face painted stark white, and with a calm snake wrapped almost discreetly around his neck as though it were nothing unusual. His expression is intense, and he appears to be in a trance and looking inward rather than outward. What does this image mean in the context of the Kumbh Mela, and can you please provide the tech data including camera, lens, exposure, and ISO? By the way do you shoot all your images handheld, and do you ever use as tripod or other support?
A: You describe my thought process so eloquently! This was precisely what I wanted to show, his casualness about being dressed in that heavy garb and the live snake around neck, trying to ape the God shiv himself, in a very natural manner. He was surely in some trance as his vision was transfixed and he didn’t really care about who passed him by or what was happening around him.

Oblivious to the world, he was as calm as that snake around him. How I wish I could read his mind.
For my kind of photography, I do not normally use a tripod when I shoot, the Leica doesn’t really need one as well. I also choose to shoot the landscapes handheld. I used a Leica M with a Summicron-M 75 mm f/2 and shot at 1/60 sec at f/6.8, ISO 640.

Q: How to you see your photography evolving over, say, the next few years? Do you plan to explore any other locations or genres going forward other than “emotional portraiture, street and landscapes and come photojournalism?” Finally do you have any new projects in the works you can briefly mention here?
A: Currently I am shooting the nomads of Kashmir, I have been lucky to capture some beautiful stories and images so far. Being a conflict area, it is very difficult as a female photographer to travel easily in that region. But, it is something that I will continually keep following up on. I have shot extensively and experienced Bhutan, Cambodia, India and Borobudur in Indonesia. When I look back on the kind of photographs I had a few years ago and compare the same with today, I can easily the see the changes in terms of composition and shooting techniques alongside with the broadening of my mind and horizon. I have become more open to diversity and opinions and I try and inculcate that into my work. I feel and see my minds eye opening up as I go along. Also my shift to Leica has changed my outlook and style a fair bit but for the better.
Thank you for your time, Laxmi!
– Jason Schneider, Leica Internet Team
Connect with Laxmi on Facebook, Instagram and her website.