Behind the Lens: The madding crowd
In 2018 I timed a working visit to Mumbai, India to coincide with one of the subcontinents many festivals – the ritual of Dahi Handi which is part of the Hindu festival of Janmashtami.
Krishna Janmashtami celebrates the birth anniversary of Lord Krishna, one of the most widely revered gods of Hinduism. At once a religious celebration and a sport (it was classified by the government as an adventure sport in 2014), Dahi Handi is performed the day after Lord Krishna’s birthday every year.
Teams of up to a hundred young ‘Govindas’ form human pyramids in an attempt to reach and smash a pot, the ‘Handi’, which is filled with yoghurt and other ingredients and suspended tens of metres above them. The event is based on the legend that a baby Lord Krishna used creative ways to steal milky treats which were supposedly hung high out of reach.
Mumbai is a massive, manic, and sometimes maddening metropolis of twenty-three million people, so I enlisted the help of two experienced Indian photojournalists who have covered many Dahi Handi festivals. We negotiated Mumbai’s insane railway system out into the suburbs to the place the Dahi Handi was at its most spectacular. The street was heaving, and the crowds and expectations grew as the first team readied to make their climb.
One local photographer gave me a tip to watch for a ritual sometimes performed before the pyramid climb where the team members gather tightly in a circle and reach out in togetherness.
We climbed though the tight-knit throng to the fourth story of an adjacent building to get the best vantage point.
On my Nikon D5 I had my favourite all-purpose travel lens, the Nikkor 28-300mm f3.5-5.6 VR. It’s not exactly a ‘Pro’ lens but is so versatile and convenient I find it on my camera more than any other.
The lens was perfect from our viewpoint. 28mm was just wide enough to get the entire human pyramid and the surrounding crowds in the frame, while the range up to 300mm meant I could easily frame smaller details like the breaking of the ‘Handi’ at the very top of the tower.
Almost on queue the team formed a circle and conducted their ritual before commencing their pyramid climb of eight tiers of young men to a height of about forty or fifty feet – an amazing feat of strength and balance.
Nice images were everywhere – the climb, the crowds, the breaking of the clay pot soaking the human tower, and the inevitable collapse, but the one image I keep going back to is this one of the ritual. I made many images of human pyramids, but nowhere else did I see a team perform it. Unfortunately, Dahi Handi is not without risks. I later found out two people died in 2018 and more than 150 were injured.
Nikon D5, 28-300mm 3.5-5.6 Nikkor lens @ 85mm. 1/800s @ f7.1, ISO 320.
About the author: Based in Cairns, Brian Cassey is one of Australia's most talented photojournalists, and contributes to numerous Australian and International media – newspapers, wires and magazines – principally covering news, features and sport. You can see more of his work at briancasseyphotographer.com, and read our 2019 interview with him here.