Most of the photography of the Deities in India, North America, and Europe was done by Nitya-tripta devi dasi, who spent months on the road and in the air, burdened by a 4x5 view camera, tripod, and lighting equipment. She also worked for months scanning, selecting, retouching, and preparing all the images for the printer and the DVD. Acknowledgements to 50+ devotees involved in the facilitation and production of this book. Silk cover with gold-leaf imprint; high-quality binding, printed on extra white paper using a special 5-colour process.
The Darshan story (by Nitya-tripta devi dasi)
As I entered the Deity room there was the sparkle of entering another dimension, the rarefied atmosphere was peaceful and alive. I was stunned, and then quickly and quietly performed the task of setting up lights and adjusting them according to the light meter readings. My mind was absorbed in prayer and glorification of the Lord. I was nervous being so close to the Deities, so very close. I didn't want to breathe in fear of being a disturbance. This was the first time I had entered an altar with all the photographic gear and I was thrilled with the opportunity to perform my service so directly with and for the Lord.
Today, some 28 years later, it is still that way for me. The Lord in His various manifestations is always present, I feel His eyes watching, He is kind and encouraging, He is tolerant and forgiving of my fumbling and mumbling about.
I started my devotional service in 1975 at the BBT photo department, also affectionately known by the name of "Photo-Loka" to residents of the New Dvaraka community in Los Angeles. One of my assigned duties was to photograph the Deities with a 4x5 View-Camera. It is not a particularly easy camera to use. It is big and bulky; focusing the image is done on a ground glass at the back of the camera with a magnifying lens, which displays the image upside down and backwards. Exposures have to be taken with a hand held light-meter at the subject, and the light reading is calculated accordingly. And oh yes, there is usually the need of lights with their stands and a substantial tripod to support the camera. We also used this class of camera to photograph all the art-work for the BBT publications due to its fine rendition of detail. Only the best for Krishna!
The pictures I took in those early years in New Dvaraka and other temples were used in books and posters, sent to Srila Prabhupada directly, and used by the pujaris and seamstresses to improve the quality of dress standards offered to the Lord. Many devotees, including myself would talk of a book with magnificent Deity pictures, and we made our own private photo collections. Later on through the years I took pictures on various altars for the Krishna Vision Deity slide shows. Each Deity is different in his own special mood reciprocating with His devotees according to their needs and desires.
The Call to Service
Fast-forward to the summer of 2002. Krsna Prema and I are working on the museum exhibitions at the ISKCON New Delhi temple. I receive an email from Ranjita dasa at the Bhaktivedanta Archives requesting advice on how to photograph Deities with a 4x5 View-Camera for an upcoming book. In some ways I felt relieved that I was NOT assigned the task of taking the pictures, knowing what it means to be so close to Krishna, so many different types of altars to accommodate lights and tripod, and travel burdened with photo equipment and film.
However, at the beginning of 2003 after competing the Delhi expo, we are back in Italy about to return to the USA, when Madhu-Sevita dasa, our good friend and Mediterranean BBT Trustee approaches us. He is really going to make the Deity book we have all dreamed about, but only the photos from the Bhaktivedanta Archives have been reviewed. Ranjita dasa has lined up a few photographers in the USA but needs help with the West Coast. I have the apprehension that Krishna is trapping me into this service. I agree to photograph the Deities in nine West Coast temples (Los Angeles, Berkeley, Laguna Beach, San Diego, Seattle, Vancouver, Boise, Denver, Spanish Fork, and Phoenix).
Within a month or two, however, thirteen east coast temples (Chicago, Boston, NY, Towaco, New Vrindavana, Hillsborough, Atlanta, Gita Nagari, Philadelphia, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, New Talavan) are added to make a total of twenty-two temples. Half-heartedly, I try to resist but Krishna has made this arrangement of attracting, capturing and purifying.
The photo tours are a whirlwind. The plan is 3 days and 2 nights at each temple. I make contact with local photo labs to understand both the availability and cost of film development as well as proximity to the temple. Ranjita is my support team. He calls the temples to make sure the dates, pickup times and photo labs are confirmed, and keeps me encouraged with daily cell phone calls. I am totally dependent on the mercy of the devotees and their Lord. I am picked up at airports, given prasadam (although I don't eat till noon so as to remain clean for going on the altar) and shelter, driven to photo labs, and given entrance into the inner sanctum of each temple. I spend hours in planes and airports. Every 2 days I meet a new set of devotees or renew old friendships. It's exhausting and blissful. I think of the life of our ISKCON sannyasis. They deserve the special care we give them.
Each temple and Deity is another adventure, each Krishna and altar a challenge. Technically the lighting is different and the space to work is different. Devotionally the goal is submission to each Deity, trying to understand Their mood and serve Their devotees. I work with the various devotees to learn the timings, and particulars of each altar. For example in Chicago the altar is on a high broad stage, there is a large space between the 3 different Deity houses, good for the Deity pictures both close-up and full figure. In Los Angeles, San Diego, and Houston the situation is much tighter and more of a challenge to place the camera. In Los Angeles I need to be finished with the photo work by 11:00 for the noon lunch offering, in other temples the time is 11:30. Don't want to have those bright lights in Krishna's eyes and me scurrying around the altar like an annoying fly during His lunch hour.
Travels and Memories
Visiting some temples are journeys in time. During my brief stay at the Atlanta temple I remembered my 3 years living in a suburb near by and attending North Springs High School. As a California girl of the 60's I never really fit in with the southern conservative atmosphere, so I studied yoga and wondered about the goal of life. I first saw the devotees in downtown Atlanta and then a few years later at the Atlanta Rock Festival (in Byron Georgia) 1969.
After I finish photographing the Deities in Berkeley I walk up Telegraph Ave to the University of California at Berkeley. Memories came alive again. I was a member of the counter culture of that time and open to the possibilities of life. I attended college very near the Berkeley temple and spent much time on Telegraph Ave, where I encountered my first sankirtana devotee, a brahmacari who was selling Back to Godhead magazines and incense on the corner of Durant Street. During those college years I could tell what time it was by the kirtana on the street, which left the university at precisely the same time every day.
Although I had first seen Srila Prabhupada at a distance in LA in 1974, it was in Golden Gate Park during the 1975 San Francisco Ratha Yatra sponsored by the Berkeley temple that I first photographed His Divine Grace as I walked next to Srimati Subhadra's chariot.
In both Los Angeles and Berkeley in 1974 and 1975 I photographed the Deities and traded the prints for Maha Prasadam. One time in Berkeley a brahmacarini named Kamatavi dasi wanted pictures but had no cash, so she offered me a beautiful rosewood carving of Krsna that I have and worship to this day.
I had visited both the Seattle and Denver temples in 1978. In Denver I had distributed 100 books in one day at the airport and in Seattle took the photos for a Back to Godhead article. So many good memories of service to Krishna.
Some temples are visions of the future. The Boise temple was started and is maintained by an Indian couple who longed for a temple after a job transfer moved them from Los Angeles. So they turned their house into a temple, which soon expanded, and taught Krsna consciousness to many visitors. The temple in Spanish Fork, Utah started as a radio station run by a long time devotee couple, Caru das and Vaibhavi dasi. By their dedicated enthusiasm and work with their Mormon neighbors a temple modeled on the Flower Palace at Kusum Sarovara in Vrindaban, now stands in this Rocky Mountain valley.
During my photo session at New Kusum Sarovara, Caru led a small tour of elderly Mormons thru the temple. I will always remember how he introduced the Deity and personality of Krishna, "This is Krishna in the center holding a flute. He is the very same God as in the Old Testament of the Bible, except that here He is in a better mood." This got a good chuckle out of the group and he went on to use other information from the Book of Mormon to help those gathered to understand that Krishna and the God of the Bible are one and the same.
Some temples are testimony to dedicated service to the Deity. In New York Ramabhadra dasa, the temple president not only dresses the Deities and sees to Their care but is just plain attached. He is the only person along with Satya dasi his wife, who stay with me the entire 2 hours I slowly go thru the photo session with Radha Govinda. Usually I am introduced to the Deities and left alone and at times bewildered where to find an electric socket for the lights.
After these experiences in the USA and Canada, I am happily recruited into taking even more pictures in Europe (Germany, Radhadesh in Belgium, Paris, New Mayapur, Milan, Florence, Spain, Bhaktivedanta Manor and London) and then India (Delhi, Vrindavana, Calcutta, Mayapur).
The challenges continue. In Radhadesh Belgium, the altar is so narrow I cannot take the picture unless I am in the temple room. However the altar is higher than the tripod legs can extend. So tables are used to raise the floor so to speak. A team of devotees is on hand to move these big sturdy tables around as needed for each set of Deities. It turns into a sort of table dance as I move from one table to another while the previous table is then shifted to another position. In Delhi the same situation arises. In Mayapur India the situation is much more extreme. The altars are so high and the Deities so large and numerous that I used both a water tank stand for one photo session and a bamboo painters scaffolding for another.
The dedication of devotees serving their Deities is fantastic. In Goloka Dham, Abentheuer Germany, Goloka das and his wife Manjuali dasi serve the very sweet Radha Madhana Mohana in such a personal way. They carefully dress the Lord for His photo day, throwing aside all scheduling, knowing Madhana Mohana wants to be the Best! [Goloka das died later in a terrible care accident, I pray he is now with his Lord and Friend Madhana Mohana]. And Visesa dasi in New Mayapur France is still dedicated to serving the Deities. She was there when Prabhupada installed Krsna Balarama in 1976. Over the years she has designed many beautiful outfits for the Deities that have been used in temples throughout the world. Then there are the twins in Mayapur, Jananivas and Pankajanghri. What can be said of these transcendentally devoted brothers. They are the example of perfection in service to the Deity. The Lord is their life.
Capping the whole photo-taking is the glorious installation of Pancatattva in Mayapur where the entire temple is transported to the spiritual world. I have never felt the presence of the Lord as much as in the Pancatattva there. For me this is a firm confirmation that the Lord and His Deity are non-different. Lord Caitanya is in Mayapur and you can see Him very clearly.
Then back to Europe as Phase 2 begins. This was in many ways the most grueling. Many temples from around the world have sent in pictures for the book; some meet our high standards, others do not. For certain areas of the world we were more lenient because we want examples from everywhere Srila Prabhupada established temples. A pro drum scan is used for full shots made by 4x5 view camera. Deities seem to be manifesting each day in ISKCON. There is no end of photographic service available to be done for Krsna.
Haladhara dasa and his wife Bhaktin Anna select the pictures for the layout and design. They create a transcendental visual feast for each temple and I get to kibitz a bit when I am scanning the 35-mm close ups-and details.
Now I have to digitally edit all 800 plus (never counted them all) pictures. But what does that mean? Well we want to present Krsna in his Deity form for the pleasure and meditation of His friends and Devotees. We want no distractions such as the threads holding up the cloths in graceful curves, no pins and no blue-tack showing from under the sides of ornaments. When Hollywood presents their stars they use photo tricks or technology to put forward the best angle. We want the devotees to see Krishna with no distractions. For example Deities go thru a paint cycle, at intervals the facial features are renewed. Since we show the Deity very close up and at angles not seen from the standard temple viewing area, sometimes I needed to re-paint the Deities features (see example of the eye picture). Then there is the balancing of color, to make sure the pictures reproduce properly in the printed form. We have digital proofs made of each and every page (300 pages) and then make new color corrections again on each image after the proofs are reviewed.
From May to the end of September I embark on this solitary journey. I sit in front of a computer sometimes up to 12 or 15 hours a day. Akincana Krishna dasa helps with the color adjustments in the evenings after work (as a graphic designer) and on the weekends, plus he dedicates his entire summer holiday to this service. The mountain of images never seems to go down and the deadline is looming ahead.
Putting It All Together
I am barely aware of the writing going on. While traveling to the various temples I collected information on the Deities whenever possible, especially the dates of installations and special festivals. Tattvavit dasa and Ranjita dasa use this information to create captions and they select verses and quotes from Srila Prabhupada's books to complement the photos. Madhu-Sevita's wife, Ali Krishna Dasi, helps Tattvavit and Dravida dasa do the final editing of the texts.
And then it is over. The book is at the printers, and it is done. I am beyond exhausted, but blissful and feeling much lighter and more connected to Krishna than I have ever felt.