Fig. 15. King Cobra appearing during Tejas Dasmi, September 1977, central India. Tejas Dasmi (“bright tenth [lunar day]”) is a festival celebrating the pastoral deity Tejaji, who, through the allied figure of Nag Maharaj (King Cobra), provides protection from snakebites. In 1977, at least, the festival also involved a matki phod, a human tower associated with mythology concerning Krishna in his guise as the makhan chor (butter thief). Photographs carefully preserved in a village album by a leading Jain document villagers congregating around the shrine after the procession circumambulating the village. Later images in the series show the matki phod, a human tower, being constructed by thirty or perhaps forty individuals in three tiers. It was while this living pyramid struggled to take form that the participants became aware of a mysterious presence, a zone of energy of the kind that someone fifteen to twenty feet high might exert. Everyone was aware of something helping them as they clambered upward, and the same force came to their rescue when the tower collapsed onto hard stony ground, for they were all magically cushioned as they fell. The final image in the series delivers the denouement, placing the tower at the center of the image and showing some of the many small colored flags suspended from the shrine, which remains out of frame. Parallel to the tower on the left side a large, mottled, snakelike stripe sears the image. For the participants in the matki phod and the many excited spectators whose presence the image also documents, the photograph affirmed what they had experienced: the King Cobra whom the festival remembers had been the mysterious presence assisting in its own effervescent celebration. Professional photographers in the nearby town are highly skeptical of the rural ontology of photography that prizes it as a medium in which the world of sagas and jujhar (spirits of the deceased) becomes visible. Suresh Punjabi, of Suhag Studio, observed that when developing 120 film, the negative can easily get scratched, producing confusing noise on the surface of the image. Deep scratches can also start to “melt” at high temperatures, and for this reason many photographers would add a little ice (if they could obtain it) to the developer. Split negatives often produced a mottled pattern on the final printed image. As well as providing a striking example of photography as a kind of “divination,” the image (which was disclosed to Pinney only in 2019, more than thirty years after he started visiting the village it depicts) demonstrates the value of long-term fieldwork. Re-photographed by Christopher Pinney; PHOTODEMOS: Citizens of Photography: the Camera and the Political Imagination

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