In August of last year, DuendePhoto captured Shira & Anup’s civil ceremony at San Francisco City Hall. They loved their images so much, that they decided to fly us to Shira’s hometown of Chennai, India to photograph their small Tamil Brahmin wedding in the resort town of Mahabalipuram in December. It was to be on the beach at sunrise. “Small”, in Indian Wedding standards, is 300-500 people. 80 people were able to make it, and this South Indian wedding very nearly didn’t happen at all.
Neither of us had ever been to India before. We prepped as best we could, got all of our vaccines and malaria pills, bought a truckload of antibacterial lotion & mosquito repellant, ate vegetarian for two weeks, and ruthlessly pared down our equipment for foreign travel. What follows is the story of our experience going (separately) 1/2 way around the world to capture a South Indian wedding… during the worst cyclone to hit the East Indian Coast in the last 150 years. Ken put a video/photo fusion slideshow together to show you:
Brady takes off from SFO at noon on November 29th, 2015. Ken has a wedding in San Francisco on Wednesday December 2nd, so it’s decided that Brady will cover the wedding prep and Mehndi alone. He will fly in on Friday December 4th, get a few hours sleep, and join the reception party on Saturday. That was the plan, anyway.
Brady lands in Chennai, India just before midnight on Monday, November 30th. Once outside the airport, the air is hot & muggy, and the small mosquitos are relentless. It’s already raining on the way to Shira’s mother’s house. Greeted with shy hugs, she is put to bed on the floor of an empty flat above the one that Shira’s mom Shobha shares with Shira’s sister, Hamsa. The young women sadly lost their father two years ago.
In the morning, there is a small puddle on the floor under the windows. It must have rained all night long. Brady joins the family downstairs for breakfast, and is introduced to the aunties, uncle, and cousins who have gathered thus far for the wedding. Lunch is ordered, but takes a long time to be delivered. Apparently, the rains have caused some delays across the city. When the stacked tins finally arrive, she is introduced to eating exotic mixtures of rice, sambar, and fried potatoes from a large banana leaf. Auntie Kala, who will sort of adopt Brady over the course of the week, shows her how to mix the soupy offerings with the rice into a loose ball that you pop into your mouth. This turns out to be harder than you’d think, but the food is exotic & delicious.
It’s Tuesday, December 1st. Brady heads back up to her room for a nap to try & shake the jet lag. It’s hot & stuffy in the room, so she opens the windows… always a dilemma: mosquitos or air flow? It’s really raining now, sometimes in hard showers, and getting storm-dark outside. She puts the 85mm 1.4 on her D3s, and shoots a few images of the street below. The stream of water on the side of the road in front of Shobha’s apartment building is widening across the median. Motorcyclists, bicyclists, and pedestrians now have to go through, rather than around it. Shira comes up in the afternoon to say that the cots & furnishings on order for this flat will not be delivered today, as the storm has made a few roads impassable. Shira doesn’t want her to sleep on the floor again, so moves her to a spare bedroom offered in a neighbor’s flat… with air conditioning!!! Brady moves gear & bags downstairs, and reads for a bit to try & sleep. Around 4:00 that day, the power goes out. And with it, the air con.
Shira comes over to report the news: The storm has escalated to Cyclone status. A highly unusual event, a large storm over Indonesia split, the lower 1/2 circling South as usual, the upper 1/2 slamming directly into the Indian coast at Chennai. She asks Brady if she’d like to go get some tea in the apartment building’s reception area, downstairs. When they get to the exit to the parking level, Brady can now see why Shira borrowed a pair of plastic sandals for her: the parking garage, walkway to front of building, and grounds are under 8-12″ of water. Giant rain drops are coming down in warm gusts. They slog through the water, both drenched by the time they make it to the front of the building, sharing a tiny umbrella that does nothing. When the manager brings two steel cups of hot, super sweet milk tea, the rains are now belting the windows in furious, sideways sheets. Brady has never seen rain like this in her life, and Shira is now very worried about Anup, whose family lives across town. With no power, the family lights candles, talks & eats lightly, and goes to bed.
Wednesday, December 2nd: Shira has been on the phone all morning with wedding vendors, and she’s visibly stressed. The power is still out, no deliveries are being made, the roads are flooded, and she can’t get through to her wedding planner. She & Shobha invite Brady to go get some lunch. The big hotel down the street has power, and there is a break in the rain. On the restaurant TV, the local news station has a new hashtag: #chennairains! They learn that the city is now in a state of emergency. The dam was released when the main river threatened to overflow its banks, closing nearly all roads. The airport is closed to all incoming flights. And many people have died from electrocution by downed power lines.
That afternoon back at the compound, the power comes back on. Briefly. Hamsa & her cousins come to tell Brady that they are going upstairs to the empty flat to practice a dance routine for Shira & Anup’s wedding reception. Would she like to come? Excited to finally have something to shoot that won’t stress Shira more than she already is, Brady goes with them. They look up bollywood & hip hop routines on YouTube. Adorable. It’s a small room, so she sets her iPhone on the tripod to video them practicing, and shoots a few stills with her 24-120. They laugh & trip up, goggle about it, and do it over again. After an hour, they want to see the video. More laughter. The power goes out again, and they learn at dinner that the government has turned the power back off in the evenings as a result of more deaths reported. The girls go back upstairs that night to practice by the light of a single candle.