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Millennium Post

Altars of faith

In prayer we are one, even when our Gods are many – celebrating India's dynamic social fabric, Queensline Art Series brings a powerful collection of photographs capturing people across India as they surrender to their Almighty, reverencing the enigma of unwavering faith, writes Uma Nair.

In an age of unspeakable cruelties committed in the name of religion – here is an exhibition that brings us uplifting moments of fellowship among Hindus, Christians and Muslims in India. At Bikaner House in Delhi, will be a suite of photographs that bring together the altars of faith, in which we look at prayer as a "kind of moral and ethical necessity."

Queensline Art Series comes from Kolkata and it's the brainchild of young entrepreneur Shripriya Dalmia Thirani, who will be organising a series of events. "ALTARS OF YEARNING – HOW INDIA PRAYS" – is a series of 55 iconic photographs that captures people across India at the time they worship.

"I thought of the show primarily to remind the world of India's incredible social fabric – a land of many people, many cultures, and many religions coexisting peacefully as one – prayer, a common phenomenon among all of them," says Dalmia.

The first image of a pair of hands and the crucified Christ brings back the words of Khaled Hosseini. "There is a God, there always has been. I see him here, in the eyes of the people in this [hospital] corridor of desperation. This is the real house of God, this is where those who have lost God will find Him... there is a God, there has to be, and now I will pray, I will pray that He will forgive that I have neglected Him all of these years, forgive that I have betrayed, lied, and sinned with impunity only to turn to Him now in my hour of need. I pray that He is as merciful, benevolent, and gracious as His book says He is."

The photographs are a reflection of how prayer is the greatest institution of human life, much like language. From one welcomed by birth or bid goodbye through death – prayer stays constant. It is that moment in our lives when we are most real, most true, most vulnerable and, above all, most private.

Some of these images tell us that prayer is hope. In his book, My Experiments with Truth, Mahatma Gandhi said: "When every hope is gone, 'when helpers fail and comforts flee', I find that help arrives somehow, from I know not where. Supplication, worship, prayer are no superstition; they are acts more real than the acts of eating, drinking, sitting or walking. It is no exaggeration to say that they alone are real, all else is unreal."

Here are images where you can be silenced by the mysticism and the smells, colours and sounds that wash over those who want to belong to a moment in prayer. An exhibition space can become a veritable shrine. You can be part of a funeral prayer, you can be inside a chapel where townsfolk gather in a church overlooking the river, where they kneel in prayer. You could belong to a Buddhist congregation collectively bonded in their chants as they sit down to pray.

Irrespective of the faith or the place, it is akin to stumbling upon a vibrant culture that still holds onto rituals and customs even though a better part of the world is withering under centuries of virulent anti-Semitism and even the new face of terrorism. It also, in many ways, points to the multiplicity of life even as it speaks like a documentation of different religious mappings across the social fabric.

Whether it is a silhouette in the sunset or the namaaz at dawn, these photographs bring us into the lives of numerous communities from different walks of life – while revealing the enduring power of spiritual experiences. To capture even the sanyasi as he partakes of the symbolism of fire, is a spiritual experience too.

Humility and supplication too are emotive evocations in some of these works. You begin to think of the words of great poets and thinkers and essayists. The unforgettably brilliant Sylvia Plath who in her abject despair and loneliness said: "I talk to God but the sky is empty." Then there is the compelling reflection of Abraham Lincoln who wrote: "I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had no where else to go. My own wisdom and that of all about me seemed insufficient for that day."

It becomes an apt mooring to recall the words of Mahatma Gandhi when he said: "Prayer is not asking. It is a longing of the soul. It is daily admission of one's weakness. It is better in prayer to have a heart without words than words without a heart."

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