The East and The West: A Cultural Arts Review

Posted on October 7, 2013 by



With thick dreadlocks bundled on the top of his head, a white beard clinging to his dark complexion, and traditional garb draping over his frail body, he must be an Easterner, or more specifically, a sādhu.  While the majority of this photograph suggests Eastern origin, something is out of place.  A motorcycle casually leans against the sādhu’s right side.  This unexpected juxtaposition contributes to the rich complexity of the photograph, “Baba & Motorbike”.  Taken by Massimiliano Sticca on February 11, 2013, Massimiliano captures the largest religious congregation in the world, called Maha Kumbh Mela occurring in Allahabad, India.  Not only is there meaning rooted in the significance of this event, but also in the overall integration and meshing of cultures.

Every twelfth year, millions of sādhus celebrate Maha Kumbh Mela in Allahabad.   The two holiest of rivers, the Ganga and the Yamuna, converge at a point named the Sangam.  It is believed Ganga poured herself over the ashes of King Ganga’s sons.  Consequently, the confluence is perceived as sacred, with the power to wash away sins and end the process of reincarnation.  100 million Hindu people congregate for this “King of All Pilgrimage Centres”.  The enormous expanse of devotees present is vaguely alluded to within the foggy background.

The main emphasis, however, falls on the sādhu.  Traditionally, a sādhu is considered to be a ‘holy man’.  Their ultimate goal is to achieve liberation through the meditation of brahman, the Hindu God of Creation.  To achieve this goal, they renounce this world along with possessions and material wealth.  Sādhus, also known as Baba, are considered dead to themselves and are considered legally dead in India.  As a result, they develop their spirituality on the outskirts of society.  They are often characterized by their saffron colored clothing, known as sanyāsa, and dreadlocks, known as Jata.  Both sanyāsa and Jata serve as symbols of their renunciation.  These traditional views of sādhus and sāhdvīs are challenged by “Baba & Motorbike”.  Although the man in the photograph fits the classification of a sādhu in appearance, the motorcycle alongside him quietly challenges that view.  It contradicts the stereotype that sādhus are not concerned with worldly possessions.  Though on the outskirts of society, industrialization still reaches these people and still holds a place in their everyday lives.

“Baba & Motorbike” calls to light an interesting dichotomy.  It is common knowledge that the globe is composed of two hemispheres: the North and the South, and two halves: the East and the West.  We, as a human race, collectively assimilate common characteristics and attributes into these classifications.  For example, a single glance at the colorful tapestries, twinkling lights, and a multitude of tents in the background suggest an origin outside North America.  Though we learn to understand our world with more clarity from these classifications, prejudices and stereotypes imminently result.  “The East” and “The West” are merely results of humans’ attempts at classification.  Therefore, they are subject to flaws. Massimiliano, a traveling photographer, portrays this blending of cultures with finesse.  He reveals the East-West duality not as linear, rather as an accumulation of outside forces shaping a particular moment in time.  Massimiliano notes, “After I took the photo he asked me to come closer to show him the pictures – I did that and he blessed me.”  Looking past the ash covered skin and the unshaven facial hair, this man broke cultural barriers.  Amidst various cultures, we are all united by a single, collective similarity.  We are all human.  Thanks to “Baba & Motorbike”, viewers are forced to reevaluate stereotypes and perceive Hindu culture through a different lens.  While technological sharing enriches and connects the lives of many across the globe, an unusual phenomenon unavoidably results: the sharing of understanding and a precious furthering of human connection.