An Ethnographer in a Land of Tourists

So then I turn around and it’s been a month. I came over to Kullu valley for a wedding and stayed on for work, and am about to head back to Kangra. In the meantime some work has happened, and some fun, and a lot of multi-sited fieldwork FOMO.

Cutting to the chase, for those looking for pics of an extravagant Kullvi wedding: you can find several hundred of them here. I know there are several people following this blog who are not on facebook, but have no fear! The page should be visible even to folks without a fb account. The whole shebang was well documented by professional photographers, so I focused on experiencing the thing and only took a few pictures when no one else was. As a female guest on the groom’s side, I mostly hung out with the women of his extended family, so that’s mostly who you’ll see in my photos. Being explicit about the locations (physical and social) from which I take my photos (and make my observations) was already important to me before, but as I’ll describe below, my experiences at this wedding really amplified that commitment.

Before coming here, I’d been staying in a much more rural area without any tourism infrastructure. So this time coming to Kullu felt like landing up in the city–there’s cappuccino! And traffic jams! There are 2 ATMs, neither of which is a guy with a bag of cash! Since a multi-day function with several thousand guests was happening at the house where I usually stay, I spent about the first week of my stay here in a hotel up at the touristy end of town near the castle. It gave me a very different perspective on the place–in the morning when I came out of my room all I saw were tourists and the locals cooking parathas for them at the couple dhabas that were open at breakfast time. While I can see the castle from the house, I can also see Chachiji working on her loom on the verandah next door, kids on their way to school, sales guys trudging up the path with piles of rugs twice their weight on their backs. You know, life. Life swirling around me, but not centered around me. You can see this life from the castle too, but from a not-coincidentally panoptical vantage point.

So, I started my days with Foucauldian ruminations, and then descended into the swirl of wedding activity (much of which was actually just waiting around, but still felt pretty busy). On the 3rd day, we headed to the bride’s village, and that’s when the white guilt really hit hard. Because milling around in the chaat courtyard, I noticed several people who definitely seemed to be there for the spectacle (and the free food) rather than the celebration. I saw someone giggling “khana khana!,” and someone (not the hired photographers) standing in front of seated guests in order to get better shots of the bride and groom, and someone asking for information about the wedding practices and then filming themself explaining in omniscient narrator mode. I found this all pretty gross.

From my perspective, it was one thing to film us from the balcony as we danced through the streets, but something else entirely to crash the reception. When I asked one of my friends about it, he said it was fine–everyone is invited, and if you’re cooking for 4000, what’s 5 more? He certainly has a point, but it still bothered me. This lavish, everyone’s-invited extravaganza was part of a reciprocal web of celebrations, and we’re not really a part of that.

I say “we” because for every tourist that I gave the side-eye, I had to ask myself–is what I’m doing really that much different? Aren’t I also crashing the party, telling other people’s stories for my own benefit? And even if it is different, to what extent is it enabled by the tourism infrastructure that I’m rolling my eyes at? Next week I’m attending a workshop on visual storytelling for social change, so I’ll be continuing to wrestle with questions how I am, and should be, representing the work here.

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