Dust to Dhoop

Written by // Cristina Saez

Incense is one the hundreds of products labeled “Made in India” that have become part of everyday life across the world. In a global economy, the products we buy are often produced in some far away country, by mysterious processes and anonymous workers, ending up in our shops and our homes by the magic of globalization. When photographer Cristina Sáez was invited to visit the Hari Darshan incense factory in Delhi, she encountered first hand the people and the machines behind the commodity. Men and women, materials and machines in perfect synchrony. Every step of the process produced a small change, from the dusty raw material to the sticky dhoop that is shaped into cones and sticks, perfumed, packaged and shipped far away. 
Yet the story she found was not about a product, a process, an outcome. It was an endless cacophony of individual voices repeating the same mantra day after day. The same quick movement, the same touch, the hand that restores the human to the heart of the machine. 

I first came to India in the summer of 2011 to take part in Religare Arts International Artist Residency in Delhi. A soon as I started planning my trip, I found myself surrounded by “Made in India” labels all over my London flat. Clothes, food, ornaments, incense sticks… Commodities made in an exotic land far far away brought to my local store by the magic hand of globalisation. Now I was going to this land myself, I began to wonder how close I might be able to get to the source of these products.

My visit to Hari Darshan incense factory happened almost by chance. One of my fellow resident artists, American sculptor Jesse Berkowetz, was interested in the process of incense making as part of his research, and after a long search Pankaj Negdev, director of Hari Darshan incense factory agreed to having him visit his factory in the outskirts of Delhi. To my surprise, he also agreed to my coming along and gave me total freedom to use my camera inside the premises.

We were given a tour of the factory and taken through the manufacturing process step by step. We learnt about the raw materials, the process of making dhoop and how this is then shaped into cones, sticks and bars which are then in turn soaked in perfume and finally packaged by women in colourful saris.

In entering the first of the rooms, where the dusty raw material is turned into sticky dhoop balls, I was struck by the overwhelming visual and tactile quality of the experience. Ironically, there was no trace of incense smell until we reached the final stages of the factory tour, were the perfumed is added.

There were many shades of brown in the dhoop-processing area, and bright yellows, pinks and blues in the packaging rooms, the workers’ saris matching the bright packaging. But more than anything else, there were textures, movements and working hands. Hands moving quickly or slow, in small steps perfected after many repetitions, handling materials and machines as extensions of themselves.

While the factory tour imposed a sense of logic and narrative onto the production process, in reality each one of these steps was happening simultaneously and continuously all over the factory in an endless cacophony of men and women and machines, pushing, lifting, moving, patting, wrapping, packaging. For each one of the individual workers I encountered, there was no progress or achievement. They were destined to repeat the same movement time after time, in an endless circular motion.

As a result of this visit I produced a photographic series and a video installation. While the video installation “Made in India” captures the sense of circularity and repetition of the production process, the photographs in “Dust to dhoop” focus on the individual workers and their environment. They show the human side of the machine, reminding the viewer of the many hands that make the stuff we buy and of the many lives behind them. They are an invitation to consider how much we know about what we consume and the implications of our way of life. As for myself, I have never lit an incense stick since without thinking about that day.

*“Dust to dhoop” and the related video installation “Made in India” are part of a long-term photography and video project documenting manual labour across India. 

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