By Rajendar Menen
The author meets and talks with nomadic photographer michel szulc-krzyzanowski, who through his photography projects, shows that beautiful people can be found anywhere, even in the filthiest slums
I met them at Juhu beach in Mumbai on a humid summer evening. The tide was coming in, a cup of chai rested in my hands and a stray dog looked at me with some affection after being fed a packet of biscuits. “Please meet them sir,” pleaded the restaurant waiter pointing to a tall, lean gentleman and two women seated at a table nearby. He knew that I was a journalist and had overheard their conversation. He decided, quite rightly, that they were also journalists on an India assignment. We chatted, became friends and met several times after that.
Internationally acclaimed and nomadic Dutch-born photographer Michel Szulc-Krzyzanowski was in India for a fortnight for the last leg of his project, The most beautiful people in the world. He had been to nine other countries before that. For the India leg, he had specially recruited Karine Versluis and Marjolein van Veen, two exquisitely beautiful Dutch women, who were also adept photographers and old India hands.
We hung around together several times after this and Michel explained the project to me. “The project involves 10 countries, and over 150 people are asked if they feel they are the world’s most beautiful people. We interviewed and photographed those who responded positively. We wanted all types, rich and poor. We shot them in their natural setting in broad daylight. It had nothing to do with sheer physical beauty.” Random snapshots from the encounter:
How did you choose the 10 countries?
I decided on Brazil, Mexico, the USA, France, Spain, Poland, Iran, Namibia, China and India. To be a truly worldwide project one or more countries from each continent had to be included. The project is not just about personal beauty, but beauty for anything and everything and everybody.
What do you feel about India?
I have been to India seven times. This is because of an almost magical fascination for its culture, the traditions, the spirituality, the scale, and Osho. India cannot be compared – it is so unique. Of course, the USA is unique in its own way, but that uniqueness is superficial. The uniqueness is based on just a few elements of understanding. India needs a lot of knowledge and understanding to know and accept its uniqueness.
Do you think India is a spiritual country, much more than other countries? Yes, it is much more than the USA, Central and South America, Europe and Australia. In these places, the people are religious. This makes it impossible for them to be spiritual.
Do you think Indians are happy, how do they come across? It is difficult to generalise. We cannot state that Indians are happy or not happy. The same goes for Europeans, Americans, and anybody in the world.
Can happiness exist in horrific poverty?
I can only speak of the persons I met in Mumbai who claimed that they believed they were the most beautiful in the world. Some of them were poor, and some were well off. In spite of their situation, these individuals were able to live with positivity, hope and optimism.
It was astonishing to witness a person living in deep poverty, having moments of beauty and happiness, as it was to witness a wealthy person achieving true beauty and happiness. Most of us know that living in poverty can be hard and depressing. It is surprising to hear a person in poverty say he/she feels beautiful in spite of it all. The fact is that many people who live in wealth do not manage to be happy or feel beautiful.
Wealth is no free ticket for a life without problems. In fact, to own material things is a spiritual blasphemy. Like it is explained in several holy books like the Kabbalah. This is because owning blocks the openness to spiritual growth, where possibly true happiness and beauty can be found. So, to meet a person having wealth but feeling an inner beauty is as astonishing as a person from the Mumbai slum feeling beautiful.
Do Indians feel that they are the world’s most beautiful people?Yes, but we had similar responses from other countries too.
Are people all over the world similar?
Yes and no – we all need to eat and sleep. Each person is an individual being with his/her own characteristics and personality. One remarkable facet of the project was that all those documented believed that they were the most beautiful people in the world. Here, they were similar. Each of them had a completely different explanation for it. Here they were different.
Were there any exciting encounters in Mumbai?
Oh yes, several. The depth of spirituality, the level of wisdom or the heights of happiness, achieved by the persons, enriched me.
For example, there was a 72-year-old man who was a temple servant. Every day he sat next to holy statues, cleaning and guarding them in total humility. When asked if he felt he was the most beautiful person in the world, he replied, “Everything is beautiful – the little ant on land and the bird in the sky. When you are part of this, you are also beautiful. But when you see someone fall in the street and you help the person, you are the most beautiful.” It was very special to meet this man. His ‘being’ felt special, like a magnet, carrying a field of energy around him in which it was so peaceful to be.
Another example was a young woman of 27. She was from a very wealthy family and lived with a partner. Besides being a businesswoman, she was also an actress. She had a tremendous radiation of warmth and love like a super mother or a super sister. All this was in an uncomplicated way – a woman who truly could love other persons and make them feel it in a very strong way.
Most of the people who claimed to be the most beautiful were fascinating. It was an enriching experience.
What according to you are the problems in India? India and China are always compared. I was in Beijing recently and can look at both Mumbai and Beijing dispassionately. There are huge differences. In Beijing, it is not allowed to blow the horn of a car. The traffic moves smoothly and not one person disrespects the rule imposed by the organisers of the city. It makes the city quiet and more relaxed. People drive more carefully and there are hardly any accidents. In Mumbai, everyone blows the horn, and that too, many times a minute. Hence, in Mumbai, day and night, a visitor hears a concert of horns. It is hard to understand. A city without the constant sounds of blowing horns is more liveable, agreeable and peaceful.
Another example is garbage collection. The collection of garbage is well organised in the big cities and towns all over the world. Beijing is well organised but not Mumbai. Every visitor of Mumbai will see how inadequate the garbage collection in the city is. Obviously, a visitor cannot really understand the working of the minds of those responsible for this. We must not forget that China has a different history and has a completely different society, tradition and culture. India is progressing, though in a different way compared to China. This is good. India must progress in its own rhythm and speed and this must be respected.
How does an assignment like this change you as a person? Do you feel more fortunate or more terrible? This project was not an assignment in that sense. It was solely my idea. All my projects are a tool to assist me in my personal growth. My projects are therapeutic for me. It makes me feel extremely fortunate and thankful to be able to have the privilege to work on myself in this unique way. Secondly, the purpose is to share the experience with as many people as possible. I have had so many fabulous experiences, which makes me feel thankful. Working on a subject on inner and outer beauty exposed me to all kinds of people and experiences.
When you visit so many different countries, you witness extremes in wealth and poverty. I handle this by remaining an observer and not a participant. However, I realise that extreme poverty does not need to exist. It is a result of irresponsibility and lack of solidarity among the politicians running the societies.
Do you believe in God? Are you religious or spiritual? What is your understanding of a higher power, if it exists at all for you? I am not religious and I do not believe in God. As a modest person, I dare not say I am spiritual. I do know that inside us lies godliness. This God within us can be discovered and cultivated, using meditation to reach higher levels of consciousness.
How do you de-stress?
I am very much into healthy living. I do yoga, Pilates, meditation and run daily. I eat vegetarian food, and when possible, macrobiotic food. Occasionally, I have a glass or two of excellent red wine. Most of the time, I do not need to de-stress because I live without stress. I am my own boss and feel I do not work nor have a job. I simply do the things I like to do. If I do not like to do a certain thing, I just do not do it. I live with a fantastic passion for photography. Every day it is the ultimate joy to be involved with this medium.
How do you manage to live like a nomad without any sort of attachments?
It comes from spirituality. I can be detached from materialism and be grounded and held in one place. For me it is very easy to live like a nomad. There is no desire at all to have a home, base, family of my own, a wife or anything that I can call my own. The point is that to call someone or something ‘my own’ results in having a burden, and a burden limits the capacity to live spiritually. It is a joy not to have and to ‘own’ nothing. This is, by the way, very old Indian wisdom. Being a nomad is simply the most natural and logical thing to do. It is like a river flowing in a certain direction on its own.
You have started taking cow urine tablets. Did it help, are you continuing with it?
I take two tablets every day. It came my way and I accept it as the thing that had to happen. I do not think about it. It came to me in a special way. I do not know if it helps. I felt healthy earlier and I feel healthy now.
You stayed at the Hare Krishna temple. How was the experience?
It was very interesting, much more fascinating than staying in an ordinary hotel. Fortunately, none of the three members of the team of The most beautiful people in the world turned into a Hare Krishna devotee!
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Quote: There is no desire at all to have a home, base, family of my own, a wife or anything that I can call my own
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