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Before Thunder On Water

On our second morning we left the hotel at 8.30am, our bags laden with equipment, water and food. We headed out along the road to the centre of Moodabidri. The air was warming. The road passing the hotel was busy with the usual eclectic mix of vehicles. Tuc-Tuc's and lorries passed carrying excited teams, water buffalo stood, bottoms open to the sky in the back of trucks that trundled along under their huge weight.

As we got closer to the town we felt the excited buzz in the air. Drivers and passengers shouted as they passed 'kambala, kambala, come, welcome, welcome!' Market stalls were hurriedly trading, the road junction to the kambala track bustled with traffic ferrying supplies, supporters and participants along the road to the music of constant honking of horns and hooters.

Entrance to the Kambala Track

After 3km of winding road we entered the Kambala field around 9.30am. Food stalls were being erected, banners fluttered, generators hummed. We made our way passed the start area of the Kambala track, a wide open square of shallow water used to funnel the buffalo teams to the start line, and walked through the trees adjacent to the track.

We crunched over dried leaves as we made our way towards the finish line end of the 160 metres of track. On either side of us lay or stood pairs of water buffalo in the shade of the trees. Large, around of a ton each in weight, their muscle tone clear they had horns of varying sizes and shapes. Beside these compact power houses sat the team members, gathered around small open fires cooking breakfast.

Kambala Mangalore India

This was the main paddock area for the most important teams. We were greeted by waves, broad smiles and muttered welcomes as we passed through, the buffalo were chewing and gazing contentedand calm.

As we approached the main area next to the finish line, where the commentary and the judging was to take place we were greeted by another man from the organisational committee. After learning more about why we were there, the man bought us into what seemed like the VIP area. We were lead into a collection of tents that housed tables, chairs and cooks serving breakfast. We were presented with coloured shawls and rosettes of the event and encouraged to enjoy breakfast with a welcoming group of people.

The group, a mixture of organisers, local government and buffalo team owners were happy to answer our many questions about the Kambala, its history and heritage. Kambala racing dates back over 1000 years, a sport of kings and a race for the Gods held to symbolize gratitude for a productive harvest and blessings for the future months. As most Indian rituals, this tribute too was interwoven with the importance of agriculture in the region. They told us what we had to look out for, what makes a winning team, how the buffalo are trained, reach a maturity and an understanding of the race after the age of 5 years.

Many of the group were intrigued as to why we had come from London just for the Kambala and I explained what I did and what I wanted to achieve by coming to the Kambala. This lead to discussions on the best vantage points to take both film and still images, where was safe, and where was not, what might distract the buffalo and what wouldn't.

We were granted permission to sit in places that would allow us to get the distinctive angle I was looking for. Because the Saturday was more a practice day for the up and coming teams and were the heats for the final races on the Sunday, we could be quite experimental with the shooting positions and be ready for the Sunday where the larger older buffalo raced for final positions and accolades.

We left the tented area after setting up our equipment and rejoined some of the members of the group we had talked with near the finishing area for a small ceremony at a specially erected pole in the middle of the two tracks. It is said that this pole, also known as a 'pookare' in Tulu, wards off evil spirits at the races and ensures that proper conduct governs the passionate sport. The teams of buffaloes, runners and the owners then parade through the slushy water-filled tracks to make the ground beneath soft.

We were welcomed into any area we needed to be which was a real privilege. We spent time around he commentary box learning how to judge a good racing pair. The stands began to fill with spectators and we decided to take up our positions. At one point we were even introduced to the crowd, so people knew why we were there, which was a bit of a surprise.

Kambala Mangalore India

I took up a position sitting right next to the track wall and the finish line, directly opposite the commentary box, equipment ready, shielded by plastic sheets in case of water and mud spray. I waited watching the start line area through my long lens. Close by a small troop of men beat upon drums with a primal rhythm and sounded trumpets with the energy and spirit of carnival.

There were pairs of buffalo queuing up within the large starting area, the sun was getting hotter, water was splashed up the legs and over the bodies of the buffalo, cooling dark glistening skin. Each buffalo was flanked by a team member whose job, when the time came, was to help position the buffalo onto the start line.

Between the buffalo was a wooden yoke that kept them together, from this stemmed a long wooden pole or 'hull' that either went down between the buffaloes flanks to the floor and ended in a small wooden platform the driver would stand on or, it was a long wooden pole with either a wooden handle or a length of rope for the runner to hold onto whilst running along beside the buffalo. The different ends of the wooden pole signified what 'category' of race the teams were in.

With the sun bright, I shielded my eyes to look through the lens. The spectators chatter started to quieten, the constant drumming and brass of the band grew louder. The buffalo became restless and strong, towing the teams of men around the water-filled start area until they could be calmed and walked back into position. We waited. The starter standing on the edge of the track looked happy with the alignment, his white flag rose slowly into the air, my finger was poised, focal frame ready.

Works of Dynamic Realism confront the viewer with interaction, they are not works that can be casually observed. The aim of producing a Kambala painting is to give the viewer a sense that they are in the way of the racing buffalo, the buffalo's speed, strength and weight needed to be 'felt' and 'heard' by the viewer as the buffalo travelled across and out of the canvas.

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