The Making of 'Srila Prabhupada' the Book
by Madhava Smullen
After the visual tour-de-force of deity meditation that was Darsana, it made sense to the Mediterranean BBT that their next book should be about the person who gave us darsana: Srila Prabhupada.
When the BBT trustees responded, “Why do we need another book of Prabhupada pictures?” photographer Nitya-tripta Dasi set out to show them by searching through every photo of Prabhupada available. This book had to be like nothing that had been done before. It would be a deep, personal meditation, boasting a unique selection that would keep the viewer feeling fresh on every page.
“I had to select 193 photos out of about 90,000,” says Nitya-tripta matter-of-factly. “To make matters worse, they had been scanned directly from a bunch of haphazardly arranged binders stored at the Bhaktivedanta Archives since 1978. Film rolls were mismatched, photos had been misfiled over the years. It was a mess.”
Nitya-tripta set to keywording every image, then giving each one a starred rating, and finally creating virtual folders to store them in, until she could view 90 related pictures instead of 90,000. The gruelling task took 6 months for black and white photos alone. But many of these pictures were Nitya-tripta’s old friends from the traditional darkroom, and she was inspired by the thought that now she could use the digital darkroom to enhance them and accentuate devotees’ meditation on Srila Prabhupada.
“We photographers were nervous around Prabhupada, so we made mistakes often,” says Nitya-tripta, who appears photographing her guru in the last photo of Srila Prabhupada. “In that photo, I was keeping my camera in front of my face out of nervousness and didn’t realize how close I was until I finally removed it and saw that I was just 3 feet away from Prabhupada! I tried to get out of there quickly, a dangerous mission as there was a vibrant kirtana all around him, and I had to time my escape through a wall of swinging mrdangas.”
Digital technology helped get around photographer mistakes and bring pictures closer to the mood of the moment. For instance, a strangely bluish photo showed Prabhupada emerging from ISKCON press-the photographer had been using indoor film inside and forgot to switch to outdoor film. With Photoshop, the photo’s exposure was easily corrected.
You’ll never guess that some of the photographs in Srila Prabhupada are actually a clever composite of several. One shows Prabhupada on a moving walkway at LA airport, devotees chanting and dancing beside him. “In one picture in the series, the way the devotees moved and looked at Prabhupada was perfect,” says Nitya-tripta. “In another, Prabhupada’s expression was the best. So I just combined the two. Sometimes in photography, it’s just a matter of getting the right moment.” She grins. “Digitally, I can combine two right moments.”
Srila Prabhupada’s life, of course, was a collection of right moments. And it’s obvious from the book’s many delightful casual shots that its makers were intent on showing that. “Prabhupada’s life wasn’t just on the vyasasana,” Nitya-tripta says. “He was a true guru, one who taught us something with everything he did and said.”
These casual pictures were a treat for graphic designer Haladhara dasa, who had always seen Prabhupada as an official figure, having joined ISKCON in the late ’90s. He especially loved one of Prabhupada standing in line with several suited businessmen at the airport, waiting to check-in-so much that he had to have a poster of it on his wall. “Each member of our team had their own favorite photos that had to be in the book,” says Nitya-tripta. “It was a strong team effort, full of constant fresh input.”
The Mediterranean BBT didn’t want to create a static chronological or historical document. They wanted their book to tell a dynamic, subtle story, one that spoke to the individual reader. For this to work, they had to choose the book’s text carefully, selecting a minimal yet poignant mixture of quotes from Prabhupada himself, his books, and his disciples. In a unique move, they even left out the sources-a deep meditation was the priority.
“This book is all about meditation, and it was the most amazing meditation for me,” Nitya-tripta says. “While I was working on it, I lived in a small studio room, and as I selected pictures for the book, I’d print them out to size and tape them to my wall. Soon, my little room was wallpapered from floor to ceiling with pictures of Prabhupada.”
She found herself constantly remembering Srila Prabhupada. “I was overflowing with thoughts, feelings and emotions. I realized how fortunate we all are to be connected to Srila Prabhupada, and how we need to always go back to the basics of what he was trying to achieve with his movement. Sometimes we forget.”
Perhaps Srila Prabhupada will help us all to remember, as devotees across the world establish or re-establish a personal connection with this great saint through its mesmerizing pages.
Purchase the book here.