Ocean of Life: A personal journey through the East • Marilyn Silverstone • Magnum Photos

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Ocean of Life: Visions of India and the Himalayan Kingdoms

Marilyn Silverstone’s photo-book captures the rich cultures of India and the Himalayan Kingdoms, which she would eventually go on to fully immerse herself in

Marilyn Silverstone

Marilyn Silverstone Warrior dancers, attendants of the sacred Mt. Kanchenjunga and defenders of the Dharma, during the Sikkimese New Year dances. Gangtok, Sikkim. 1968. © Marilyn Silverstone | Magnum Photos

 Capable of both bearing witness and bringing awareness to moments in history, photography can also exploit them; a dynamic that Marilyn Silverstone sought to reconcile on a personal level throughout her whole career. Regarding this moral conflict, she famously wrote: “You know how to take a picture to please them back home”. Her book, the Ocean of Life, is both a documentation of Eastern cultures and her personal journey through them. It encapsulates Silverstone’s aim of finding a way to photograph her subjects, many of them plagued by poverty, without capitalizing on them. Ultimately the people and ideas she encountered, whilst traveling, had a profound impact on her and Silverstone fully immersed herself in Buddhism; abandoning photojournalism for the life of a Buddhist nun in 1977.

Marilyn Silverstone A carved and painted shrine at a wayside water source. The letters spell the mantra of compassion. The six colors represent the six regions of Samsara (worldly existence). Such shrines are meant to (...)
Marilyn Silverstone Long prayer banners, called Dar Chok, printed with mantras, flutter over a cremation ground. When a person is cremated, up to 108 of these banners are erected so that the air passing through them w (...)

"I went to India in 1959 for what was meant to be four months and stayed for fourteen years"

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Marilyn Silverstone The head of a lotus, bent over by snow. Srinagar, Kashmir. 1968. © Marilyn Silverstone | Magnum Photos

Becoming a full member of Magnum in 1967, she was one of the first five women to join the agency along with Eve Arnold, Martine Franck, Susan Meiselas and Inge Morath. Silverstone had begun photographing professionally in 1955, traveling from her home in Scarsdale, New York, to Asia, Africa, Europe, Central America and the Soviet Union. It was however on a trip to India in 1959 that she discovered the place that would consume her work for the next decade and a half: “I went to India in 1959 for what was meant to be four months and stayed for fourteen years”. Based in New Delhi, she travelled throughout the region and the neighboring Himalayan kingdoms of Sikkim, Bhutan and Nepal, gaining access to places very few Westerners were permitted or able to visit.

Marilyn Silverstone A Pemayangtse Lama performing the Black Hat dance during a Sikkimese New Year ceremony. Enacted at the end of the cold year, this rite can only be performed by a spiritually attained tantric Lama, (...)
Marilyn Silverstone Lama and acolytes surprised by visitors in the Lakhang Sarp of the Tashichho Dzong. On the left, tabular victory banners called gyaltsen, symbolic of the Victory of Liberation won by Buddha, hang i (...)
Marilyn Silverstone Doorway to the Lakhang Sarp in the courtyard of the Tashichho Dzong. Thimphu, Bhutan. 1964. © Marilyn Silverstone | Magnum Photos
Marilyn Silverstone The Maharaja of Rajpipla appears to the cloistered women of the palace the morning after his wedding to their princess. Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. India. 1964. © Marilyn Silverstone | Magnum Photos

Silverstone’s photographs do not, however, embody any of the voyeurism or detachment potentially afforded by her position. Instead they offer a profound and poignant record of the Indian and Himalayan experience that she immersed herself in. Indeed, Ocean of Life was conceived  of as a means of communicating a sense of the Buddhist traditions that permeated this region to people who would never experience them. Striking color photographs, interspersed with quotes from traditional songs and sutras, channel a strong sense of the beauty and spirituality of the places that Silverstone encountered.

Marilyn Silverstone The wedding of the Maharaja's son. In the zenana (women's quarters of the City Palace), the Maharani of Jaipur (in pink), the groom's sister, the Maharani of Baria, and other women await the formal (...)

"You cannot take part in anything and photograph it. You cannot participate and photograph"

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Marilyn Silverstone The Maharaja of Rajpipla is helped onto his horse as he prepares to enter the fort for his marriage to the princess of Jaisalmer. Jaisalmer, Rajasthan. India. 1964. © Marilyn Silverstone | Magnum Photos
Marilyn Silverstone The banner, called Sridpa Ho, is a diagram of the secret astrological mechanism that governs the physical world. Displayed at the start of any activity intended to advert evil spirits, the banner i (...)

Her photographs take us on a journey through the vivid colors of New Year ceremonies in Sikkim and the lofty interiors of Dzongs in Bhutan, conveying a sense of their fortress-like structures housing religious and administrative centers. Blanketed in snow, images of Kashmir in the dead of winter present a record of the stillness of this region once the crowds of summer visitors depart. Lavish wedding ceremonies of Indian nobility in Jaipur and Rajasthan sit alongside portraits of important Buddhist figures, including one of Acharya Vinoba, the spiritual heir of Mahatma Gandhi, at an Ashram. Her photographs capture the diversity of this region, undercut by a sense of the spiritual foundations that unify them.

Marilyn Silverstone Visitors climb to the monastery above. Lachen, North Sikkim. 1971. © Marilyn Silverstone | Magnum Photos

"I can say that I did it all"

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Marilyn Silverstone At the height of the blizzard a young boy paddles his shikara skiff, which is now heaped with snow. Lake Dal shores, Srinagar, Kashmir. 1968. © Marilyn Silverstone | Magnum Photos
Marilyn Silverstone Hungry dogs and crows gather around the butchering of a sheep on the lake shore near the Hazratbal Mosque. Srinagar, Kashmir, India. 1968. © Marilyn Silverstone | Magnum Photos

Silverstone was however adamant that: “You cannot take part in anything and photograph it. You cannot participate and photograph”. Following the death of her partner, the eminent journalist and editor Frank Moraes, she returned to Nepal to fully participate in what had been her photographic subject-matter for almost two decades. A transformation that had been taking place over the many years she had spent exploring the continent, Silverstone became an ordained nun with the name of Ngawang Chodron and devoted the rest of her life to striving in the practice of Dharma. In this way she achieved the unique perspective of both observing and participating in her subject-matter, writing, “I can say that I did it all.”

Marilyn Silverstone A National Teacher of India and the spiritual successor of Mahatma Gandhi, Acharya Vinoba Bhave, at the Ranipatra ashram. Northern Bihar, India. 1966. © Marilyn Silverstone | Magnum Photos
Marilyn Silverstone The Pemayangtse, who are also royal priests, reciting prayers in conjunction with ceremonies performed by the Black Hat during Sikkimese New Year. Gangtok, Sikkim, India. December, 1963. © Marilyn Silverstone | Magnum Photos
Marilyn Silverstone Women living in purdah (seclusion), peer out of the windows in their quarter of the City Palace to catch a glimpse of the Maharaja’s son during his wedding. Jaipur, India. 1966. © Marilyn Silverstone | Magnum Photos

This story was also published in the book Magnum Stories, published by Phaidon. A very limited number of copies of Magnum Stories are available from the Magnum Shop, signed by Magnum photographers.