Balarama Heller contemplates the tensions of religious traditions

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Growing up and later leaving the spiritual commune of the Hare Krishnas, the photographer travels to Vrindavan, India, to retrace and understand the roots of the religion

Balarama Heller’s Sacred Place is a form of visual reconciliation. A manifestation of his quest to locate his spirituality in relation to, and untethered from the institution of organized religion. Heller’s upbringing was steeped in the practice, culture and philosophy of Hare Krishna, a branch of Hinduism that started in the 16th century. Just 10 days after his birth, Heller’s mother, a devotee, embarked on a decade-long nomadic journey living between Hare Krishna communities across the United States. “Moving became the only stable constant,” the New York-based photographer recounts. “My response was to meet it with excitement. I became very good at adapting to new places and being resilient. I just had to take to the inertia of moving.”

from the series Sacred Place © Balarama Heller.

Geography was not the only challenge Heller faced. His childhood occupied a state of in-between. A confluence of devotion to the Hare Krishna community, wearing saffron robes, his hair cut into the traditional Shika style and bearing the tilaka on his forehead, to brief periods of life as an ordinary American, white boy at public school. “This duality was fraught with tension for a long time. I felt extremely conflicted by these two identities.” He continues, “You’re very much an outsider culturally, but trying desperately to assimilate. My name is Balarama [meaning a source of spiritual strength], yet I look like a regular white guy.” By the time he reached mid-teens, he had begun to shift his identity away from the movement, but the unrelenting force of moral codes was not easy to shake. “When you grow up with this intensified religious experience, you’re indoctrinated into the idea that this commitment is a life or death decision. If you leave this, they call it spiritual suicide, and you are condemning yourself to a dark path. The stakes are really high. They continue to be.”

 

“I felt like I was embodying this tradition that millions of people have engaged in for thousands of years, with this intensified intention to understand or elevate their spiritual consciousness.”

 

During his late teens, Heller began to pursue other religions and spiritual traditions. He lived with orthodox Christian monks in Romania, practised with Sufi’s in Istanbul and spent time in different monasteries as well as visiting Vrindavan, a place of historical significance for the Hare Krishna in India. “It was important for me to visit this nexus for the Hare Krishna and investigate it for myself. After years feeling disconnected, going to India was almost like a homecoming. The form of spirituality I began to have an affinity with was located somewhere in between the cultural space of where I came from and something entirely different. It wasn’t hinged on geography, history or religion, but a search for transcendent states outside the confines of the institution.”

from the series Sacred Place © Balarama Heller.
from the series Sacred Place © Balarama Heller.

In 2019, Heller returned to Vrindavan, embarking on a self-initiated residency. For six weeks, he would get up every morning and walk the pilgrim’s path, emulating the devotees’ journey around the village to the temple. “I felt like I was embodying this tradition that millions of people have engaged in for thousands of years, with this intensified intention to understand or elevate their spiritual consciousness.” Heller’s photographic journey blends otherworldly illuminations of the environment with traces of gestures and rituals to activate our consciousness and create a kind of sensorial encounter. The primary act of feeling supersedes the act of looking. This atmospheric ethereality envelops the viewer, enacting a radiant simplicity, that breeds contemplation, stillness and calm.

 This extraordinary act of metamorphosis is partly due to the tension between Heller’s flash and the nightscapes he captures. The majority of the images in the project are shot during Brahma Muhurta, the hours between 3am and 6am, where practitioners are free from the distractions of daily life, enabling them to completely absorb into prayer with clarity and focus. “The devotee’s practice is amplified during this time because the boundary between the material world and the spiritual world is believed to be more porous.” This divine state is a potent catalyst for Heller to reach a space photographically, which our lexicon is too limited to express.

from the series Sacred Place © Balarama Heller.
from the series Sacred Place © Balarama Heller.

In Sacred Place, Heller is not only making a symbolic statement about spirituality independent of the institution; he is also highlighting his deep respect and relationship with the iconography of his upbringing. Hare Krishna is a branch of Hinduism saturated with visceral mythology that depicts almighty demigods and celestial battles. This rich visual legacy, coupled with the role of music, dance and chanting as a vehicle towards attaining transcendent states, informs Heller’s line of enquiry. Collectively the images add up to a notion of spirituality that is uniquely his own. “For me, it is ever-evolving. It’s about finding this space amid the constant oscillation of fear and desire that the mind is constantly reverberating between”, Heller adds “If you can find stillness there, you can experience a falling away of self and unity towards everything in existence. It is unconnected to culture or identity of any kind and more of a unified field of consciousness.”

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Balarama Heller: Sacred Place is on show via Artsy until 11 March 2020. 

 

from the series Sacred Place © Balarama Heller.
Gem Fletcher

Creative director, writer, podcaster and photo director, Gem Fletcher works across visual-cultural fields, focusing on emerging talent in contemporary photography and art. She is the photo director of Riposte Magazine, and hosts a photography podcast, The Messy Truth.