Actor Hao Lei and photographer Wei Bing set off for India in the summer of 2010 with an itinerary but little else on their minds. They had marked the places they wanted to visit: Nalanda, Sarnath, Bodhgaya and Varanasi. They had a broad theme in mind - Buddhism and spiritualism. Wei had his camera and Hao was ready to be his muse. Both wanted to reinvent themselves.
Despite the proximity of India and China, the people of the two nations are surprisingly unfamiliar with each other. The recent success of the dubbed version of Three Idiots has meant that the Chinese are now aware of mainstream Hindi cinema. But for the longest time, it has been spiritually-inclined individuals, like Hao and Bing, who have been drawn by India's mysticism and connection to Buddhism. Indeed, a large percentage of the one lakh Chinese who visit India every year complete the Buddhist trail, well, religiously.
If Hao and Wei didn't initially have a clear idea about the project they bravely planned to execute in the summer heat of northern India, the 26 photographs that emerged from their journey reveal the opposite: the striking images, where a bald and beautiful Hao is Wei's muse, are a focused effort to get in touch with the innocence of a life that has long been left behind.
"Both of us are interested in Buddhism. We wanted to absorb the culture, the people, the surroundings. We wanted to get closer to Buddhism. We also wanted to be spontaneous. Often, we had to reconstruct our thoughts according to the landscape," Wei told me through a translator in a cafeteria some weeks ago.
They make an unlikely pair: Hao is known for her roles in artistic and controversial movies like the banned The Summer Palace on the lives of students in the background of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Wei is a well-known fashion photographer. But the striking images show that the pairing has worked well. This is especially so in the pictures like the long shot of Hao Lei standing amid the crumbling ruins of a Buddhist temple, her flowing white robes flying in the breeze, or the one where she is half-submerged in the Ganga with the ancient ghats of Varanasi twinkling in the light of the magic hour.
Flicking ash from her cigarette, Hao shrugged off compliments. "It wasn't about looking beautiful. I wanted to expose my heart, my feelings. I didn't want to pretend."
The journey through small, Indian cities wasn't easy. The two had to adjust to the searing heat as well as to the unfamiliar food and alien language. "Actually, the difficulties got us closer to Buddhism. It was like going back to the roots. Not be materialistic," Hao said.
All through the journey, the two discussed what they were going to do. "Often, there was no exact plan. We went with the flow," Wei said.
India's poverty struck them. So did the fact that Buddhism isn't flourishing in the land of its birth. "I felt sad, depressed at times, to see that people weren't happy. I was upset that Buddhist traditions are dying (in India)," she said.
The short journey was a liberating experience for both. An exhibition of the photographs recently held at the Inter Art Centre/Gallery in the '798 Art District' of Beijing opened to positive reviews. Exhibitions in more cities in China are to follow. "We want to take the exhibition to India. We are waiting for an invitation," Wei said as we got up and shook hands at the end of the interview.
With India promoting the Buddhist religious trail among the Chinese, the facilitation of people-to-people exchanges between the two nations, and artistic collaborations like the one between Chinese musician Zhu Zheqin and Rajasthani folk musicians becoming more common, it seems unlikely that Wei and Hao will have to wait long for that invitation.