The Meaning of Ritual
Did you know that you perform rituals every day? Rituals are usually inaccurately associated with sacred entities, such as religion or spirituality. The modern world has changed that. The word ‘rituals’ can be used interchangeably with habits, traditions, customs, repetitive behaviours, routines, and everyday chores. A ritual, defined by Oxford Dictionary, is “the prescribed order of performing a ceremony, especially one characteristic of a particular religion or church.” Whilst there are notions of tradition, custom, and habit in ritual, they are not exclusive to religion or ceremonies.
According to Micrea Eliade, the “sacred and profane are two modes of being in the world” – which suggests that sacred and profane are equal forms of existing. They can be different choices of identifying how to exist in society. This originates from the concept of hierophany, or the manifestation of the sacred. “In the homogeneous and infinite expanse, in which no point of reference is possible and hence no orientation can be established, the hierophany reveals an absolute fixed point, a centre.” So, a ritual, sacred or profane, is a form of establishing one’s position within the universe.
In the modern world, eating, sex, giving birth, or romance can be understood as physiological needs. However, for someone with more sacred views, these are rituals with rich meanings behind them. Despite the shift in the purposes of rituals, Eliade argues that profane rituals stem from sacred origins. This blurs the line between tradition and daily behaviour. Overall, ritual definitions can be vague. Academics say “defined too broadly, its difference from ordinary interaction is occluded,” and that “there is no precise definition of ritual”
The contrast between a ritual and art is intriguing. Ritual is something prescriptive, whilst art is typically associated with freedom of expression. Looking at photography as an art form, the theme of rituals can provide a deeper understanding of the works of Sameer Raichur and Regina De Luca. The lens of rituals can be used as a method of developing deeper understandings of their work. In both series, the focus is on the rituals of marriage.
However, it is not only the context of their work that concerns rituals, but also the process and practice in itself. The process of researching a specific theme, finding the people and places to photograph, using particular techniques and devices, uploading, developing, checking, processing, and publishing. Photography in itself is a repetitive and prescriptive process that can, therefore, be defined as a ritual.
Sameer Raichur and Chariots of Frolic
Raichur is an independent photographer, based in Bangalore, India, who focuses on documenting traditions that are becoming rare. Memory and nostalgia are frequent themes in his work. Chariots of Frolic is a series of his photographs. The three-part series comprises of a short film and a series of portraits of recently married couples and their chariots. The title of the series, Chariots of Frolic, points at the brightly decorated chariot-like-vehicles that drip joy and excitement as a means of celebrating the ritual of marriage.
Raichur’s specialist experience in portraiture is prevalent in this series. He captures the joy that the ritual of marriage brings to these families, alongside his joy of photography. He also captures the vehicles stripped of their decoration, overfilled with the physical bodies of the families that once occupied the vehicles as newly married partners. In Figure 1, the complexities behind the ritual of marriage are echoed through the intricate chariot decorations and symbolism. Cars usually symbolise financial ability, and marriage can be seen as an achievement of one’s life. Both the ownership of a vehicle and marriage could be ways of presenting the success of the family to the public.
In Raichur’s short film, the Chariots of Frolic are shown, being paraded on the streets with pride. In contrast, when looking at Untitled triptych - Arumugam, Apu, Divya, there is an underlying detachment. The individuals’ rather emotionless facial expressions introduce a longing for something else, or perhaps for what could have been. These contrasting visions of the ritual of marriage stimulate an enquiring of the institution of marriage and how that adds value to one’s family reputation.
Regina De Luca and Matrimonio Anacaprese
Regina De Luca is an Italian photographer and journalist. Her series titled, Matrimonio Anacaprese, investigates the traditional versus contemporary institution of marriage. The scenes are influenced by the painting Marriage rite in Capri, 1881, by the French painter Édouard Alexandre.
It can be disheartening to look at some of these photographs. Figure 4 titled Matrimonio Anacaprese, n.d. seizes the image of what it looks like - a young woman dressed in a white wedding dress and veil. As she kneels to kiss her elderly (possibly mother), an indifference and pride is suggested by the mother’s tilted head. An intense hope for acceptance and admiration arises from the kneeling bride. The surrounding children’s formal postures and glares, suggest some form of concern. Personal experience may suggest that this could be the children thinking of their destiny, the bride’s success, or how in the future, they also can represent the pride of the family.
While rituals may seem simple at first glance, a deeper analysis can present the complexities and purposes of those rituals. By examining how both photographers are performing rituals, it also insinuates that they are following prescriptive orders themselves. Furthermore, daily rituals such as marriage, shed light on how the spectator spends their own life(time).
In both series, the photographers accomplish both a heartrending and non-romantic sight of the rituals of marriage. The view of marriage as ritual and the intense involvement of family members aligns marriage with duty or obligation. When looking at marriage as a chore, it becomes a loaded ritual. This feeling is depicted in some of the bleak facial expressions captured in both series.
Finally, as discussed, rituals are not solely religious, but are in our everyday mundane behaviours, something which became highlighted during the months of lockdown. We had to either digitalise our rituals, such as weddings and graduations, or enhance our routines - i.e. rituals - in order to survive. As a result of viewing marriage from different perspectives, one may start to ponder their own traditions and whether they want to adapt them.
 “Definition of Ritual”, Lexico Power by Oxford, accessed August 10, 2020, https://www.lexico.com/en/definition/ritual.  Yuval Noah Harrari, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (London: Vintage, 2018), and Siri Dulaney and Alan Page Fiske, “Cultural Rituals and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder: Is There a Common Psychological Mechanism?”, Ethos 22, no. 3 (September 1994): 243-283, doi: http://www.jstor.com/stable/640401.  Mircea Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane: The Nature of Religion, trans. By Willard R. Trask (Harcourt: Harvest Book, 1959), p. 14.  Eliade, The Sacred and the Profane, p. 21.  Ronald L. Grimes, Rite Out of Place: Ritual, Media, and the Arts (Cary: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 11.
Photographers featured in this Article
Sameer Raichur - Personal Website
Regina De Luca - Personal Website