Re Imagining the People of India

We reached Sadar Bazar in Old Delhi by around 3 pm. My student-assistant Shivya and I took a cycle-rickshaw ride from Chandni Chowk. I called Prem Chand Sonar (a goldsmith) from the entrance of Galli Bharna. “Aap ki dukaan kahaan hai?” (Where is your shop?) I asked. A lady who picked up the call said, “Kalu Ram halwai ke samne hi hai.”  (Right in front of the shop of  Kalu Ram, the halwah maker) “Kalu Ram halwai kahan hai?” (Where is Kalu Ram?)  I asked again. “Arre…chaiwale ke paas main”, ( Right next to the tea stall) came the answer. It was mid-March and I was doing portraits Re-imaging The People of India (1850-2013), a photography exhibition, under the aegis of Neel Dongre Awards/Grants for Excellence in Photography by India Photo Archive Foundation.

A few minutes later, we were in Prem Chand’s shop. It was a village square in the heart of a megapolis. Even as a motley crowd started gathering, a ‘talkative man’ appeared. Clad in a suit jacket, he wanted me to have chai first before initiating my work. I told him I would shoot first and then drink chai. He would have none of it. He bombarded me with questions, asking about the details of my work —why, how, where and when. He was genuinely interested in knowing why I was there shooting pictures. He introduced me to his friends and even they enquired everything about the project. Itwas a truly beautiful village experience, I must say.

The People of India was an 8-volume publication compiled by John Forbes Watson and John William Kaye between 1868 and 1875. Originally conceived by Lord and Lady Canning, it was an early experiment with photography as a documentary medium. The original prints were made using a process called Albumen printing and the good news is that they are still around, very well preserved. The original People of India project was very significant as it was the first photography project combining street and studio.

India Photo Archive Foundation, set up by photographer and photo historian Aditya Arya, asked four photographers, Dileep Prakash, Dinesh Khanna, Sandeep Biswas and yours truly to revisit People of India in modern context. The geographical area was confined to the National Capital Region. We had the freedom to interpret the subject in our own way. I spent five days in New Delhi photographing 10 people. My thought was just to observe and photograph without making a comment. I love doing portraits; it’s like conversing with the subject‘s soul. It was a wonderful project to do some slow photography and formal environmental portraiture.

My first assignment was Shadipur Depot in East Dehi. I went to photograph Sangita, a peformer. Her manager, Prakash Bhatt aka Lakshman master, a performer himself, met us at the metro station and took us to his house. From Rajasthan, they lived in a slum. We had to walk on open sewer that served as a path to reach his house. I learnt that he and his troupe had performed at various festivals of India in Washington DC, Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, etc. The living conditions were really bad. After the shoot, I wondered how could we collectively allow our fellow citizens and that too someone who had represented India internationally to live in such miserable conditions.

Dinesh Khanna had a different outlook. “I have had rather confusing thoughts about the caste system. The fact that it defines people as per their professions and vocations seems fine, but that these became shackles, which didn’t just imprison people but also caused social discrimination, is abhorrent. Caste should not dictate a person’s destiny and I wanted to make portraits of my subjects that showed them as individuals, recorded their professions and, most importantly, gave them respect and dignity,” he said. Dileep Prakash used an old wooden field camera, B&W sheet film and slow shutter speed to give an aesthetic treatment similar to the 19th century photographers. “Transposing them from their own reality would be to give them a forced identity. For me, they are not characters or models or ‘types’ – they are people who have their own identity. Their castes are not relevant to me,” said Dileep Prakash. Sandeep Biswas photographed with a small element of humour thrown in. He feels that the project gave him a new dimension towards his work.

The exhibition opened on Wednesday at the India International Centre in New Delhi. It will run till April 26 and showcase the rare Albumen prints of the pictures from the 1850s with the contemporary work. Curator Aditya Arya says the project was inspired by his passion for studying and collecting the images from the early years of photography, especially in the context of Indian subcontinent. It was a deeply fulfilling project for me, where I just observed and made the pictures.

First Published in Bangalore Mirror on 18th April, 2013

Archival picture of street performers

Archival picture of street performers

Sangita, a performer in Lakshman Master’s troupe, photographed at his house in Shadipur Depot

Sangita, a performer in Lakshman Master’s troupe, photographed at his house in Shadipur Depot

The exhibition at India International Centre, New Delhi

The exhibition at India International Centre, New Delhi

The exhibition at India International Centre, New Delhi

The exhibition at India International Centre, New Delhi

The exhibition at India International Centre, New Delhi

The exhibition at India International Centre, New Delhi

Bangalore Beat 36 : Aqualung

Iblur lake

Recently  Mr.V Balasubramanian, the former Additional Chief Secretary of Karnataka and Chairman, Centre for Policies and Practices, wrote in Firstpost that “The Government of Karnataka will have to evacuate half of Bangalore in the next ten years, due to water scarcity, contamination of water and diseases.”   Yet when I drive around the city, I see many billboards that promise fabulous lakefront homes albeit in towering apartment blocks. I think theses ‘developments’ outnumber the existing lakes in the city. Of course all these apartments feature lavish swimming pools as well.  I photographed this standing on the bund of  Iblur lake on the south western Bangalore.  Hycanith which thrives in water polluted with sewage chokes the lake. Apartment complexes with names such as  Hibiscus, Lake Manor..etc  surround the lake. Perhaps a lot of the sewage from those apartments will be leaking into this lake. This area was a village 20 years ago, today its a bustling IT corridor.  Thousands of engineers churn code for the world and live in those apartments. No one bothers about the apartments, well to overcome their guilt, people plant a couple of saplings on the weekends.

The tragedy of Bangalore is the lack of real thought leaders and urban planners.  To fill that space we have co opted IT barons, venture capitalists, business men/women and other people who have  been succesful in building companies. Well, building cities is a different ball game alltogether..

Musings

I) It was a surreal evening, many years ago. Patrick Wilson and I were sitting in my car waiting for the sheets of rain to subside, somewhere in Cooke town, Bangalore. Few meters from the road was the house of Mr.Tom D’Aiguar, an elderly gentleman who Patrick insisted that I meet. He was an amateur portrait photographer who practiced his craft in the 40s as an amateur.

If I remember right, he was a tall man very genial.  He used to The portraits of his friends and relatives he showed me that evening were outstanding. Mr.  D’Aiguar  practiced portrait photography in the 40s and due to WW II, everything was in short supply. He used headlights of motor vehicles to light his subjects and had to make do with whatever was available in terms of film, paper and chemicals.  I did not see him again.  His pictures were fabulous, lighting style was that of George Hurrel, the master glamour photographer of Hollywood of those times. Recently when I was working on my recent book on Bangalore, I asked Patrick about D’Aiguar and he told me that the gentleman had passed on and that no one knew the whereabouts of his negatives or prints.

The photographers of the 40s-50s were master craftsmen. One look at their negatives tells us how deeply were they engaged with their craft. Over time I have come across many a film stills shot in India in the 40s and 50s. All in B&W, all superbly crafted images. The prints of those times, still haven’t yellowed or degenerated in spite of being stored improperly. Photographers of those times lay a great emphasis on their craft. As I interact with a lot of students of photography, I see this aspect missing now.

II) In mid 90s, I came across some stunning B&W street photographs at a printing press. Later I came to know that they were part of a project called Picture Mumbai and photographed by (then) children . Sometime in 1996 the Getty Conservation Institute commissioned a project in which nine young people of Mumbai were given point and shoot cameras, B&W film, and were asked to shoot landmarks of their city as perceived by them. Under the guidance of photographer David Desouza, they photographed Mumbai over three months, on weekends. The pictures emerged were truly extraordinary. Haunting. And daunting. Daunting because it caused quite a few of our generation to reexamine our perspectives, and our commitment. So strong was its quality.  Well know advertising photographer Ashok Salian had commented “When I saw the pictures I thought they were shot by some renowned photojournalists. Their work is better than whatever I have done. It’s a great achievement, fabulous concept, brilliant and wonderful. Not many (adult) photographers could do better. Their work has great depth”. An exhibition was put up and a book produced.

III) A couple of weeks ago, I found myself in a photography seminar at the end of the day’s session, totally by chance. The last presentation of the day was going on. The photographer defined success. “What is success?” he asked. “Decent number of assignments that pay, few interviews in the media and invitations to events such as this” he explained. Simple! For a long time I have been thinking about the definition of success, more so for a photographer.  Does it solely depend on the money you make or is it the impact your work or is it a combination of both? I think we must deeply introspect the meaning of success and develop our own definitions rather than going with the flow rather mindlessly.

First Published in Bangalore Mirror on 5th April, 2013