So here’s a little woohoo moment: I made my debut as a photographer on National Geographic Traveller India’s website at the end of 2015. With four girlfriends, I went on an amazing trip across Madhya Pradesh. One of my friends and fellow travellers was Saumya Ancheri of NGT, who wrote this account. Saumya joined us after we’d tramped through Mandu, which is why there are no photos of Mandu here but I absolutely loved that little town. And I have some lovely photos of its gorgeous buildings, but that’s for another day. Read Saumya’s article and here are a few more photographs from that part of our Ladies’ Special trip to Madhya Pradesh.
‘Tis the time to update. Here’s what I’ve been up to for the past few weeks.
1. A long interview with S. Anand, founder of Navayana publishing. The first part is all about publishing and among other things, he makes the rather pertinent point that books are not FMCG products so expecting to churn out the same kind of profits is absurd. In part two, he really sinks his teeth into the privileged Hindu. If you haven’t heard of Navayana, click here. Conservative Hindus who believe the caste system is a wonderful thing, Navayana’s books are not going to be your cup of tea (to put it mildly).
2. A combined review of Amitabh Kumar and Dhruv Malhotra’s shows. Malhotra’s photographs of Delhi are unexpectedly gorgeous. Unexpected because he doesn’t photograph the obviously pretty parts of the national capital, but his photographs are still beautiful. Maybe it’s just the fact that we’re entirely unused to seeing our cities without crowds, but Malhotra makes ugly cityscapes look mysterious and poetic.
3. I reviewed Shootout at Wadala. I’m going to put up the notes I took while watching the film in a separate post, but the review is here.
4. When The Telegraph carried a report that Andhra Pradesh had decided its women will not be served alcohol after 10pm (men, on the other hand, can hang around and drink themselves silly till 11pm), I naturally had to blow some steam. So that’s here. As you can see from the headline, the authorities have said no such notice has been issued.
Here’s the truly joyous takeaway from the posts I wrote on Saturday. Everyone thinks Bollywood is what is guaranteed to click with Indian readers. Turns out, booze gets our attention more than Bollywood.
As always, the comments warm the cockles of my heart. Current favourite is by one Karthik, in the thread for the Andhra-booze-ban-that-isn’t-a-ban:
A women only could write this article. They have a problem with everything, always cribbing about gender equality but are the first to demand special right and privileges for women. Hippocrates all of them.
The July issue of ELLE has a little piece I wrote on Raghu Rai, who is going to have a mini-retrospective of sorts (as far as I remember).
Here are snippets from my conversation with him. I’ll put up the article once I find it in my archive.
I don’t believe in nostalgic nonsense. You know, living in the past is not a very creative process because that pulls you back. But the fact remains that there was greater harmony and greater peace between different elements and situations than we have today. But being a creative individual, all the tensions and charge, the stress and strain, they speak of another kind of energy that needed to be captured. Also you know, every place, every time has its own value and meaning.
The best light
Early morning and late afternoons. In India the light is very strong, the bulk of the months are very hot. Usually, that strong light and sunshine create very deep shadows and you lose and it gives unnecessary contrast. Sometimes it works, according to the spirit and the mood of the place but most of the time, I’ll prefer to have gentle and soft light, where the details are clearly visible and one can capture them and share them and see the highlights without creating any unnecessary contrast.
On the decisive moment
Of course. You don’t plan, you wait for it to happen. When different elements start working together — you see, there are moments. India is such a crowded country and such chaotic and contradictory things happen in any given space and there are moments when the relevant and the irrelevant, they separate themselves for a moment and they merge again, and that’s the moment you capture.
Also the purpose of photography is to capture energy and time that we live in. Planning makes things static. Because life at any given time is not static.
On photographing India
The bulk of India lives in a timeless space. I remember long ago, I think it was early 1970s, when Muzaffar Ali used to work with Air India, and he wanted me to do a calendar for Air India or something like that, and he asked, “If you can give us some pictures where we are dealing with time and space…”. So I told him, “If you ask me, I don’t understand that, this time and space because I always try to live beyond that. So don’t ask me for ideas of time and space.”
You see, the thing is that India also has an ancient civilisation and India having all the religions living here, contrast and contradictions. So India lives so many centuries side by side at any given time. That is what is so magical about this country. This is what comes across in many of these photographs.
On making his subjects more charismatic than they actually are
How can I do that? I wish I was so powerful a man that I could create more than life has. That is precisely where the magic lies. When you capture a moment which is so potent and so dynamic that when you look at it, you wonder how can that be? You see, the problem is that the bulk of the photography being done is very happy easy relaxed, nice images. For me, they are static and they don’t evoke anything in me. For me, this human expression, the deeper reaction, that is what I seek. That has its own current and power. It raises so many questions and answers at the same time. That’s what we are dealing with. The image has to have dynamism and not be a static, pretty one. When you look at it, people wonder how can that be? How can someone capture more than what meets the eye? It’s all there. The mysteries of life and nature have to be captured. Everything else is information.
On photographing politicians
You see, I always, even when I was with a newspaper and even when I worked with India Today for ten years, I always believed — well, let’s begin like this. You know in India sycophancy is a great art. That’s why so much political junk is surviving in this country. Somebody asked me when Mrs. Gandhi was thrown out in ’77, that you know, “she gave you so much, how can you take pictures of Mrs. Gandhi when she has lost the election?” I said, only dogs can be loyal. Human beings can never be loyal. They have to be responsible to the truth of a situation. Because loyalty for me has become a very cheap word in India. My loyalty, I will not say loyalty, my commitment to the situations is as they speak to me. That’s how I will see them at any given time. So that is what really inspires me to do photography. Even if I don’t like somebody or some politician, I’ll never carry that grudge when I go take pictures. I’ll look at that person all over again in that context where he or she is. Because we all have the capacity to change and I know we can do things that we can never even imagine at another time.
On Mother Teresa
Mother was somebody very rare, so rare that you can never come across another person like that. As a human being, as a person with a cause, and she spoke the total truth all the time. It didn’t matter who she was dealing with an ordinary person, an important person, big or small. Her energy, her connectivity with everything never fluctuated. That was something very rare for me. Her power of expression and love also never flickered. That was so magical about her as a human being. But in any given time, she was 100% there. Whether she was dealing with you, an ordinary person, or whether she was nursing an old person or a child, or being with the prime minister.
When I met her way back in 1970 when she was hardly known. When I was working at The Statesman, it used to be one of the most important newspapers, we had an editor. He was very close to Mother. He rang me up one day and said that “Raghu, I have met a great lady and you must photograph her.” And that was in 1970 when I met her for the first time.
On colour photography
Let me tell a few things about colour. Basically there’s everything in colour. You see, every colour has its physical presence. Some strong colours like red or bright orange, or bright purple, will enter your attention faster than other colours. Every colour has its physical presence, every colour has its emotional value and every colour when its put together in any given situation may not gel together.
Then, as you see and capture the reality, we can’t change reality. Like, a painter can paint the sky green and nobody will question it, but in our case, we have to capture it as it is. So the colours may not blend. So the image in any given situation, if the subject matter is serious and you have all sorts of colours peeking out, they don’t work together. But the moment you put a black and white filter, it silences the noise of colours. And then everything gels.
It is more difficult to make a real, meaningful colour photograph than in black and white. Most people are taking colour photographs, but in terms of colour and the vision for colour which speaks out, the meaning comes from its colour content as well as its emotional content. With digital technology what is good is, every colour film used to behave differently in different light and would show you different colours. Even the processing of the film used to be very, very difficult. Different labs would give you different results of the same situation, but in digital technology, you can always desaturate colours, you can control them and tell them to shut up when they make unnecessary noise. All these things are possible today. See, I’ve done many books in colour and many in black and white. Also the fact is earlier, in the ’60s and ’70s and even up to ’80s, it used to be only black and white. I started taking pictures in mid ’60s, so one of the reasons that people remember my black and white photographs is this. Then came the late ’80s when we started doing colour. But then we didn’t have as much control, like the kind we have today.
It’s not manipulation. Manipulation is something which doesn’t exist and you bring it in. But a technical fault has to be controlled. You see even in black and white, when some areas go too dark, or too bright, you need to adjust that. So that is not manipulation. That is controlling your image quality. That’s the minimum right that we should have.
On Raghu Rai, photographer
You can say I’m very arrogant, but most of the time I don’t read what is written about me. I have given so many interviews on television and I hate to watch myself. I’m not fond of Raghu Rai in that sense. But criticism with understanding is precious. Criticism with lack of understanding, or off-handed nonsense is not acceptable. In any case, I am a very ruthless surgeon myself and I deal with Raghu Rai on very tough terms and similarly I deal with my friends also with that kind of honesty. Sometimes people tell me I’m very cruel, but I say photography is my dharma and I have to be totally honest about it.
On editing himself
I’ll say that 90% of what we shoot is either repetitive or just the process of evolution of a situation. So if I have taken 100 pictures to get to one or if I have taken 20 pictures to get to one, I don’t carry those 19 or 99 pictures with me. Of course the ability to edit yourself ruthlessly is very important for your next journey into situations so that you are critically and analytically dealing with every situation. Otherwise you become a happy snappy good guy, which I am not.
My friend Myna Mukherjee has set up an arts’ residency/gallery in Delhi. It’s called Engendered and it opened with a group show titled Can You See Me? in January. Myna asked me if I would write something about the show for her, so I did (and not only because I want to be in her good books so that she lets me stay in one of the rooms at the residency despite the fact that I don’t fit any Engendered criteria whatsoever). You can read it here.
I love this opening image. It’s a detail from Amina Ahmed’s “Prayer – I” and on the wall is a poem written for (if I remember correctly) Tyler Clementi.
The February issue of ELLE had an article of mine about photographs taken using cellphones. Since the March issue has hit the stands and there isn’t a link to the article, here’s the text.
When you have a camera phone at your disposal, there’s more to behold than meets the eye. From art to lechery, it’s all happening through the lens of a phone near you.
If legends and myths of Europe are any indication, spying on women has traditionally been dangerous business. In Greek mythology, the poet Tiresias was blinded when he stumbled upon the goddess Athena as she bathed. When the Anglo-Saxon Lady Godiva rode naked through Coventry, the one who ogled at her was a tailor named Tom — thus giving birth to the term “peeping Tom” — and he was struck blind. In India, on the other hand, voyeurism has long been an accept- able pastime. When young Krishna watches gopinis bathe in the Yamuna and steals their clothes, it’s a harmless prank. A woman unaware of the male gaze upon her is almost always the beginning of a love story, whether the hero and heroine are mythical charac- ters like Arjun and Subhadra from the Mahabharat or Rajinikanth and Shriya Saran in Sivaji – The Boss (2007). What has changed in the 21st century is that voyeurism now has tech support: The camera phone.
Cameras began appearing in phones in the late 1990s, and by the 2000s, they were all the rage. Now, every model has a camera and some, like the iPhone, take photographs that are as high resolution as the images taken with a regular digital camera. The craze for phone photography isn’t unique to India. Even news companies, like the American media organisations National Public Radio and CNN, make use of such photographs and the increasingly sophisticated lenses on camera phones have inspired some people, like Kainaz Amaria, to create works of art.
Washington DC-based photographer Kainaz began taking photos on her iPhone in 2010, soon after she came to Mumbai on a Fulbright scholarship. The images became something of a “visual diary” of Kainaz’s time in India. “When I look at a particular image I can remember the day, time, they way I felt when I made the frame,” she says. “I can remember the smells and what feelings triggered me to make the frame.” The phone’s camera had its limitations but it also offered a certain degree of freedom. Sitting opposite the woman in a local train or driving past a girl in Varanasi who looked all set to time travel to the disco era, Kainaz was able to use the unobtrusive iPhone to capture the confidence, quirk and the natural grace in the people and places she saw around her. “When you approach most people, more often than not they don’t mind and in India in particular, they happily welcome the attention,” says Kainaz.
There was also the advantage of being able to take photos of people without them being aware of it. For example, the candour and unaffected quality of the images she took while on Mumbai’s local trains make them particularly eye-catching. One shows a woman listening to her iPod while travelling. Kainaz was drawn to this unknown woman’s confident body language. This commuter was an everyday Mumbai girl but completely contrary to the stereotype of the submissive Indian woman. The camera phone was discreet. Unlike the camera, it didn’t alert Kainaz’s subject or make her self-conscious.
The images in photographer Fabien Charuau’s series, Send Some Candids, on the other hand, reveal a very different angle of the camera phone’s potential. Send Some Candids is made up of photographs Fabien procured from the internet, from dubious websites and message boards. All of them are of women and all of them have been taken on camera phones. Fabien has 10,000 photographs in his collection and it is barely the tip of India’s candid photography iceberg.
“It started when I saw a guy take a photograph of my wife on the street with his phone, and there was nothing I could do about it because he was quite far away,” says Fabien, who is a well-known fashion photographer and making his first forays into art. He noticed men were clicking everywhere. “On my shoots, on the road, in buses, there is always a mobile phone, like the light boy’s phone, taking pictures. I started wondering what they did with these photographs.”
Fabien’s hunt led him to pornography sites, many of which are devoted to this brand of candid photography. The women in the photographs were almost always unaware of how they were being shot. “Most often, men take photos of family members or women they don’t dare approach,” says Fabien. Many of the photographs are blurred. Sometimes, faces are removed so that the woman is turned into an anonymous and eroticised body. “There’s so much frustration. It really shows you the imbalance between the sexes at the street level. More than the results, it’s the fact that they can click and invade the privacy that is important to these men. That’s their sense of power. Taking the photo, it’s like a visual rape.” It’s interesting to note that in the course of his research, Fabien didn’t find similar websites dedicated to women taking photos of men.
On the message boards, along with lewd comments, Fabien found detailed tutorials, teaching members how to take such photographs. “Some of them are very technically sound and in many, you see a lot of the techniques from street photography,” says Fabien. For example, much like photographer interested in capturing a public space without artful poses, the candid photographer finds a vantage point and waits for the right moment. “The intention is completely different but the way it’s shot, the tactics are disturbingly similar,” Fabien admitted.
With Send Some Candids, which was part of an exhibition in Mumbai last year and can be seen on Fabien’s website, Fabien turned the tables on candid photographers. Just as they insidiously invade the woman’s privacy, Fabien infiltrated into their space and exposed them to scrutiny by effectively stealing their photographs, appropriating them to create his work of art and putting them up for public display. With camera phones clicking in abandon and people developing apps like X-ray – point it at a photo of a model in a catalogue and the app reveals her in her underwear – Fabien’s artistic response is the only possible retaliation. There is nothing one can do to prevent photographs being taken or being shared online. “The only comfort, if you can call it that, is that if someone has taken a photo of you, you’re among hundreds and thousands of photos,” says Fabien. “You can’t control photography. The only thing you can do is try to stare them down.”
I wrote a short piece on Pakistani artist Rashid Rana for the February issue of Vogue India. Rashid, being the articulate sort, gave me a solid and lengthy interview of which about 1% was used in the final piece. So here’s the interview in its entirety. It’s long, but it’s a good read.
DP: In recent works, you seem to be moving towards three-dimensionality. Do you find two-dimensionality less interesting now? You’ve spoken about how the history of photography played an important part in spurring your interest in using photography in your works. Is there something that turned your attention to three-dimensionality?
DP: The idea of perspective is something that has surfaced in many of your works. In three-dimensional works, the artist has far less control about the perspective from which a work is seen. In a sense, the artist has to give up some control whereas in two-dimensional works, the artist decides what a viewer sees and how they see it. How important is the idea of control to you as an artist?
DP: Is the challenge of a new medium important to you?
DP: Do you feel painting is losing in popularity to newer media like video and photography?
DP: Can you see yourself returning to painting?
RR: Ha! The teacher in me makes life for the artist very difficult. But it helps as I push myself to the maximum. Having said that I would like to add that we cannot just imitate a model from other parts of the world- Specific reasons are there for artists from south Asia (Pakistan in particular) to get into multiple roles. Yes, I have been a full time artist and teacher but I won’t really call myself a curator as I have only done a couple of projects and that too relied heavily on my experience as an artist and teachers in the way I approached those curatorial projects.
DP: What do you think the role of art is in society, if any? Does it need to have a role?
DP: What made you want to be an artist and convinced you to persevere with art before you became successful?
RR: It’s a slightly long story. The abridged version is that I ended up at an art school though by choice, but incidentally (like many other things in life). While studying there I gradually discovered that ‘art’ is what I can do better than other things such as cricket or acting.
DP: Would you say your personal life is reflected in any way in your art?
DP: A lot of your work has a strong base in liberal ideology. Would you describe your work as political? Personally, I’m wary of using that word because the ideas in a political rarely seem to connect with the notion of ideology.
DP: Have the recent events in Pakistan and changes in attitudes towards Islam had any impact, direct or indirect, upon your works? Is it possible to remain unaffected by them?
RR: It’s not possible to remain unaffected whether one chooses to avoid them from reflecting in their work or not. They also affect my work in an indirect manner.
Subjects and issues in regions, which have gone through colonization, are more complex than other places. Therefore, I agree that it is complicated to deal with or balance certain phenomenon. But my work is about addressing some representations-related aspects of this complexity.
DP: The theme of identity is something that you’ve explored both directly and indirectly in many works.
RR: The theme of identity ……I tried many a times but I could not escape it. So I have realised that the broader identity is worth exploring, as we get to question all sorts of notions around us and within us. We should look at the artist as a creative practitioner, who are from certain regions yes, but essentially are individuals. In the ’90s being an artist in Pakistan, I faced this question in a big way but now I don’t think it’s such a burden.
In 2000, I made a work titled: “What is so Pakistani about this painting?”. The title itself is inscribed in the work, and is perhaps the most ‘Pakistani’ thing about this work. The idea of dealing with the issue of identity has become the new identity. Identity — if it’s not national it’s regional or gender related or religious —even when we deny it, it is acceptance in one way. Then we have another type of identity altogether, the self or visual personas. I have dealt with this kind too in a work titled “Identical Views” where I merely am changing clothes to alter my physical identity.
DP: How important do you think it is for South Asian artists to be innovative by Western art historical standards? Do you think it’s fair to say that there is now a tradition of modern art in South Asia?
DP: As someone who has been both an artist and an art educator, what would you say is of critical importance for this region’s art to develop?
This article first appeared in Caravan. It’s long so I’m posting only an excerpt. The whole thing is here.
““You have two separate lives in Iran, outside the house and inside the house,” said Ghadirian. “We go out to the street, it’s crossing a border. When we come back into the house, it’s another border. But sometimes, things from the outside come in with us. It’s all still clean and ok but the war is reflected in the house.” In the photographs, the “things from the outside” are military equipment: a grenade in the fruit bowl, a bullet in a cigarette case, the drop of blood on the military boots standing next to the red stilettos. In 2009, violence entered Iranian homes when some protestors like Ghadirian’s husband came back injured, and many others didn’t come back at all. Meanwhile, the government media calmly declared that everything was in order—lies as meticulously false as the rooms in Ghadirian’s photographs.”