Over the years, and even before I declared myself a photographer, I photographed several towns, districts, tribes, people and their homes running along and across the Aravalli mountains. I’ve been driven along the fold mountains ever since I was born, either to reach our ancestral home, or that of our relatives, and now my parents’ and brother’s. In recent years, my brother, Deepak, has driven me around hundreds of miles, through villages and tribal areas that made for a fascinating experience. Because of his extensive travel experience and knowledge of the areas and communities, he’s fully familiar with the places I will find interesting, as a photographer. His good connections in the land have proven useful too, to get access to no-go zones. People who would normally not entertain you, happily welcome you, because there is a common language and understanding once we have had a chance to connect.
This day was one such experience. We drove far from Jaipur and reached a town habited by the Gurjars (aka Gujjars). There was a tense environment upon approach. Gurjars have been, until recently, a lot in the news because of rioting, killings, disruption. They are a feared tribe of the North. Their men are tall, physically strong, fierce and rough in approach, proud but with a patriarchal mindset. They are known for charging before speaking. They own swords and carry knives hidden in their clothing. That’s what I’m told. Basically speaking, you cannot afford to be a gurjar’s enemy in those regions. I sort of worried thinking what might happen. They had rioted on the highway only a few days before we went there.
So, here we were, myself and Deepak, entering this village. We got off at the square where many heavy-built men with sun-kissed ruggedness and long moustaches were seated on their Enfields and Hero Hondas, or on a raised chabutara. Two of them got up with their sticks to enquire the purpose of our visit. Deepak got out of the car to speak to them. After a few minutes, he returned and asked me to step out of the car and enter the village. “No holds barred. You have a free rein,” he says. That I can do what I like, enter any home I like, speak to any man, woman, child, elderly, take photos of their homes, people and cattle. This came as a blessing for me.
They did, though, kept asking in various ways if I was a journalist. It took me three hours to convince them fully that I was one of them, a Rajasthani, and not there to cause any trouble. That the photographs were for personal use, not commissioned by any publication, that what they share with me will remain with me. No one will find out. I had no qualms about sharing my details with them, just to put their minds at rest. I spent the day chatting with and photographing the tough guys as Deepak patiently waited at the square with the even tougher ones. One sweet young fellow in green, with green eyes too, invited me to his cycle shop. If he’d ever walked on London or LA streets, people would have mistaken him for Kirk Douglas. By god, that resemblance was uncanny.
The toughest nut to crack was the head of the Gurjars. The old man, who Deepak addressed as tau. They had met a few times before, as Deepak had passed through the town a number of times, but never had he sought permission to allow a stranger (me) into their lives. It was the first. Once cracked, tau took me to a few homes himself. Nobody could turn him away. That’s the kind of authority he wielded among the village folk. Deepak waved at me and said, “Now that he’s happy with you, you are set.” I was actually set. That’s when I got to mingle with the toughest lot. The stories they shared will remain with me forever. They got their women to offer us tea and snacks. They preferred I didn’t share photos of their women, but allowed me to photograph them. I appreciate and respect their trust in me.
It was the most gratifying journey, thanks to Deepak who made it all possible for me. Thanks to the Gurjars who welcomed me in their homes and lives, shared stories that changed my perception of them. People might continue to fear them, but they promised me that I can visit anytime I like, give any one of them a call, and they will be there to welcome me.
When we talk about landscape photography, we usually would visualise trees, mountains, rivers, gardens, beautiful buildings and so on. Never would an evening’s dull sky with man-made machines spring to mind. Does it not mean that in photographs we seek escapism too?
With this photo, I am using landscape photography as documentary photography. So, I am not trying to escape into a world that is not always so beautiful around us. This is the reality. The ever-changing urban landscape and the ubiquitous machines.
Kew is a beautiful town, and this is the last thing one would expect of Kew from a photographer. That’s right. There will be expectations of colours, sunshine, flowers, trees and such. My photograph, in that sense, is anti-Kew.
This was not a planned photograph. As I often drive on that bridge, I notice cranes on the building sites. This particular evening, as I approached the site, I noticed three silhouettes in a synchronised resting position, with hundreds of lights in the foreground – lights in the buildings, of moving cars, on the tower and billboards, etc. The clouds and the rest were dark. I had to capture the shot, but had to do it from my moving car as one is not allowed to stop the car on the bridge.
Phone camera was the only option. Blurry is what I wanted. Blurry is what I got. Blurry is what looks best.
It was an early start. Ahmedabad has changed to an unrecognisable extent. I drove from there through S.G. Highway to Makarba one July morning in 2018 as per the directions given by Bubbles in a cutely sincere manner – two lefts, then right, then straight for 2 kms, then three rights, and so on. It must have been the combination of her accuracy and my ability to grasp that I reached the masjid with sheer ease. The light from the golden torch was making its way to the earth before bribing its way into the roza’s courtyard.
Bhavna stood there to greet me. Oh, what a beautiful face she had. Those eyes!! She instantly came across as a warm person willing to share her knowledge of the place. She spoke a welcome mix of educated English and raw Hindi. We entered the monument, removed our shoes, covered our heads.
A typical morning scene. Touchingly serene. A few men, unperturbed by my presence, read the morning papers. I felt at home. I kept taking photographs as Bhavna’s soft voice kept singing in my ears. We Indians are spoilt. Our history dates so far back that we casually declare a six centuries old structure as recent. We even neglect it.
This was Sarkhej Roza, once the home of sufi saint, Ganj Baksh. To one side stood a stone pavilion in a sad state of disrepair and to the other, a courtyard with a masjid and quietly guarded tombs. Several mausoleums, an old well, hundreds of wide steps leading down to a dried tank and the infinite expanse. One part of the mosque, with its tall pillars reminded me of the Acropolis of Athens. It was too much for me to take in on a short morning tour.
Once in a while a person will walk the white-painted path, that led to the masjid, to speak in private to the supreme being. This path was also taken by the Sun to kiss the cheek of the messiah who must most definitely reside in such quietude.
A small girl jumped and skipped on the steps oblivious to all. A spoke of the well-wheel pulley made to resemble an exotic visitor to the Sabarmati River. A cormorant or a spoonbill perhaps. The little bookshop opened early. A few men sat selling to no customers at all. Bhavna enjoyed a nice chat with them. A silvery bearded man in immaculate white clothes and matching taqiyah takes over the shop. “Maybe he’ll sell only one book today,” I thought. I buy one. But he will remain all day no matter what. Dedication. Service. We all can learn.
The cleaner, with her younger grandson in her arms, complained about her useless son-in-law. From Bhavna’s story to this – it felt like I had changed the radio station.
Her elder grandson played near the main gate. His angelic face captivated me so much that I took several photos of him. He kept changing poses. A young man sat on the chair. Maybe, that was the accused.
My gaze locked on a woman sitting outside the room that housed the tombs. She was not present there. She appeared to be talking to someone. But there was no one. She then laughed, and continued to laugh. Her ankles were swollen. She was a regular I was told. She walked out as aimlessly as she had walked in.
Outside the mosque, another lady sold balloons. “She’s my friend,” announced Bhavna. Where did these people buy such delightful smiles from when they could not even afford a decent meal? How can they afford such precious attributes?
On my drive back to Ahmedabad, and before I hit the highway, I saw the lady who spoke to the spirits. She was on her way to… nowhere.
Apart from the great many tourists flocking to the grand fortress of Amer, where the maximum activity is noticed, the town of Amer remains unchanged since at least my childhood days. I cannot imagine it being any different a century ago, or even two or three centuries ago for that matter. The 17th century muralled walls of the many temples, the Panna Meena Kund, the bazaars, and the shops tucked into the small pockets of the fort’s base, remain untouched and neglected. As a result, many sandstone structures have fallen into a state of grave disrepair. But, the raw beauty prevails.
I hail from Rajasthan, and the areas around Aravalli Mountains (the oldest range of fold mountains in India) have been frequented by me since I was a child. I grew up knowing the region, its people, language and the customs. The women’s attires were always ‘very’ colourful, with one neon-orange found aplenty, the men wore the same multi-coloured turbans as they did now, and the kids played with marble balls on sandy tracks even then.
The sultry afternoons were, and still are, lazy, and many folks kept cows, buffaloes and goats for milk. Langurs guard the gullies, and keep a count of the kids returning from school with their huge backpacks.
A few women carried hay on their heads for the cattle, while some hung-out to sing desert lyrics, or gossip. The men played card games and smoked bidis and chewed tobacco or paan.
Once in a while an object comes into sight that makes the time we are in apparent. My camera being the biggest reminder, of course.
It takes them a while to acclimatise to my presence . These people do not like their privacy being invaded. It is very difficult to photograph women facing the camera with their veil completely lifted. I speak their language, and yet…
Many grand old mansions that belonged to the aristocrats are now in a crumbling and uninhabitable state. The families and their grandeur have long gone and, despite a shortage of good living space for people, these mansions are allowed to wither away.
But the Khejri tree indiscriminately thrives in every quarter.
I take my time. I am in no rush. I carry my heavy camera in the sweltering afternoon, walking miles, striking conversations with those I walk past, ensuring they realise I am one of them, that I just wear different clothes.
I have admired Dr. David Campany since the time I read his book, The Open Road: Photography & the American Road Trip. Little did I know at the time that he was to be the future teacher of my daughter.
Sophie (Malavika) brings a book titled Photography and Cinema authored by Campany and says, “I am making notes from this book.”
“Oh,” I ask, “What led you to Campany?”
“Campany himself. He taught us today.”
“Of course.” It hit me then. He’s Sophie’s faculty.
THE David Campany is the professor at her university.
These kids are so so so damn lucky. To be taught by him and his colleagues. So much knowledge these brilliant minds have accumulated between them.
Sophie really couldn’t appreciate my excitement. In due course she will. She’s still very young.
The guy is an academic genius. I absolutely adore him. He is famous in not the literal sense of the word, but he is famous in the circle that matters to me. Understated star of the photography’s academic world. Most iconic photographers pale in comparison because they don’t understand the language of photography. They only create captivating photographs. Campany has mastered the language. Photography is more than pleasing photos. It’s a concept, an idea, an exploration.
I wish I were his student. I am, kind of. I regularly read his work. Ask him questions from time to time. He is aware I’m a follower of his work, an avid reader of his books. He doesn’t know his student is that fan’s daughter. Typical youngster, Sophie, wants to keep her personal life away from her peers and teachers. Though, she proudly does end up mentioning and introducing me to her circle as we tend to bump into each other at galleries. They think I am her friend. Campany might perhaps have noticed a similarity in our facial features, and one day he might connect the dots.
In the meantime, I want to share an excerpt from one of his works that I have personally enjoyed reading.
Photographs are unruly, anarchic things. They never do quite what you expect. This may appear an odd claim, given that most photos seem to be so obvious, clichéd even. Don’t they perform reliably enough in advertising, documentary and the family album? Yes and no. In many cases it is really the accompanying words that make them reliable. Captions, titles, commentary. What we read will shape and direct the possibilities in what we see. Deprive images of language and they soon revert to ambiguity. Try covering the text in this magazine and see if it is possible to figure out what’s going on.
Or, take a look at the first image reproduced above. You probably have already. Clearly, it’s not a sunset or a selfie. What are you actually seeing? How are your eyes moving around this image? Are you searching for clues? Is it a landscape? A microscopic view? Is it a document? An artwork? It is almost impossible to know what this photograph is of, let alone what it might mean. In calling for explanation, a photograph like this can make us feel the gap between looking, reading and knowing. I am a curator of exhibitions, and recently I was invited to put together my “dream show”. That’s a phrase to raise the eyebrow of any Freudian, but I took it seriously. What could such an exhibition be? Nobody wants to see artists’ corny interpretations of their dreams. That would be almost as tedious as hearing your partner recount theirs over breakfast (it is for good reason that we pay analysts to listen). Dreams are untroubled by conscience or decorum. You are “innocent when you dream”, as Tom Waits once sang. A dream will defy the logic of time and space, too: things from an almost-forgotten holiday combine with yesterday’s trip to the cinema. Moreover, there is often no obvious connection between what is dreamt and what it might mean. This is not unlike our initial responses to images. In those moments before we switch from free-associative looking to the authority of words, we are free to react as our impulses take us. We intuit that an image cannot carry a message the way a truck carries coal, and so we are not held by rational thought. Why not begin an exhibition with that particularly odd photograph? It’s an image so wide open it could mean almost anything, or nothing. A risky start. I shall tell you a little about the photograph. In 1920, the artist Man Ray was visiting his friend, Marcel Duchamp, in his studio on Broadway, Manhattan. Man Ray had little money and was complaining to Duchamp that a rich collector wanted him to photograph her artworks. He was learning how to use a camera to document his own paintings and sculptures but in his memoir he recalls: “The thought of photographing the art of others was repugnant to me, beneath my dignity as an artist.” Duchamp suggested his own latest, unfinished artwork might be something upon which Man Ray could practise. Duchamp’s piece would become known as “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even” (1915-1923), one of the most notorious and arcane works in all art history. It comprises two vertical glass panels sandwiching a diagram drawn in molten lead lines, and it may or may not be an allegory of sexual relations. But on that day in 1920, it was just a flat surface, covered in New York dust. Man Ray recalled: “Looking down on the work as I focused the camera, it appeared like some strange landscape from a bird’s-eye view.” Relocating to Paris, Man Ray took the photograph with him. Surrealism, with its interest in the unconscious and the uncanny, was blooming. In October 1922, the same image was published in a little journal with a deliberately misleading caption: “View from an aeroplane” (it would later be retitled “Elevage de poussière” and translated as “Dust breeding”). Seeing Earth from above is disorienting, but wartime aerial reconnaissance photographs had already become common currency in newspapers and magazines. Devastated cities have an unsettling beauty. Meanwhile, many avant-garde photographers were starting to shoot unexpected subject matter from new angles, attempting to revolutionise perception itself. Also in October 1922, TS Eliot published The Waste Land. The great dream-like poem of the interwar era picks over the rubble of western civilisation like a literary detective, stacking up quotations and allusions as fragments of evidence. “I will show you fear in a handful of dust,” warns Eliot. To many writers and artists of the 1920s the ideal of a rational, stable order was looking more like a fantasy. What if The Waste Land and Man Ray’s photograph of dust, appearing that same month, were harbingers of the ensuing century? This would be the theme of my exhibition. Any photographer will tell you that dust has a double-edged relation to the camera. It must be kept well away from the equipment but it is deeply photogenic. Floating in the air, dust motes catch the light, and settle on hard surfaces as a soft glow. There is also something universal about dust. We come from it, go to it and create it daily. So, an image of dust, even one as obscure as Man Ray’s, is likely to have all manner of resonances and associations. Some will be yours only, but many will be shared, from the epic scale of the aerial view and the abstract landscape, to the close-up world of forensic imaging. Beyond these associations many artists have explored the idea of dust as material and metaphor, with its allusions to time, mortality and ruin. For example, in the early 1970s the Californian John Divola began breaking into disused houses and turning arty vandal with knife, aerosol can, string and cardboard.
He would make mysterious, ritualistic interventions in the corners of rooms and then photograph them. Rich in narrative implication, his images slip between forensics, performance art, sculpture and fine art photography. The visual and conceptual similarity to the Man Ray photograph is striking. A little later, the French artist Robert Filliou had himself photographed cleaning (without permission) the dust from 100 artworks in the Louvre.
A Polaroid and a stained white cloth from each painting was put in a small open box and exhibited. Filliou even suggested, teasingly, that the aura of these paintings vanished with the dust’s removal. More recently, Eva Stenram placed under her bed colour negatives of the first images sent by Nasa from the surface of Mars, and allowed balls of dust to gather on them before making prints. The cosmic and the domestic implications of dust are conflated.
Even when images of dust are thoroughly earthbound they can be other-worldly. Jeff Mermelstein is a street photographer in the classic mould: New York is his beat and he’s ready for the unexpected. He was out shooting that September morning when the Twin Towers were struck. His shot of a public sculpture in a powdered avenue near Wall Street is both urgent and entirely dream-like. He wrote shortly after the event: “I don’t really remember finding that statue covered in debris. I’m not a war photographer, so this wasn’t an easy experience for me. The constantly shattering glass was terrifying and distracting, and my camera kept getting completely covered in ash. But because for years I have been taking documentary pictures of New Yorkers out on the sidewalks, there is a way in which I was prepared.”
The most remarkable extension of Man Ray’s photograph was made by Sophie Ristelhueber. In 1991, the French artist visited the deserts of Kuwait. Allied forces had pushed Saddam’s invading army back into Iraq, and Ristelhueber wanted to see, for herself, the traces left behind. Tanks, personal belongings, and long trenches dug into the sand. She photographed on foot and from the air, always looking down as if surveying the ground before her. The resulting photographic series was titled “Fait”, meaning both “fact” and “done”. In a short text, Ristelhueber revealed her inspiration: “By shifting from the air to the ground, I sought to destroy any notion of scale as in Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp’s ‘Dust Breeding’.” It’s a picture that fascinates me and that I kept in my mind throughout the time I was working out there. The constant shift between the infinitely big and the infinitely small may disorientate the spectator. But it is a good illustration of our relationship to the world: we have at our disposal modern techniques for seeing everything, apprehending everything, yet we see nothing.”
Ristelhueber kept one image back, thinking it looked too much like its inspiration. In 2007 she printed it as a single work, titled “À cause de l’élevage de poussière” (Because of the dust breeding). It is a striking photograph, and its genesis speaks volumes about the unpredictable effects that images can have upon us. An artist photographs an ex-war zone and her visual template is a peculiar, semi-abstract view of a half-finished artwork made 70 years earlier, on another continent. No logic can account for that. We don’t file images in our minds the way they are filed in an archive, or searched for online. Words will not come close to accounting for the madness of images.