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 gathered, 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, who even enquired about the project. It was 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. Initially conceived by Lord and Lady Canning, it was an early experiment with photography as a documentary medium. The original prints were made using Albumen printing, and the good news is that they are still around and very well preserved. The original People of India project was 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 the People of India in the 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 to observe and photograph without making a comment. I love doing portraits; it’s like conversing with the subject‘s soul. It was a fantastic project for slow photography and formal environmental portraiture.
My first assignment was Shadipur Depot in East Delhi. I went to photograph Sangita, a performer. Her manager, Prakash Bhatt, aka Lakshman Master, a performer himself, met us at the metro station and took us to his house. They were from Rajasthan, and they lived in a slum. We had to walk on an 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 appalling. After the shoot, I wondered how we could collectively allow our fellow citizens and 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 give them a forced identity. For me, they are not characters, models, or ‘types’ – they are people with their own identities. 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 was at the India International Centre in New Delhi in March -April 2013. and showcase the rare Albumen prints of the pictures from the 1850s with contemporary work. Curator Aditya Arya says the project was inspired by his passion for studying and collecting images from the early years of photography, especially in the Indian subcontinent. It was a profoundly fulfilling project, where I just observed and made the pictures.
First Published in Bangalore Mirror on 18th April 2013