“Bas, we’re done,” says Pablo Bartholomew, marching off the gallery floor and retreating into the office behind it. One of India’s most famous photographers is camera-shy. Our photographer, somewhat stunned and complaining that he’s just got test shots, is now being placated by the Communications lady with the promise of a more media-savvy artist (an actor-turned-artist) next month.
But it would have been surprising if Barthlomew had played along and done a proper photo-shoot. For, at 60, the Delhi-based photographer is still every bit the eccentric artist that people who’ve known him will tell you about. I’m told to expect “a good guy with a gruff exterior” by one of the subjects of his current show. What I find is a man who’s a little distracted, tending to run off in tangents with a conversation; and whose restless fingers urge you to get on with your questions when his words don’t. But, in snatches, as he talks about his art, he’s deeply passionate, and capable of surprising candour.
“The idea is to show people who marked me, not necessarily people who’ve been good to me… There are a couple of bastards in there as well,” he says of his current exhibition.
The show is remarkably different from his previous retrospectives. He’s not looking back at the hippie ’70s; or the wide-angle frames of erstwhile Bombay, Delhi or Calcutta; or the marginalised Haka Chinese settlers of the latter. With 60/60, he digs out 60 intimate portraits of friends and colleagues, all major personalities — but a lot of them shot during their college days, before they found fame. The result is a bare-chested Anupam Kher in his hostel room, a Nafisa Ali eating with her hands at a friend’s house, and a photo of Shashi Tharoor and Mira Nair from their college days, performing Antony and Cleopatra.
The period ranges from the early ’70s to the mid ’80s. A lot of the early ones are the result of a young Bartholomew — thrown out of school and with no inclination to go back — finding himself in the amateur theatre circles of Delhi. He shot photos for friends, just hung around on sets, even dabbled with acting, “though I wasn’t very good at it”, he says. “The photos are of a small circle of people, those you become friendly with over five, or 15, years. Of course, there are those you went to school with and thought they were duds, but they turn out to be the acclaimed ones.”
While his friends found acclaim as actors, directors and politicians, Bartholomew’s vocation led him to life as a professional photographer. He would go on to shoot stills behind the scenes of Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khilari (1977) and Richard Attenborough’s Oscar-winning Gandhi (1982). He would also work as a news photographer, producing moving images from the Bhopal Gas Tragedy to the Babri Masjid demolition. His photo of a baby, face half buried in debris, would, in fact, be his most acclaimed (it became the World Press Photo of the Year in 1980, and is still the lasting image of the tragedy).
However, like any good artist, he has a healthy measure of cynicism for commercial work. “Growing up, I had a sense of light, composition, drama, and I knew where I wanted to go with it. I felt a lot of that sense eroded when I became a media hack.” About film sets, too, he says that he found the actual film shoots quite boring, and he would escape in between shoots to find subjects that actually excited him.
A lot of that work surfaced much later. For instance, his Calcutta Diaries — shot during breaks between Ray’s film in 1976 — would only be exhibited in 2012.
“I like looking back,” he says. “Even what I’m shooting now will take a few years to surface. I think my work needs to cook, so what comes out is more precise… It’s like a sense of knowing what survived.” This is also the deviant artist’s need to react differently to the current times, which is all about getting your work out there instantly.
Over the years, his slow “cooking” has led to several retrospectives. While most of us look back at our young artistic efforts — at writing, painting or shooting photos — and cringe, Bartholomew continues to produce gems. “You only see the good ones,” he says, “There’s a lot of s**t in there too. Sometimes, on a roll, you have five great images. Sometimes you have one, sometimes none.”
The present show, however, he says, might be his last retrospective: “Beyond a point, how much can you pull out?”
What he’s managed to pull out, though, constitutes a body of work that ranges four decades, spans three cities, and, now, captures the journeys of some of India’s most prominent creative figures.
In effect, it also offers a window into the guarded artist’s own psyche — beyond that “gruff exterior”.
The artist, through the years
1955: Pablo Bartholomew is born in Delhi, to leading art critic and photographer Richard Bartholomew and theatre artist Rati Batra.
1970: Drops out of school at age 15.
1975: Wins the Press Institute of India Award for a photo essay on the life of a morphine addict.
1976: Works as a still photographer on the sets of Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj ke Khilari (1977).
-Receives the World Press Photo award for the series on morphine addicts.
1979: First exhibition has works of marginalised sections of society – rag pickers, sex workers, beggars – at Art Heritage Gallery, Delhi.
1980: The same exhibition shows at Jehangir Art Gallery, Mumbai.
1981: Works as a still photographer on the sets of Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982).
1984: 2000: Represented by French-American photo agency, Gamma Liaison. He covers conflicts in south-east Asia. His work appears in leading publications, including New York Times, National Geographic, The Guardian and The Observer.
1984: Awarded World Press Photo of the Year for his image from the Bhopal Gas Tragedy, of a half-buried child.
1987: Awarded a fellowship from the Asian Cultural Council, New York, to shoot Indian immigrants in USA.
1995: Fellowship from the Institute of Comparative Studies in Human Culture, Norway, to shoot Naga tribes.
2007: Outside in: A Tale of Three Cities, a retrospective look at photos from his teenage days, shot across Bombay, Delhi and Calcutta, shown at Recontres d’Arles (a summer photo festival), at Arles, France. The show then travels to Delhi, Mumbai, New York, Berlin and Dhaka.
2011: Shows Chronicles of a Past Life – ’70s and ’80s in Bombay, at Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai.
2012: The exhibition, The Calcutta Diaries, shows his photos of the city – with a particular focus on the Haka Chinese community in Tangra – shot in between his work on Ray’s movie sets in 1976. Exhibited at Art Heritage Gallery, Delhi.
-Publishes a selection of his father’s art writing. This would be published as a book called The Art Critic, co-edited by Pablo, in 2014.
What: 60/60, is on from January 23 till February 20, from 11am to 6pm on all days (except Sundays and public holidays), at Sakshi Gallery. Bartholomew will do a walk-through of the works on January 23 (Saturday), at 4.45pm.
Where: 6/19, Grants Building, 2nd Floor, Arthur Bunder Road, Colaba.
Call: 6610 3424