‘Ustad Amjad Ali Khan chided me for moving his furniture around’

  • Soma Das, Mumbai
  • Updated: May 06, 2016 15:52 IST
Carntic vocalist MS Subbulakshmi teased Desai for taking so many shots. “Am I a young bride?” she asked (Photo: Viren Desai)

Photographer Viren Desai shot some of our most iconic classical musicians in the ’90s. Now, he is seeking crowd-funding to turn his work into a book

Photographer Viren Desai (56) first attended a classical baithak at age 14.

And while he attended many more concerts over the years -- Hindustani and Carnatic -- he always felt that something was missing. “I felt the performer’s on-stage personality overshadowed his true self. Beyond the adulation, I wanted to get close to the musicians,” he says.

That desire led him to embark on a mission: to shoot candid images of Indian Classical musicians and publish them in a coffee table book.

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Between 1990 to 1995, the freelance fine art and advertising photographer travelled to Chennai, Delhi and Varanasi, reaching out to artists and shooting them. He consciously chose to shoot them at their homes or in the studio, meeting them at places of worship or among their disciples. “At concerts, the stage lighting is bad and there are microphones jutting out, which don’t translate well in photographs,” he explains.

Pt Hariprasad Chaurasia in a teaching session with his disciples (Photo: Viren Desai)

Desai first approached rudra veena player Ustad Zia Mohinuddin Dagar and flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia and explained the concept of the book to them. “The maestros agreed to take out time from their busy concert and teaching schedules. Later, I took these images to convince the other artists I approached,” he shares.

Titled The Grand Maestros of Indian Classical Music, the book, which has already been designed, will feature images of 22 musicians, including Carnatic vocalist MS Subbulakshmi, tabla legend Ustad Alla Rakha and late sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar. The 288 pager book includes 158 colour photographs and 130 black-and-whites. All the photos were shot on analog cameras such as the Nikon FM2, Hasselblad 500 Cm and Widelux panoramic camera.

Shehnai player late Ustad Bismillah Khan (Photo: Viren Desai)

Over the last three decades, Desai has been approaching corporate houses, publishers, and music companies, but funds have proven elusive. “I couldn’t find sponsors even after really trying hard and knocking on many doors,” he recalls.

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Ultimately, this year, he decided to crowd-fund the book. “I have been hearing of crowd-funding over the last year and its growing popularity. Many campaigns have successfully raised funds and I thought of giving it a shot,” he says.

Behind the scenes

The process of shooting was a profound experience for Desai and left him with many treasured memories. “I had intimate conversations with each artist. There was lots of laughter and conversation,” he shares.

Ghatam player TH Vinayakram (Photo: Viren Desai)

Desai recalls how MS Subbulakshmi teased him for taking so many shots saying, “Am I a young bride?” Shehnai musician Ustad Bismillah Khan told him about the unforgettable taste of his mother’s gobi ki sabzi. Ustad Amjad Ali Khan chided him for moving furniture around in his living room: “‘Smt Subbulakshami [his wife] will get upset if you move things around.’ I had to assure him that I would put everything back where it was,” says Desai.

Viren Desai

Hurdles race

But Desai’s quest to shoot musicians also had some roadblocks. “Singer Kishori Amonkar told me that she was not keen on doing PR, and would rather spend time with her disciples. I told her that this will document her work for posterity but she wasn’t convinced,” he recalls. Another musician made him travel and wait for 15 days in Varanasi and ultimately didn’t agree to be shot.

Over all these years, what kept him going? “It’s a dream I have had for 25 years. I used up all my savings to get to this stage. Bit by bit, I managed to complete the editing, the colour correction and other processes.”

But after putting in so much effort, Desai is now ready to move on from this project. “This has been the number one item on my bucket list. Once it’s completed, I will tick it off. I have reached the end of the line. If it works, it works. Otherwise, I will move on,” he says.

Know the photographer

Desai did his Bachelor’s in Photography from the Rochester Institute of Technology, New York, in 1985. He worked as a freelancer in New York for two years, before moving back to Mumbai in 1987. Since then, he’s worked for corporate and advertising campaigns as a freelance photographer.

He is a contributing member and photographer for Dinodia Picture Agency. His images have featured on the covers of music CDs of bands like Silk Route and Ila Arun’s Vote for Ghaghra. Desai was one of the first photographers in India to use high resolution digital photography commercially, as early as 1997 using the Dicomed 4x5 scanning back.

Visit fueladream.com/home/campaign/90 to contribute to Viren Desai’s campaign

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