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A slice of secret India

An image bank of cultural transition in India is forming through photography, writes Renuka Narayanan.

india Updated: Oct 08, 2006 17:09 IST

Besides the written histories that grab headlines through book launches, there are quiet visual records being made of India in transition by a bunch of city boys.

These photographers, mostly based in Delhi, pop up in public view sporadically, like turtles, before diving back into the teeming, roving millions of invisible India. Their images look at first like smart, new postcard views of godlings and peasants.

In fact, they are deeply personal glimpses of a complex society going about its everyday life at work, play or prayer.

Ceaseless surprise

Dinesh Khanna, nudging 50, is the leader of the pack.

Fourteen years ago, he abandoned advertising to explore India with a camera. Several exhibitions and two glossy books later, Khanna says, “I’m glad to be in a country that offers such scope. Last week I was in Varanasi, taking culture shots. This weekend I’m in Pune, shooting Wipro employees in their work environment. India is a ceaseless surprise.”

Khanna’s professional contemporary, Amit Mehra, husband of the ‘Sufi Kathak’ dancer Manjari Chaturvedi, is very sure of his metier. “Professionally, I do assignments that document a society in exciting transition. As a ‘private eye’, I want to take tradition along as I go forward. Back in Class Nine, I read something by Bernard Shaw, that if you want to destroy a country, attack its culture. That stayed with me and pushes me to document the private India ignored in news, fashion and tourism photography. Landscape, people and glimpses of how we live our lives away from the metros: I look for that India.”

Legatees of the lens

Very quietly in this genre, mostly through ‘personal work’ shown to fellow travellers like Dinesh Khanna, is Swapan Parekh.

Based in Mumbai for advertising work, he is the son of the late, legendary Kishor Parekh, the daring lensman who captured 67 stark images of the Bangladesh War in that crucial week of December 8 to December 16, 1971, the day the ceasefire was signed.

Parekh’s photojournalism made the quantum leap beyond Cartier-Bresson’s shadowy image of Nehru announcing Bapu’s death, Homai Vyarawala’s perky pictures of Congress leaders and straight historical shots of Bhakra-Nangal Dam’s inauguration. Parekh’s work in fact was an act of ownership of his history and milieu, for he made it across the border to Dhaka without press backing, at his own cost. It flung wide the photo essay for photographers like S. Paul, Raghu Rai, Bhawan Singh and Prashant Panjiar, when news magazines arrived at the end of that decade.

With this legacy, Swapan Parekh cannot restrict himself to commercial photography, however creative. He wanders on personal journeys around India, recording intimate and even forbidden sights, like child marriages. This, despite “the shoot and delete culture of today, where history is recorded and erased daily, and where photographers can choose to retract facts at the push of a button,” as he rued when jurying at last year’s World Press Photo awards.

A newer recruit, from a business background in Kerala, is George K, whose photo exhibition, Song Sung Blue, inspired by “the Beatles, Bob Dylan and Kashmir”, opened this week in Delhi.

Bubblegum blues

Unlike Khanna, Mehra and Parekh, who take their refined city eye to rural India, Anay Mann, 28, prefers to shoot his own turf, megacities Mumbai and Delhi. Mann was a fashion model until he turned photographer three years ago. But nobody would buy his work. A timely photography fellowship from the India Habitat Centre in April 2003 kept him on track and resulted in an exhibition, Generation In Transition, in November 2004. Mann’s focus is on middle class urban youth, hanging out on a Mumbai rooftop, jamming at home, blowing bubblegum: “Rebellion and conformity form the two extremes that challenge this generation,” is how his subjects are described. Mann works now as a fashion photographer. It helps that his work has been published in Fortune and Der Spiegel.

But perhaps the best story about taking ownership of India through image is Dayanita Singh’s, the woman in the boy’s club, which has now passed into professional folklore. Asked a decade ago to shoot images of prostitutes in Mumbai’s Falkland Road for a foreign glossy, Singh reportedly suffered a revulsion of feeling at her voyeur’s role. She switched to documenting ‘her India’, the affluent drawing room society of Delhi and other metros. Equally, she shot a poignant visual treatise on Mona, a Delhi hijra. For Singh, as for the rest, ‘shooting Indian’ is clearly both art and an act of belonging.