In September 2001, I was in the village of Basgo, one of the four ancient capitals of Ladakh,” says photographer Prabir Purkayastha, 54. “The main monastery in Basgo is about 600 years old. I was helping a dear friend — His Highness Jigmed Wangchuk Namgyal of Ladakh — photograph the sad decay and ravages of time in this exquisite house of god.”
It was 4 pm and Purkayastha was exhausted and desperate. He had been taking pictures since 11 a.m. and did not have the time to eat or drink. “I wanted to go back home,” he says. “Just when I thought it was time to leave, my friend asked me to go to a smaller monastery and photograph it too.”
In this old and desolate monastery, there was a 16 foot tall bronze statue of Maitreya. “As I looked upon the radiant face, glowing like burnished gold, in the rays of the setting sun, I saw molten and shining tears streaming down the cheeks!” says Purkayastha, as he rapidly took photographs.
Purkayastha was stunned into silence and disbelief. He showed this amazing phenomenon to His Highness who insisted they leave the monastery immediately. Next morning, on the flight back to Delhi, he was introduced to His Holiness, the Gyalwang Karmapa. When he was told about the phenomenon, the Karmapa was also speechless. He had never seen nor heard of such a thing.
A few weeks later, a curious Purkayasta went back to Basgo. This time, when he looked in through the roof, he got a shock: “I saw golden rays of sunbeams streaming from Maitreya’s eyes — glowing like a million suns all blazing together,” he says. “The tears had dried up but His eyes were alight with wonderment. I always show this picture, with the light shining in Maitreya’s eyes, in all my exhibitions.”
In Purkayastha’s decade-long love affair with Ladakh, a mysterious land with myriad moods, this has been one of his most astounding experiences.
Asked about the influences on his art, Purkayastha says that, in his early years, he was struck by the complete mastery of light and powerful compositions of the old masters — Rembrandt, Rubens, Jan Vermeer, Leonardo da Vinci and Masaccio. “To this day, when I create a picture I think about their artistry rather than that of any other photographer,” he says, and adds, “Because I also love Caravaggio's work, from the 17th century, Baroque Art has also been emotionally imprinted onto my photographic psyche.”
In his exhibition ‘Zendo’, there are pictures of Ladakh’s mountains, lakes, valleys and of deserts, shot with deep affection and respect. Even though the environment dominates in most photographs, the striking images are of people: an old man, sitting on his haunches, his face ravaged by age, wearing a weather-beaten cloak, a couple of sticks in his hands, in a rock strewn desolate landscape and yet, in his eyes, there is such an acceptance of life that you are transfixed to the spot.
Then, there is an image, in light and shade, of the late Bakula Rinpoche, the head lama of Ladakh and India’s Ambassador to Mongolia. It is a face of tremendous character and serenity and Purkayastha has caught it perfectly. As he has, the tranquillity of some elderly nuns.
The Gurgaon-based former advertising professional is eloquent about his love for Ladakh. “When you trek across a lake that dried up a million years ago, at 14,000 feet and with barely enough oxygen to keep you alive, you stop thinking of this mundane world,” says Purkayastha. “You are no longer who you are. This freedom from the superficial self is more than a breath of fresh air. You are one with the astounding beauty all around you. It’s magic! And that’s why I travel back to Ladakh. Time after time.” In 2005, he published a coffee table book, called Ladakh.
Talking to visitors at the gallery, on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, Fashutana Patel, 20, feels the photographs look like muted paintings. While collegian Nergish Sunavala, who admires Purkayastha’s technique, wonders whether any of the images have been digitally manipulated.
Purkayastha explains why the photographs look the way they do. “I was desperate to photograph Ladakh only as my mind’s eye viewed it,” he says.
After many experiments, with films and processing techniques, he said the best effect came when he used Kodak Technical Pan film.
“My portraits have a dark, moody appearance where the highlights and shadow details glow like polished pearls,” he says adding that he only uses ambient light, and that, too, at a select time of day or year. “During winter, depending on the quantity and brightness of the snow, I use the natural light. And by then pushing the film speed, I am now able to create images that look like charcoal paintings. No digital wizardry. No darkroom manipulation. Just pure photography! What more could a photographer ask for!”