Memories of a master

Prabuddha Dasgupta, the reclusive lensman who also epitomised the glamour of the Eighties, died last year. But his photographs remain a powerful testament to his prodigious talent, writes Aasheesh Sharma.
Updated on Sep 21, 2013 07:12 PM IST
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Hindustan Times | ByAasheesh Sharma

One of the best-known Indian photographers in the world, Prabuddha Dasgupta is the inspiration behind the theme of this year’s Delhi Photo Festival. In August 2012, the 55-year-old fashion photographer died in Alibaug, Maharashtra, following a heart attack. The previous year, at the first edition of the festival organised by Dinesh Khanna and Prashant Panjiar of the Nazar Foundation, Dasgupta had addressed a packed house of photographers, models, designers and enthusiasts. “I want to have a long string of images held together by grace, because grace is that indefinable, non-rational, non-linear word that I am looking for,” Prabuddha had said.

Khanna says he had promised to hold a workshop for young photographers in 2013. It is fitting then that this year’s festival, which begins on September 27, has ‘Grace’ as its theme, as a tribute to Prabuddha.

Frames of nostalgia
A History graduate from Hindu College, Dasgupta began as a copywriter with the advertising agency Everest. He took up the camera full-time in the late ’80s and shot to fame in 1996 with Women, his controversial book of portraits and nudes of urban Indian women. Prabuddha might have been known as the master of the monochrome, but there was a dichotomy in his public persona and the man who was doted upon by the glitterati. He was a recluse on one hand and a caring father-figure to young lensmen on the other. Writer William Dalrymple, who worked with him on Edge of Faith, a photo book on Goa’s Catholic community, says he represented the irreverence of Delhi in the ’80s. “Rohit Khosla and Rohit Bal, along with Prabuddha, invented glamour in India. I felt glamorous just being with him.”

Feroze Gujral and Suneet Varma in the shoot that won Prabuddha Dasgupta the Yves Saint Laurent grant for photography in 1991 Photos Copyright: the estate of Prabuddha Dasgupta
Feroze Gujral and Suneet Varma in the shoot that won Prabuddha Dasgupta the Yves Saint Laurent grant for photography in 1991 Photos Copyright: the estate of Prabuddha Dasgupta

In the grey zone...
Prabuddha worked closely with the first wave of Indian supermodels such as Madhu Sapre, Feroze Gujral and Mehr Jesia. His shot of Gujral for Suneet Varma (see pix, right) won him the Yves Saint Laurent grant for photography in 1991. But Prabuddha’s elder brother Pradeep, a seasoned advertising photographer, says his personal life was disconnected from the glitzy world of fashion. “The Prabuddha I grew up with didn’t like to socialise,” he says. “If you are working in advertising, it is imperative that you hang out with people and pretend to have a great time. But at the core, he was not an extrovert.” Fashion designer Suneet Varma was part of Prabuddha’s inner circle. “In many ways, he was like my older brother. I smoked my first cigarette with him. My first drink, a rum and Coke, was on the terrace of his home.” As Varma’s rapport with Prabuddha grew, they shared their most intimate emotions, he says. “When my father passed away, Prabuddha came over and for weeks on end, I shared with him the grief I felt. He was privy to some of my biggest personal secrets including being in a relationship with my partner for many years,” the designer adds.

Varma describes Prabuddha as “nurturing and loving.” It is this side of the photographer, someone who went out of his way to encourage youngsters, which finds resonance with leading fashion photographer Tarun Khiwal, who apprenticed with him for two years. “I discarded all the notions I had about photography,” Khiwal says. “Prabuddha taught me to engage with my subjects at a deeper level.”

What lies beneath…
All three of Prabuddha’s photo books – themed on women, Ladakh and Goa – were lauded for their sweep of imagery and stunning images, barring a review in a newsweekly where journalist-author Raj Kamal Jha wrote that the nudes in Women didn’t look intimate and were simply “chewing gum for the eyes.”

David Davidar, who was the head of Penguin India when its imprint Viking Books published Women, says Prabuddha brought an unusual quality to his photographs. It is a quality Mehr Jesia-Rampal, one of India’s original supermodels, attests to. “He had the knack of bringing out the woman in me.” His style of working was unhurried and relaxed, says Madhu Sapre, regarded as one of the first international faces of Indian fashion along with models Shyamolie Verma and Mehr Jesia. “The first time we shot together, he wanted my look to be dramatic but not overly made-up,” recalls Sapre.

Sapre went on to do a number of unforgettable shoots with him, including a shoe commercial featuring a python, fellow model Milind Soman and little else, which generated much sound and fury. “At the time we shot the campaign, I was dating Milind. The agency said they needed an athletic couple for a classy campaign on the lines of those shot by world-renowned photographer Bruce Weber. I went ahead in good faith. But Pramod Navalkar politicised the issue and I ended up being embroiled in court cases,” says Sapre.
Some of the happiest times the brothers Dasgupta spent together were on holidays taken together in hippie joints such as Nepal and Manali. Losing a brother is something Pradeep is still struggling to come to terms with. “My moment of grief was of my own making. I always took the elder brother’s role very seriously,” he says. “I was critical of a lot of stuff he was doing. My regret is that I could have let that be and treated him on an equal footing as a person. We would have been closer.”

Things fall apart...
The father of two daughters, Prabuddha separated from his wife Tania and began dating Lakshmi Menon, a supermodel 15 years younger to him. A few years back, he moved in with his ‘long-time muse’. Dalrymple says he loved the time he spent interviewing people for Edge of Faith and staying in the modest three-room flat that Prabuddha shared in north Goa with Lakshmi.

Prabuddha’s last book was very different from the sort of work he was associated with, adds Dalrymple. “It didn’t promise beauty or sex or youth. It was about Goa’s old people and traditions. It was about the decay and melancholy ..., where you get a constant feeling that something is falling apart.”

During his lifetime, Prabuddha touched innumerable lives. It is a measure of his appeal that the country’s best-known models, publishers, authors and designers were keen to be part of a story that revisits his remarkable legacy.

The prabuddha I knew: India’s biggest models, publishers, authors and designers on the man and his work

“Prabuddha had the knack of bringing out the sense of the woman in me. Before him, photographers had just treated me like an effervescent girl”
Mehr Jesia-Rampal, former beauty queen, supermodel

“His last book was the opposite of all that the magazines that featured his work promised. It didn’t have beauty or sex or youth”
William dalrymple, who wrote in Edge of Faith, Prabuddha’s photo book on Goa

“He was like my older brother. He was privy to some of my most personal secrets – including being in a relationship with my partner for many years”
Suneet Varma, fashion designer

“Prabuddha was the best photographer I have worked with, ever”
Madhu Sapre, former Miss India and supermodel

“The photos were so interesting I felt they would go beyond the appeal that is reserved for a book of nude photography”
David Davidar, founder Aleph Book Company, who published Prabuddha’s first book

From HT Brunch, September 22

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