Roundabout | Cogwheels of the city through an artist’s lens
Since the late 70s Kuldip Soni has been the friendly neighbourhood lens man and now after retirement, he turns the lens eye to capture evocative frames of the city that is home to him
In 1978, a fair and chubby boy in his late teens, would often be seen at the Chandigarh College of Art, sitting with senior students and in the art circles of the dreamers of the seventh decade, ever ready to help them with their prints, so much so that one could be forgiven for mistaking him as a student of the college. This was Kuldip Soni, who would one day become chief medical photographer at PGIMER. The talents of this boy from Maira village in Hamirpur district of Himachal Pradesh were not honed in the classrooms of college, but in the hard corridors of life.
Looking back, Soni says: “My brothers were engineers living and working in Chandigarh and I moved here with them to search for a vocation. My first apprenticeship was in Vij Studio in Sector 16 as a counter boy”.
Seeing his dedication and capacity to work, he was soon moved to the dark room to develop photographs. He recalls working impossible hours from 4 am to 10 pm without complaint. The lunch-hour getaway would be to the College of Art where a relative, Dharamvir, well-known now for his skill spot graphics, was studying commercial art.
Soni was soon in contact with now well-known artists such as Raj Kumar, Sidharth, Sanjeev Soni and Diwan Manna. Through them he was a part of coveted gatherings thrown by Laali, the savant – the late intellectual Hardailjit Sidhu, listening to orations on art, literature and life by default. He then moved to Sukhvir Studio on the Panjab University campus and his skills were such that he was soon developing prints for trained art college students. Looking back, Dharamvir recalls: “The work Kuldeep put in was remarkable. His fingers were always stained yellow with the chemicals used in manual printing.”
Flight of the falcon
A memorable anecdote from the life and adventures of a photographer in the making came in the times of collective bruised psyche in Punjab after Operation Blue Star in 1984 when the baaz (falcon), mascot of Guru Gobind Singh would be seen in different gurdwaras across the state. Those days, Soni was working in the campus studio. He recalls, “One day Sardar Bhupinder Singh of the popular Punjab Sweets where students, teachers and others went for tea and pakodas came to me excited. A baaz had been spotted in the Sector 15 gurdwara and he wanted me to accompany him to take a picture”.
Our ever-helpful photographer picked up his camera and went with him. “Sure enough, a baaz was sitting on the durbar hall ceiling fan. I was short and not able to capture the frame. So, the tall Bhupinderji picked me up and placed me on his shoulders and I was able to click a picture,” he says.
What followed is worth recounting. The proud photographer with the rare click in his camera reached out to mentors like Raj Kumar and others, all in their 20s then. Raj decided that fortune had come knocking on their young friend’s door. A quick makeshift studio was created in Raj’s rented room, also in Sector 15, and Soni put to the task of developing prints as fast as he could. Just by word of mouth in two days some 170 photographs were sold for a fine price of ₹150 each. Raj recalls: “However, on the second day, a police gypsy landed there, inquiring whether someone was selling photos of a falcon. We thought they had come to charge us for spreading rumours. So, the makeshift studio was demolished and everything hidden,” he says.
The uniformed policemen were told that there was no one selling pictures of falcons there. The cops left disappointed because they too had come to purchase some prints. Not only had they had lost the buyers, the business was also closed.
Then and now
One has heard of late bloomers and Soni is certainly one of them, for it is only after his retirement that he got attached with the Chandigarh and Punjab Lalit Kala Akademis clicking once again at art and artists. Bheem Malhotra, CLKA chairperson, says: “Soni is a true artist, nurtured in the company of great talents pursuing art as passion, but with no sense of commerce. We would have to remind him to submit his bills for months and he would finally submit them with reluctance.”
From an assignment inthe Covid times to train the inmates in photography came a classic shot of a hand tightly clutching the door of the prison. The times of seclusion made him wander through the city mostly in the southern sectors as he lives in Sector 39, and now he has a portfolio memorable shot of the other side of the city, which people have forgotten to see in the razzmatazz of striking poses in lobbies of hotels with towering flower arrangements.
This is the time of the strange business of social media photography called a sari challenge or hairdo marathons on social media. And here Soni is finding ways of looking at the city and areas around it, finding art in bricks that are being laid and the heads that are carrying them or a young boy hanging freshly dyed dupattas. He stops two whitewash boys with paint splashed on their T-shirts and jeans to compose a frame. They grin and strike a show-stopper ramp pose. “It was so eloquent that I chose to click just the pose and not their faces,” says Soni.
Another eye-catcher is rear view of a housing board brick dwelling painted green and dotted by a greener tree. What makes the frame throb is a cleaning man with his wares intruding into the frame.
Among his portfolio are pictures that bring back to the mind lines from a poem by the poet of the city, late Kumar Vikal: “Kabhi kabhi yeh shehar/ mera bhi hota hai...kam se kam uss roz/ jab Kasauli ki surmai paharhion par parhi baraf/ Ek sanvali larhko ke dudhiya daanton si chamakti hai... (Sometimes this city is also mine/ More so on the day/ When the snow on the on the Kasauli hills sparkles like the teeth of a dark girl...).”
Back to Soni I ask, “When are you exhibiting these works?” He gives a dismissive nod as though I am disturbing his journey with a camera in hand, away from the long years in darkrooms to know his city.