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Delhi lensman photographs Himachal’s broke-back mountains

Vadehra Gallery hosts Roy’s exhibition. Ram Rahman curates it.

delhi Updated: Dec 18, 2017 06:36 IST
Paramita Ghosh
Paramita Ghosh
Hindustan Times
Vicky Roy,Salaam Balak photographer,Vicky Roy MIT fellowship
Vicky Roy, a documentary photographer, at Vadehra Art Gallery, Delhi, which is hosting his exhibition This Scarred Land: New Mountainscapes. (Sanchit Khanna/HT Photo)

Vicky Roy, now 29, who ran away from home in West Bengal when he was 11, could have been lost on the streets of Delhi. But with a camera in hand, he found himself. The son of a tailor-master from Purulia, he lived in the New Delhi railway station for a year; he was later rehabilitated at a shelter home run by the Salaam Balak Trust. When he picked up a camera for the first time as a 17 year old, he shot his old haunts, the platform, slum kids in states of sleep, at play, in black and white. This part of his “life story” that has become the inevitable nut ’graph of any story to do with him, he naturally now wants to shake off.

The reason why we are talking of him today is the mounting of a remarkable 72-picture photography exhibition This Scarred Land -- his fourth solo show -- at the Vadehra Art Gallery in south Delhi. This is the story of Vicky Roy’s eye and what he saw when he looked at a mountain for the first time.

“I went to Himachal Pradesh in 2001. What came to my mind when I saw the mountains was that we leave our cities thinking here we will find peace. I saw that here, too, we will not get it as we haven’t left the mountains in peace,” says Roy, an earnest boy in jeans who speaks haltingly but moves assuredly between his landscapes framed on the walls of the gallery to stop before some of the photographs that would halt anyone in their tracks.

Shimla, 2017 (Photo: Sanchit Khanna / HT Photo)
The Swan river gone dry, Katour Khad, Himachal Pradesh (Sanchit Khanna / HT Photo)

A river killed to build a bridge; bulldozed houses stand abandoned so as to widen a road; a hill-station choc-a-bloc with lodgings; naked unfinished terraces through which iron rods jut out and up like exclamation marks on the mountain-side; cranes, forklifts and other massive earth-moving equipment irresponsibly left behind in wait for a better time to take up further construction or demolition….

Roy talks of how he saw all this and offers a picturesque description for one of his photographs. At the Kee village in Lahaul Spiti, he was present on the scene when a huge water pipeline was being laid in 2016. “The stone-crushing machine seemed to be like a spaceship descended from the skies…. I understand that roads need to be built. In Switzerland, too, they take rail and electric lines to the top of a mountain, build hotels, but according to a plan. There must be a better way of doing these things here. We are just playing with nature here,” he adds.

Roy’s work is certainly not in the Samuel Bourne tradition of 19th century British colonial photography of the Himalayas whose main purpose seems to have been to make pretty pictures that could be posted back home to satisfy curiosity about The Orient.

Poo, Himachal Pradesh, 2015 (Sanchit Khanna / HT Photo )

Acclaimed contemporary photographer and exhibition designer Ram Rahman, who has curated this exhibition, says, Roy’s photographs “overturn all expectations of landscape photography. Made entirely in Himachal Pradesh, they are remarkable documents of the hand of man on what was ‘Dev Bhumi’ – a sacred land. Instead, we are presented with a vision of a scarred land, where man and machine are gouging the earth on a Himalayan scale. These are no landscapes of Nainsukh or Roerich – vistas of romance or mystical power”.

Shaped by the social and political upheavals of the flower power and the anti-war movements, young American photographers of the sixties, Rahman observes, were looking at the “American landscape with a cool, unsentimental and detached eye and formal strategies. This generation was seeing the effects of industrial and technological development on the American landscape with a critical eye. Roy had stumbled onto a similar vision decades later in a totally different culture”.

But why this focus on Himachal Pradesh? Isn’t deforestation and denudation common to all of India’s mountains? “I tried to keep the focus narrow so as to give it depth. I mean first there is the story and then you make a movie,” explains the photographer, who ran around these mountains “very close” to his heart for five years, to first study the extent of deterioration and then lug his camera, lights and tripod when he had decided where and what he wanted to shoot.

“I would put up a post on Facebook, mentioning where I was going and ask people to join me. That way I was able to split costs on travel to the 12 districts and get help in carrying the equipment,” he says.

Bara-lacha pass, Himachal Pradesh, 2017 (Sanchit Khanna / HT Photo)

Anay Mann, the well-known portrait photographer, who mentored Roy, says he made good of his opportunities. In 2008, Roy was selected by the Maybach Foundation of US to photo document the reconstruction of the World Trade Center in New York. In 2014, he was awarded an MIT Media Lab fellowship. “He started out right and went on building on his strengths,” says Mann. “He has a keen sense of light.”

So far, Roy has chosen to go black and white in two of his earlier three exhibitions. “Black and white is neutral so your eye will remain on what I actually want to show in a photograph,” says Roy. “Had these photos been in colour, you would have first seen the blue sky, and then looked at the green trees and then the debris on the mountainside.”

What is his next work? “I’m a documentary photographer and I like to work on something long-term, ideally for 4-5 years,” he says. In between, he meets old friends; he works on his assignments in commercial photography. Now reconciled with his parents, he visits home when he can. Has he ever clicked the home he once left behind? “Yes. But it’s personal. Not everything I touch or see is for a project.”

DETAILS

What: This Scarred Land: New Mountainscapes

Where: Vadehra Art Gallery, D 53 Defence Colony

When: Till December 30, 11 am-7pm

Nearest metro station: Lajpat nagar

First Published: Dec 14, 2017 19:19 IST