1. What is your earliest memory of how or what attracted you to photography?
The first image that I remember being attracted to was the calendar art in my home. These were reprints of paintings portraying gods and goddesses with a comprehensive paraphernalia and panoply of affluence. These calendars were all around us. I remember my visits to the barber who had these life-size calendars framed and hung on the walls of his salon. I recall one vividly; a woman in a white sari sat forlornly near a pond. Her face lit by the ashen moon; the lotuses drooping, as if singing a dirge in unison. Was she waiting for her lover? The scene was underwritten by an advertisement for a brand of sari.
2. You started out as a photographer and then progressed to making films. Why did you feel the need to do this? Was the photograph in itself not sufficient?
I arrived at the hallowed gates of cinema through the rigor of photography. I undertook the journey not because I found photography limiting; rather, I found cinema to be the most profound form of human expression – a cauldron for all the forms of art. For me, the cardinal consideration is that, in photography, the specificity of ‘time’ is well defined; whereas, through cinema, one can sculpt ‘time.’ For me, one of the greatest human achievements is this remarkable power that cinema vests in a filmmaker.
3. How has your education in English literature and then mass communication at the Mass Communication Research Centre at Jamia Millia University (MCRC) informed your practice?
Studying English literature and mass communication helped me develop my faculties to critically analyze and creatively engage with a work of art. They introduced me to the wide spectrum of arts practice and helped me find my own distinct voice. I was also fortunate to find great teachers and fascinating friends, whom I value greatly.
Raj Shekhar Pant, who taught us English in school, inspired me through his writing and photography. Sunil Dua at Hindu College (at Delhi University) taught us Greek tragedy through inventive flow charts on the blackboard, and detours through musicology and cinema studies. He also introduced us to world cinema and encouraged us to engage with it critically. Shohini Ghosh at MCRC routinely drew us into debates on moral complexity in a work of art and in life. Most importantly, she taught us to question hegemonic narratives and majoritarian demagoguery, learnings that seem to be out of fashion now. It was in college that I met my now collaborator, Shirley Abraham. Without her brilliance, I believe my art would be much poorer.
4. As a photographer, did you start out using the analog and then progress to the digital? If so, do you still use film?
I began photographing in the mid 1990s; beginning with analog photography. I moved to a digital camera around 2009.
5. Digital technology has changed photography drastically over the last few years. Did you initially embrace the changes or resist them? Do you believe the changes have been good for the medium or not?
I embraced the switch to digital technology. The new technology truly brought photography into the hands of the masses. And due to these ongoing technological advancements, the future of the medium is incredibly exciting. Very soon, we will be able to step in a photograph and experience it. I can’t wait!
But I am usually wary of discussions centered around camera technology and the rapidly advancing technical specifications. It doesn’t excite me. It’s a futile agony; Moore’s law tells us that much. I continue to use the first digital camera that I had bought a decade ago. For me, a camera is merely a tool. What I look for in a tool, foremost, is the degree of comfort in using it; and further, it should allow me to craft the story I want to tell. I would only go out looking for a new tool if a certain technical specification is necessary. Let’s say, if I want to photograph in a part of electromagnetic spectrum other than the visible one.
Once a wizened old man, who could not finish middle school and went on to invent a cinema projector, told me that the story of human progress is not of technological obsolescence, but rather of human imagination.
6. In your opinion, is it important to have formal training in photography?
None whatsoever – unless one wants to be a cog in the capitalistic empire.
Formal education has historically occupied itself with creating replicas that could easily be assimilated in the system – bureaucratic or capitalistic. We have to begin investing in people as individuals.
7. If you were to design a photo program for aspiring photographers in India, what would it look like?
In my ideal school for artists, I would invest in nurturing minds instead of making them photographers or filmmakers. I believe great art wells up from a deep place of empathy; hence it is imperative to invest in artists as people, first. In my school, the focus would be on self-learning and the role of advisors would be to guide us to newer perspectives and ways of seeing. I imagine no evaluation or degree at this school. I would hope that students from such a school would step out and forge their own paths.
8. What usually draws you to work on a certain idea? Does it come as a gut feeling, or after analysis or research? Is it because of some memory? Or is it because of something that you are really concerned about?
It’s a curious mix of all that you mention. Some ideas stem from memory, others come as an urgent response to the contemporary moment, but all go through a rigorous period of research and analysis. I love this phase of reading, watching, and annotating, as it immerses me into a hitherto unknown world. Of course, not all of this research finds room in my work, but it allows me contemplation on the human condition, which forms the core of all of my work.
9. While working on projects, do they typically run in parallel or do you focus on one project at a time?
I am morbidly focused on one thing at a time. Sometimes I feel that such a narrow focus is not allowing me to be prolific, but on better days I count it as my strength.
10. When you put together a series of images, what is your process for creating the narrative of the story?
When I am editing, I usually begin with an image (or a scene in a film) that encapsulates the core of the story. I hope for this to become a generative image around which the rest of the story will organically bloom. It never does unfold with this beautiful simplicity. Rather, editing is pure drudgery. It is like being in a cave, chiseling away at a rock. Hopefully, it becomes meditative after a while. As the world recedes from my consciousness, I turn my attention to finding the organizing principle of the story. This principle keeps me tethered to the core; amongst the various directions that the story might take me to. Then comes the question of context, for the story as a whole and further, for each and every image. It’s an excruciating cycle of reevaluation in the pursuit of “new meaning.”
“New meaning” is an eternal quest, as I learned from working with legendary film editor, Jonathan Oppenheim. You begin your story with a certain intention. You strive for this intention to reflect in your filming. If you learned something new while filming (hopefully you did), then the intention has to evolve, too. You carry this intention to the editing room. As you begin to assemble the story, pulling it out from the dense fog of your brain, you find your intention naked – in the stark light of logic and reason. You feel embarrassed, depressed. But you have to find your story in this disparate material. Moreover, you want your work to foray into the world on its own, and to engage in a conversation. For that to happen, you have to breathe life into your material, give it a definite shape, body, and intellect. As this creature begins to breathe, acquiring a body and intellect of its own, it will reject things it does not agree with. Like the wrong blood type in one’s body. Or, worse still, a vital organ: a heart that is not in sync with its new body. The ‘meaning’ that was calibrated with your ‘intention’ is no good any longer. What do you do now? You have to find ‘new meaning’ in context of this newly assembled body until the creature becomes an organic whole. You have to question, re-evaluate every bit that now constitutes this body. It is a vicious cycle spiraling into the unknown.
11. Who or what has inspired you to pursue photography and/or continues to do so?
Inspiration is the daily measure of a shovel of coal. It keeps the fire blazing. So, I count innumerable artists including Gabriel García Márquez, Munshi Premchand, U.R. Ananthamurthy, Pieter Bruegel, Umberto Eco, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Marc Chagall, and Werner Herzog as my inspiration.
It’s the sheer magic of photography, inherent in the medium that continues to stimulate me. I remain beguiled by the simple fact that a photograph congeals time and doesn’t always show what we see in it.
12. Is there a book, an exhibition or a body of work that has really impressed you and maybe even influenced your work / life?
The last few years I have been investing myself in reading cosmology, evolutionary biology, and quantum mechanics. Mostly through popular science books, like The Feynman Lectures on Physics (by Richard Feynman, Robert B. Leighton, and Matthew Sands, Addison-Wesley, Boston, 1964), Cycles of Time (by Roger Penrose, The Bodley Head, London, 2010), The Blind Watchmaker (by Richard Dawkins, W.W. Norton & Co., New York, 1986), and The Trouble with Physics (by Lee Smolin, Houghton-Mifflin, Harcourt, Boston, 2006). This study has opened my mind to the wonders of the world and our place in this universe. It has guided me to deeper contemplations on the meaning of the work that I create. Through this journey, I believe I am approaching a fertile phase of my creative life.
13. Could you describe a time when you found yourself creatively ‘stuck?’ How did you come around to dealing with it?
Over the years, I have learned that getting creatively ‘stuck’ is sometimes a romantic notion; mostly it’s sheer procrastination. Yet, I often fall into this trap and then berate myself.
Though being ‘stuck’ in the tentacles of the story with no passage in sight is an unavoidable part of the process. Jonathan Oppenheim, the legendary film editor, once told me, “There are days of sorrow on every film, you just have to wrestle with them. Compliance is a moving target.” So, I am learning to embrace such days of sorrow and simply try to show up at work.
14. How do you measure success or that a body of work is going well?
On a good day, making images is like levitating. Your intention is a good guide, but you can free-float.
When you arrive at the process of assembling images, it feels akin to stitching together a monster. You want this creature to speak a cohesive language and forge out into the world on its own. Of course, I lean greatly on the intellect of my colleagues and friends in shaping this monster. The day my Frankenstein monster begins to speak, I consider it a success.
15. How much effort do you put into getting your work shown? Is this important to you? Does showing your work feed your creative process or does it distract from it?
Creating art, for me, is a deeply selfish act. I make up stories to nourish my own soul. And then, a bit of narcissism takes over and I want to showcase my monster to the world. Hoping to reap some acknowledgement, and maybe appreciation. When people – even if they are few – find meaning in my work, it encourages me. I feel happier that I created a small ripple in the cultural currents of this world. How far will that ripple travel? I am not concerned with that.
16. Do you feel that there are adequate opportunities and avenues to share / show your work in India, or do you always look for such opportunities abroad?
The opportunities to showcase one’s work in India have increased manyfold in the last few years. But for a nation as large and diverse as ours, these opportunities are woefully small.
17. Do you think there is a universal language that photography uses? Are Indian photographers finding that they are judged by western criteria and standards?
Photography is indeed universal in this digital age. To the extent, that no other art form in the history of human civilization, has been so democratically accessible to people.
Despite this democratization, the standards to judge ‘professional’ photography have remained western. It is pitiable that the west continues to have an index of photography coming out of India, or from the ‘developing’ world at large. This index is historically prejudiced towards the stories that photographers from the ‘developing’ world are expected to tell. Since most of the hallowed institutions of photography are in the west, what they endorse, showcase, and award becomes the template for photographers in our part of the world to follow.
This hegemony has to be resisted at multiple levels. Firstly, we have to create work that we believe in, that is culturally nuanced, complex, and speaks to our home audiences. Secondly, we have to constructively critique the work made by the west concerning our representation. Lastly, and the most difficult of the lot, is to build strong institutions in our part of the world – institutions that strengthen the voices of indigenous artists and encourage and endorse their ways of seeing.
18. How would an interested collector go about buying your work?
PHOTOINK represents my recent work, The Cinema Travellers.
19. With your years of experience, of the lessons you have l learned, what is the one thing you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
That it’s okay to fail. I learned this lesson just a few years ago at a Sundance Institute Lab. And I am eternally grateful for this lesson.
20. If you didn’t do photography, what is the next best thing you would like to be doing?
I want to write.
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