1:1 with Mahesh Bhat

1. What is your earliest memory of how or what attracted you to photography?


I had just completed 12th standard and was incredibly bored of my formal school education. It was one of my cousins, Rajendra Kumar, who used to be an extraordinary amateur photographer and had a great influence on me. It was seeing him work, making black & white images and processing B/W film that really fascinated me. This was in the ’80s and he was using all these beautiful cameras – Nikons, Bronicas, and holding them just seemed magical.


Also, I grew up in Mangalore, with the Western Ghats at one end, and even when I was 16 years old I was always attracted towards nature. When I got to see the famous Bedi brothers’ works on wildlife, it had a huge impact on me. Later on, the photo essays by Raghu Rai, Prashant Panjiar, and others in India Today were an inspiration. So was the work of the great photographer André Kertész.


2. What have you studied and how has that informed your photographic practice?


I had enrolled to study in a BSc program after 12th as a time pass, but by then I had already been introduced to photography and I decided to quit my studies to pursue a career as a photographer. To quit my education in the mid ’80s was quite revolutionary for that time. The only person who supported this decision was S.Paul sahab. I was visiting Delhi in 1986 and went to meet him. I remember that day, he was getting ready to go to Bharatpur for the Indian Express to photograph a fire that had broken out there. His son was sitting there, as well. I can’t recall if it was Dheeraj or Neeraj. Anyway, after seeing my work, he said that to quit my studies would be the best decision I could make. Perhaps he saw something in my work, otherwise he would have asked me to pack my bags and go home.


3. Are you self-taught as a photographer? If so, how did you inform yourself about the medium – the techniques, the language, and the aesthetics of it?


It was my cousin, Rajendra Kumar, whom I refer to as my first guru, who taught me the techniques and the basics of composition, tones, color, etc. I delved more deeply by looking at other photographers’ works, which was not so easy to come by in those days. Rajendra had also subscribed to American Photo, plus other magazines, which I devoured. He gave some magazines to me, which I still have. I eventually subscribed to American Photo, as well, which would arrive after a month of its publication. And that basically was it. Another of my mentors was Yajna, who is a Mangalore-based photojournalist. I used to take my work to him for critiques. He taught me the basics of composition.


Because I was processing my B/W film and making prints on my own, I wanted to lay my hands on Ansel Adams’s The Print and the Negative. However, there was no way of getting hold of this, as no bookstore had even heard of it in India. So I wrote to the United States Information Service in Chennai, who were kind enough to lend me a copy of the book from their library for a month. They sent it to me in Bangalore by registered post. So, basically, it was that difficult to get access to books.


4. Do you think it is important to receive a formal training in photography?


Yes, I truly think so. I was the first person in the country to introduce a 3-year program in photography with Shantanu Sheorey at his One School in Goa. I see that this education has really impacted my students and they are doing quite good work. Not every person who studies photography ends up being a photographer, but those who do are proving themselves to be quite good. They keep coming back and acknowledge that whatever skills they have are because of their training. Teaching them the technique is easy, however helping them to see and find their own voice is my philosophy of teaching.


I wanted to study at ICP in New York, however the tuition fee for a year was $10,000 (U.S.), and that was a hell of a lot of money in those days. I knew Dayanita Singh and Swapan Pareikh studied there, and I so wanted to do the same 3-year program that ICP offered in the ’80s, but I just couldn’t afford it. One could do an MBA or an engineering course at that time by getting an assistantship as scholarship for the entire tuition fees, which my brother was able to do. My parents didn’t have to shell out a penny. But there was nothing like that offered for photography.


5. You have been teaching photography for some time now. If you were to design a photography program for young Indian photographers, what would it look like?


I would make the course a 3-year program. Whether it’s a degree course or a diploma doesn’t much matter. Yes, a degree is important from a marketing point of view, as people prefer to get a degree rather than a diploma. As a course, the 3-year program would have mentorships and workshops. It would take 3 years to help students build their own vision. The course would focus on various forms of liberal arts and other art forms – cinema, literature, painting, and sculpture. It would have various artists and photographers come to take the workshops.


6. 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 started with film, embraced the digital, and now have returned happily to film again. I teach at Srishti Institute of Art, Design & Technology in Bangalore and we have recently set up this fantastic darkroom from scratch. Fortunately, Ilford has come back in a big way. After 25 years, I stepped into the darkroom and processed a B/W 120 roll of film, shot on a 70-year-old Rolliecord.


In my opinion, digital just cannot match the tactility and the indescribable poetic beauty of film. Yes, digital is convenient to shoot for assignments in terms of quick turnaround, for instance, but it’s nothing like shooting film.


Having said that, I began working digitally on my images quite early, when Photoshop 3.0 came out. It was so long ago, I can’t even remember what year that was. It is the post-digital use of the mobile camera that bothers me. It has reduced the significance of the image. I am not for the argument that the medium has become more democratic and that everyone now is a photographer. Any mobile phone with a good camera will take technically sound images. However, to tell a real story, you need to be a photographer.


7. 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 something that you are really concerned about?


The ideas that I work on come absolutely through feelings. All my projects are totally intuitive and they emerge from the heart. As artists, when we receive stimuli, we need to resonate, the word is spandana – and my work always is the result of this spandana. Choreographer Chandralekha spoke to me about this in the mid ’90s, and it has always remained with me. I am into publishing, as well, and I am always asked, “Who is your target audience?” And I say that I have no target audience. Whoever will be interested in my book will pick it up and read it.


8. While working on projects, do they typically run in parallel or do you focus on one project at a time?


Multiple projects run parallel to each other. I have always hoped to pursue one project at a time, but I guess it’s my personality that makes me work on many things at the same time.


9. You make both photos and film. However, what do you enjoy more, being a photographer or a filmmaker?


I enjoy being both, equally. I have been making documentary films for quite a long time now – since the mid ’90s – however, one had to lug around huge cameras then. So making films is nothing really new for me. I switched to making films digitally as it just made more business sense to do so. Technology certainly has helped in making it possible, as well. A good DSLR is able to make very high quality videos and shoot the moving image very well. Also, editing has come onto the desktop – that makes it easy. I have always liked the motion picture – the use of sound and music and other various elements, and then putting them all together.


At the moment I am not shooting much other than assignments, as I am putting together my archive of 30-35 years of photography – scanning old negatives, and streamlining all the work.


10. Who or what has inspired you to pursue photography and/or continues to do so?


There are many artists, photographers, and filmmakers who have been an inspiration. Music and literature; inspiration has come from various sources. An artist needs to resonate to stimuli that you receive every day. I always mention to my students that it is how we resonate that is very important.


11. Is there a book, an exhibition, or a body of work that has really impressed you and maybe even influenced your work / life?


More than photography books, reading literature has been a great influence. 100 Years of Solitude by Garcia Marquez, writings by Kannada writer Yeshwantha Chithala, Shivarama Karantha, and Faiz Ahmed Faiz – they have greatly influenced my work. And more than literature, it has sometimes been the people with whom I have interacted who have left a deep impression on me. For instance, it was during the beginnings of my project Unsung in 1996, there was a chance meeting with a woman on a train journey between Nagpur and Bhopal – that experience has stayed with me until today. I recently met a tribal while working inside a wildlife sanctuary for a book project. And while interacting with him, he talked about how wild elephants were suffering, as there was no rain, and wondered how drinking water could be arranged for them. He said that they need water, and that they too breathe the same air as us. And for me, this was quite a profound moment. So, people who are deeply connected and work closely with earth have a great influence on me.


12. Could you describe a time when you found yourself creatively ‘stuck?’ Is there something that is particularly helpful to you in overcoming this?


It has happened to me once. It was during the mid ’90s that I stopped photography for a while and opened a design company. However, that proved to be a disaster, the company went bust and I returned to photography. Since then, not even once have I been stuck creatively. I recently read an interview of S. Paul, where he says that there was a certain fire in him that kept him shooting every single day of his life, in Delhi itself, until he was bed ridden. I take inspiration from that.


Also, in 2015, we had the Goa International Photo Festival at The One School Goa, and we had David Turnley and William Allard, who is in his 80s, visiting. I went to pick them up from the airport and they had their cameras out and shot for 2 hours until we reached where they were staying. Now, when I see this kind of commitment, I get motivated. I don’t find myself getting stuck at all.


13. When you put together a series of images, what is your process while creating the narrative of the story?


If I am doing a book, I keep visiting and revisiting what I am photographing. And this comes from what Gordon Parks once said, “If you want to be a photographer, you have to have something to say.” So, for me, what is important is to figure out what I want to say and then make images that say exactly that. And I have realized that, when I started working on a project where I didn’t have much to say, it just didn’t work out and fell apart.


14. You started a magazine called LIGHT in 1996. What was your inspiration for starting this? Why, after only 3 issues, did you have to discontinue?


I was doing a lot of advertising photography then, and the creative atmosphere in the country was pretty boring. There was no internet and we didn’t have much access to information and inspiration from across the world. LIGHT was born then as a magazine on Visual Thinking. LIGHT featured photographers, graphic designers, playwrights, choreographers, etc. The magazine didn’t have any advertising. Well, there weren’t many advertisers, either. Camera companies were not present in India, then. LIGHT was clearly ahead of its time. I managed to publish three issues in three years, though it was supposed to be a quarterly, then money ran out. Perhaps I didn’t know how to raise funds. People remember the magazine even today!


Since there was no internet when I started the magazine, my first interview with Albert Watson had to be done over the telephone. It used to cost INR 60 per minute to call the U.S. So, I spent about INR 1800 (in 1996) for the 30-minute interview over three telephone calls!


My good friend Phillippe Dsouza designed the magazine. The name LIGHT was suggested by graphic designer T V Narayan. Print Systems & Products did the prepress work practically free of charge. Pragati (Hyderabad) and Akhila HiTech Graphics (Bangalore) printed at cost. Balki, who was then the creative director at Lintas (now Lowe), and photographers Sudhir Ramachandran, D Radhakrishnan, and Suresh Natarajan supported us financially.


Perhaps it’s time now to restart it!


I have photographed the old issues, made pdfs, and hosted them on ISSUU so that everyone can read it. These are the links:





15. How do you measure success or that a body of work is going well?


It’s largely through my own sense of understanding. I truly feel there is a lack of great photo editors in India who can edit one’s work. Having said that, the measure of success for me is to see whether the project has been able to achieve what it set out to. For example, my Unsung project is quite successful. What started out as a book, became two books and a show. The first book was able to raise rupees 90 lakhs, which was given for the cause and issues featured in the book. When the second book came out, more photographers, artists, and writers came onboard to work. This eventually led to the formation of The Unsung Foundation, where in I have established a photography grant in the memory of my dear friend, H. Jayadeva, who was a great champion of photography. He was the force behind the Mytec Directory of Photographers, which came out in the ’80s & ’90s – a very important publication for its time, and an important chapter in the history of Indian photography.


16. 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?


It is important for me that my work be seen, and for me the medium of choice is the book. I have done three books in the past, and am in the process of publishing the fourth one. Compared to a show, the book lasts longer, can travel more widely, and is like an ongoing exhibition. A show will end in a week, a month, 6 months – but the book, once published, will stay. It’s on the shelf. It’s sold and resold. It’s gifted. It changes hands. I have books that are 120 years old, so that says a lot about books.


In the mid ’90s, I was commissioned to do a book called Karnataka. One day, I got an email from one Mr. Krishna Bhat, who used to be in San Francisco. His father was originally from Mangalore and had migrated to the U.K. in the ’50s, married a British lady, felt guilty about it for the rest of his life, and came back to visit Mangalore only when his kids had grown up. Krishna said that he made these trips to Mangalore, however he just could not connect at any level with his roots. But once he saw this book Karantaka, it helped him connect with his homeland, his own father, and his family. So, the book has the power to do this. Even if it has this kind of an effect on one person, a huge purpose is achieved. That’s why the book is my thing.


17. 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 situation now is far better than when I started out. There are many more opportunities for young photographers starting out today. Having said that, there’s a need for more funding to all art forms in India. I see so many artists – photographers, performing artists, visual artists – struggling financially to create work. My book, Unsung 2, happened only because an enlightened soul, who used to be a financial adviser, felt that a project such as this needed financial backing and got two of his clients to invest. We need more people like him who see that financial gains should not be the only returns one should expect.


There is no dearth of money in the country. Only a fraction of it needs to come into the arts. The H. Jayadeva Grant for Photography that I am in the process of establishing will be a no-strings-attached grant. And having a 1-or-2-lakhs grant is just not enough. For an artist to work and live, 15 lakhs for a year is required – well, at least a minimum of Rs. 10 lakhs, but certainly nothing less than that. Perhaps a 100-crore fund for the arts is what is required. And, truly speaking, what are a 100-crores in the larger scheme of things?


18. Do you think there is a universal language that photography uses? Are Indian photographers finding that they are judged by western criteria and standards?


Yes, photography has a universal quality to it, as it can reach and touch many people. And in my opinion, we generally judge our own work by western standards. We look at western trends and try to produce work that would reflect those trends. As a result, we are constantly judged by western criteria. Recognition from America or Europe becomes important to measure a photographer’s standing.


19. With your years of experience, of the lessons you have learned, what is the one thing you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?


In fact, I’d like to mention that I was given advice, which I regrettably didn’t follow. It was Jayadeva who asked me in 1988 in which direction I wanted to pursue my photographic career and I said that I wanted to get into advertising photography. He advised me against this saying that I was not cut out to be an advertising photographer and that I should stick to photojournalism and work for a magazine like India Today. I think I should have taken that advice then. I wasted a few years doing advertising photography before I realized that it wasn’t my cup of tea.


Also, in 1992, I was in New York City and, after showing my work around, I was advised by a lot of people to stay back. I regret that I didn’t. New York offered so much in terms of what one could photograph and the opportunities that it presented, as well. For instance, Baldev Duggal, who went to the U.S. in 1957 – look what he created. So, a lot was possible then.


20. If you didn’t do photography, what is the next best thing you would like to be doing?


I would either become a wildlife biologist or a monk!



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Copyright © K V Gururaja

Date Published

20 November

Brief Biography