Anirudh Agarwal’s ‘Nysha & the Sunbeam Talbot’

Anirudh Agarwal brings together the staged and the spontaneous in a work of exploration, discovery and the joys of childhood. Raj Lalwani ponders over Agarwal’s visual sleights of hand.

 

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Anirudh Agarwal’s work, unlike its name that is actually a red herring, isn’t really about Nysha, nor is it about her Sunbeam Talbot. And that is probably the greatest strength of the work, that it transcends the very premise of aboutness, and instead, moves into a space that is metaphoric, rather than informational, poetry rather than being mere prosaic.

The photographer himself is rather reticent when it comes to talking about the work, describing it simply as an outcome of a series of excursions with his niece. And yet, the moments when he chooses to press the shutter rarely conform to the conventional idea of anything that is momentous. In one photograph, the arm of a swimmer is mirrored all over the frame, in the shadow of the railing, in the child’s body language and in the water marks formed on the ground. Another photograph, one of the rare instances of actual drama, has the girl jump with joy, but her arm, outstretched, seems to extend seamlessly into the railing.

I hesitate while describing the aforementioned instances. It is much like explaining the punchline of a joke. But like the best of street photographs, and aren’t these street photographs, Anirudh’s work is about recognising visual coincidences, and celebrating them.

Shot in the daytime, without any heavy- handed visual tropes or offbeat technique, the images are surprisingly surreal, largely because of the interplay of elements, but also because of the strangeness of the car itself. What is this girl doing in the urbanscape, in the midst of a dinosaur, a police van and Hanuman? Why does it all look so bizarre, and yet leave a warm feeling of charm?

Nysha and the Sunbeam Talbot is the creation of a dream, joyous and cherubic, with the imperfections and the quirks of the real. This is documentary fiction at its sweetest, though the strongest photos are undoubtedly the ones where Agarwal is absent, those that aren’t too clever in their composition, where you do not notice the photographer’s skill, and Nysha just is. Those are pictures where we seem to enter the workings of a child’s mind, as she journeys through Kolkata in her precious red car, or enters the police van that bears the name of the city. While it hasn’t been Agarwal’s intention, the work almost serves as a portrait of the city, and a sentimental one, at that. “These are staged photos, but how do you stage anything with a child?” he says, “she decides where we should go, and while I try to place the car in a way where I see the picture going, the way she interacts with the space is always unpredictable.”

The fact that the actor almost becomes the director of these photos is especially interesting because aside from the stray image, we never really find out who Nysha is, and what she looks like. And yet, it is the anonymity that makes the photos more relatable. This could be any child, your child, or you as a child. The surreal dreamscape that the Sunbeam Talbot drives through, both, stirs memories, and is an outcome of them.

And that is why rather than finding out who Nysha is, it’s more interesting to question who is Anirudh Agarwal, and where is his vision travelling, in the confines of the little toy car. Agarwal rattles off a long list of photographers who inspire him, from Lee Friedlander to Swapan Parekh, Richard Avedon to Gueorgui Pinkhassov. His other ongoing work, of shadowed self portraits, is definitely Friedlanderesque in its approach, but while putting the two works on the same viewing table, it suddenly struck me. Staged, but instinctive, planned but organic, Nysha and the Sunbeam Talbot is a bit of a self portrait. For it is work that is rather undefined in its scope or theme, and yet, it is Anirudh’s personal way of seeing that drives the car within the frame. Much like a curious Nysha, wandering within the confines of a preconceived frame, these photographs are the wanderings of a curious photographer.

First published in Better Photography.

 

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