Prabuddha Dasgupta

Prabuddha Dasgupta’s Edge of Faith is a remarkably ruminative document of a lived experience. Raj Lalwani muses on the journey of the visual poet of melancholy.

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Writing on the work of Prabuddha Dasgupta is a little like writing a tell-all memoir. However much one may try to look at things objectively, it’s inevitable that the memories will be faded, coloured, sentimental, and yet, to recount them, to put them together, is a matter of both joy and anguish.

I already know this. I have probably been writing on his photographs from the time I first saw them, only, the writing was always in my head. For that’s exactly what his photographs tend to do, they draw out your deepest memories, and sink in new ones. They are, as said, a matter of both joy and anguish.

In the few conversations we had had before he moved on, and the several I have had since, with his photos, it were always questions that were discussed, and never really their answers. Our thoughts would wander and meander, never to reach a finality, a conclusion. I had come away after our very first meeting enthused and yet, confused. We spoke so much, and yet spoke so little.

But that was who he was. And who he was, was how his pictures were. He was erudite in the assessment of his own practice, but the assurance in his timbred voice was always accompanied by questions. By possibilities. By a series of what ifs. Much like his photographs, which until his final work Longing, were always about a certain subject matter, about an assured subject, and yet, they were always beyond subject matter. His subjects were women, Ladakh and Catholics in Goa, but what he was photographing was sensuality and harshness, beauty and the lack thereof, history and modernity, hope and despair… often in the same photograph.

In fact, to look at his work in all its diversity is to perhaps miss the point. To talk in generics of him having straddled multiple worlds, of commerce and art, is only to skim the surface. One needs to look at Prabuddha, the person, and try to see him for who he was, understand him, empathise with him, and that’s where his work truly begins to sing.

It is Prabuddha, the person, who seems to linger, almost with grace and some trepidation, in the time-worn interiors that are seen in Edge of Faith. His photographs of the Catholic community in Goa are part document, part elegy. They are as much an insight into their world, as they are, into his. And yet, his presence never takes over, the photographs, remarkably quiet in their wistful existence.

The obviousness of Prabuddha as a remarkable aesthete comes through, but with subtlety. One can imagine him having visited these homes, engaging in gracious conversation, becoming a part of the stories of the particular family. His photographs come across as polite enquiries that may have gently interrupted their storytelling. Questioning, reflective, almost shy, the essence of his photos can probably be felt by relating them to his essence, as a person. Every photograph is an elaborate conversation in itself, but Prabuddha is only listening.

It is because of this that the photographer’s gaze, while soaking in these time-worn interiors and photographing these time-ridden protagonists, is non-judgmental, with great dignity. It’s almost protecting, the way he seems to look at them, the vulnerability of this community meeting his own vulnerability as an artist.

His craft is carefully studied, but his vision, intuitive, without pretence. The consciousness with which every subject is photographed is palpably engrained within every frame. And yet, this is a work that brings forth the subconscious. It’s about memory and loss, both theirs and his, and maybe our own.

It is intriguing to correlate the multiple strands that run within Edge of Faith, the portraits, the interiors, the presence, the absence. Two men pose together, as do two women, they are identical-seeming people posing identically, almost Arbusian in nature, and yet, both photographs completely unrelated to each other, shot at different villages at different times. Like different stanzas of the same poem, as he had once said, or like serendipity, that beautiful, intangible occurrence, coincidentally, also the name of the art festival where the work was recently seen.

Sensuality and grace, sensitivity and beauty, are platitudes that are often used to look back at the remarkable legacy that is PDG. But beyond it all, his journey, both in his personal projects and in his commissioned work, has always explored the delicate nature of fragility. In Edge of Faith, it is their memories that are fragile, as past tussles with present, and a generation that has lived through Portugal and India, liberation and today, ponders over its cultural identity.

If the documentary nature of the project may seem a little prosaic, it is Prabuddha’s response to it that makes it poetic, whether it is the character on their faces or that, in their spaces. A wall in one photograph with its artifacts, in conversation with another wall of another photograph, both, again, unconnected, both, with their own sea of stories. The sense of time suspended, almost as if one could interchange the real people with the photographs of their ancestors on the walls There is a fascinating amount of storytelling detail that lies within the nuances, within the physical space. And yet, while appreciating the specifics, the emotionality takes over, the nostalgia, allowing the atmosphere to wash over. The recently departed Leonard Cohen, who Prabuddha described as his absentee poet/guru, may have very well looked at these photos when he had written “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.” One of his most beloved lines from a song that took Cohen a decade to write, though as Prabuddha said of each family he photographed in Goa, whether you’ve known something for thirty years or for an hour, it is the intensity of the feeling that guides you home.

That said, to see Edge of Faith in isolation is to hear a piece of music without understanding the poetry that it envelopes. Like listening to Cohen, but only hearing the gravel in his voice, not recognising the intermingling strands of time and emotion that are there in his words. The secret to embracing his edge of faith is to recognise the journey of Prabuddha Dasgupta, the photographer and the person, not that the two have ever been disparate, and place it in the context of a work that is a culmination of his ability to see, to sigh, to make one sigh. To remember and forget, to call upon one’s recall, to only tell a little, but such that we would bring our own stories and attach them to his. His visual journey was extraordinary in its ordinariness, the fact that he would photograph the grand and the magnificent, and yet manage to touch a chord that is raw in its simplicity. Away from the binaries that one often saw in the advertising world that he would continually inhabit, he was a photographer who’d seek out one’s essence, as gently as the grain in his carefully crafted silver prints.

Prabuddha Dasgupta’s photos are of time, and of timelessness. His sense of empathy, so personal that his photos become ours, his photos, so personal that they can only be his, and yet, belong to all.

Prabuddha Dasgupta straddled dual worlds. Whether it was commissioned work or his personal explorations, his work was characterised by deep stillness, pushing & pulling the viewer into reverie. Suave & articulate, he would also sing Cohen’s ‘Darkness’ in Bengali, impromptu, as an interview with his daughter Aleeya had once revealed.

First published in Better Photography. 

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