The Rabbit Hole: Anurag Banerjee on Inspiration

The Rabbit Hole is a series of deep dive interviews, where photographers reflect on their inspirations—the who, the what, and more crucially, the why. These inspirations can be from, but not limited to, the world of photography, cinema, literature and art. All of inspiration is a rabbit hole; it’s a journey of discovery that intermingles in our heads and our hearts. Through this series, I hope that photographers reveal to us their clouds of inspiration, clouds that we can delve into, when the horizon seems afar.

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In the first edition of The Rabbit Hole, Anurag Banerjee reflects on the various threads that come together to influence his practice. Here is what he wrote.

Prabuddha Dasgupta’s Longing

I have always maintained that I am a photographer because of Prabuddha, and in particular, his work Longing. I became a photographer by accident; my father bought me a camera only because the media college I went to advised students to have their own laptops and DSLRs. On the way back from the store that day in August of 2010, I thought I should pick up a photography magazine. So, I stopped at a Crossword and picked up an issue of Better Photography. In the Great Masters section, there was an interview of Prabuddha, with his images from Longing. I don’t remember much of the interview or if I even read it, but I remember being completely captivated by the photographs. Especially the one of the silhouette on the bed. Those photos stirred something deep within me and I thought if this is what I can do with the camera, then this is all that I want to do in my life.

(A small excerpt of Longing can be seen over here. The silhouette on the bed is a photograph that you can see on this link. Read Geoff Dyer’s essay on Longing in The Paris Review here. And my essay on Prabuddha’s Edge of Faith over here.)

The Idea of Home/Belonging

Home is Shillong when I am in Bombay, home is Bombay when I am in Shillong. Sometimes, home is in the curving of the road going uphill between pine trees in some quiet mountain town. Sometimes, home is walking amongst hundreds on the bustling streets of a city where I don’t know the language. Maybe home is a person—that feeling of comfort and being complete when you are with them, with whom conversation is easy and silence is easier. I am inspired by any idea of home, because it makes me feel safe, where (or with whom) I feel like I belong. I have always found it easier to make photographs when I am comfortable, and I am learning every day that home is a place in your mind. In its constant pursuit, I find myself and inspiration.

Sohrab Hura’s Life is Elsewhere

I have always been fascinated by a photographer’s decision to bring the camera up to their eye and make a picture, what they see and what they choose to show. The small, seemly inconsequential action is actually a massive one. The camera is a dichotomy—it makes the viewer feel that they are present, but takes the photographer away from the scene. A lot of times, the camera is an escape for the photographer, a shield. And at times when a photographer does so, it can be jarring for the viewer. Life is Elsewhere is special because of the photos that you don’t see, the things Sohrab describes through his words but the viewer never gets to see. This is beautifully complemented by his incredible grasp of the medium and the way he uses it. The way Sohrab shoots, it feels like we are getting a look inside his mind. Life is Elsewhere made me realise what kind of a photographer I wanted to be—an honest one. To not lie to myself and through my images, put out my most raw and vulnerable truth. It’s a hell of a task, I continue to fail.

(See Sohrab’s Life is Elsewhere here. You can virtually browse through the book by seeing this video by Tipi Bookshop. Also, read Sohrab’s thoughts on Life is Elsewhere and the larger trilogy it is part of, by reading this essay).

Melancholy

I feel like I have always been melancholic, much before I knew what the word meant, or even what the state was. I am not entirely sure I still know what exactly melancholy is, but I know that I live in its arms, wear it like a blanket when I go to bed, hold it like a pillow when I cannot fall asleep. I look out for melancholy and sometimes I feel like it finds me. A while back, I got a tattoo that says ‘Toska’, a Russian word that Vladimir Nabokov describes beautifully—a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for. When I showed it to my father, his response was, “Anurag, are you sad?” I only smiled back. I have become acutely aware of melancholy only after going for therapy. It was then that I began to understand how my mind works. But my tryst with melancholy started much before my understanding of therapy and depression. I gravitate towards it in any form—books, music, movies, anything. I continue to look for it in my work, and want to make work that is bathed in melancholy. I think melancholy is beautiful, I imagine it to be quiet. If it had a colour, it would be the deep purple of a sky awaiting a thunderstorm; if it had a smell, it would smell like pine cones in Shillong. I continue to look for these photographs, I will forever be making these photographs. Nothing moves me like melancholy does.

“No single word in English renders all the shades of toska. At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.”

– Vladimir Nabokov

Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency

Nan Goldin’s work is so personal, so raw, it feels like the viewer is her friend. It’s as if she does not ‘show’ her work, she confides in the viewer. The camera is an extension of her arm. To call that a mastery over craft is too trivial, too technical to the point of being frivolous. I imagine photography for Nan Goldin to be what reading was for Scout in To Kill A Mockingbird—just like breathing. I aspire to learn that language and speak it as fluently and as eloquently as she did. I have spent countless days and endless nights looking at her photographs of her friends and lovers and herself, it felt like I knew them all. Maybe every once in a while, I had a fleeting conversation with them. In a recent interview, Nan describes her best friend David as someone who “introduced me to myself.” As beautiful a thing that is to say, it struck a more visceral chord with me. In a way, I feel like that is what Nan Goldin’s photographs did to me.

(Watch The Ballad of Sexual Dependency, set to a forty minute soundtrack by The Tiger Lillies, here. See pictures from the 2016–’17 installation at the Museum of Modern Art, over here. Read Hilton Als’ essay in The New Yorker, here).

Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things

 When I read this book a decade back, I didn’t know much about Arundhati Roy (or much about anything for that matter, not that I still do). But I remember being moved by it, so much that I would instinctively declare it my favourite book by an Indian author on being asked. Last year, having read scores of articles and essays that Roy has written, and having maniacally consumed any interview of hers I could find, I gave The God of Small Things a second read. I now understand context better, and given our current political and social climate, the book hit in a whole different way. Buried under layers of caste and class discrimination, at its core it is a tender love story, one that is also radical. Not just between Ammu and Velutha, but also between the twins Estha and Rahel; the book truly peaks when Arundhati Roy writes from the perspective of the two children. Such mastery over craft only reaches such transcendental levels with Roy’s deep understanding of the context. The God of Small Things is no longer my favourite book by an Indian author, it is my favourite book. Period.

Satyajit Ray

Satyajit Ray is a household name in any Bengali family. I knew him as a writer before I knew him as a filmmaker. It was only when I specialised in film studies did I realise the impact that he has had on the medium. I truly discovered Ray only in college. I was initially drawn to him because he reminded me of home and later, because I could not get enough of his storytelling abilities. Also, growing up in an orthodox Indian middle class family that always wanted me to be a doctor or an engineer, I did not have much in common with my parents. Talking about Ray became a way for me to get closer to my parents. When I was shown Charulata in class, I told my mother about the scene where Soumitra Chatterjee breaks into song for Madhabi Mukherjee—Kishore da’s voice singing Tagore’s Ami Chini go Chini—and how at that point, my batchmates joined in on the singing. They had made me sing this song so many times that they knew it too. My mother, who always feared I was drifting away from my roots, heaved a sigh of relief that evening, and realised that I carry home with me. Thank you, Manik da.

Tiluk Kamod from Khuda Ke Liye

Ten years ago, when I first heard this song, I played it on loop all evening and all night, falling asleep to it and waking up with it. All these years later, if I had only one song to listen to for the rest of my life, I would pick this. I would listen to it till the song would get bored of me, and then listen to it some more. I would listen to this long enough for this to become the only language I know, for its lyrics to be the only words that ever come out of my mouth. On a surface level, this song is in Radha’s voice complaining endearingly about Krishna troubling her all day and not letting her complete her chores. But it is so much more. It is about love, loss and longing. And Ahmed Jehanzeb’s voice and Rohail Hyatt’s music takes the song to a whole new level. The longing that is filled into the words of the song and how masterfully it is conveyed is something that I will always endlessly aspire towards. 

Shaheen Bagh(s)

 When the pro-Constitution protests started in December 2019, I attended them primarily as a documentarian. As the movement gained steam, and we all realised that this is a much longer battle that needs to be sustained, I felt myself getting further drawn in. I felt a sense of belonging at these protests, where so many turned up for the same unified cause. This feeling peaked when I went to Shaheen Bagh in January. As I was walking towards the protest site, I crossed a group of teenaged girls who were singing Saare Jahaan Se Achcha, every lane I passed had slogans of ‘azaadi’ emanating from them. When I reached, one of the protesters was scaling the high tension electricity tower to hoist the tricolour atop it. I stood in the middle of the street to take everything in. The tent under which the brave women sat twenty four hours a day, the sheer number of people cheering the constitution, the posters of Ambedkar and Gandhi and Bhagat Singh all around, the overwhelming protest art, the foot-over bridge that will forever be etched in my memory—I could not believe it. What I felt there was a sense of belonging I had not felt ever before, I felt like I was a citizen of this country like never before. I was photographing everything I could, like a person possessed. Just then, a group of AMU students started singing Hum Dekhenge on the stage, the sound of which filled the street and the air through the microphones. I joined the crowd, I put my camera down, and I cried.

(Read Shuddhabrata Sengupta’s essay on Shaheen Bagh and the lessons it teaches us about citizenship in The Caravan, here. Also, see this piece in The Week on Faiz Ahmad Faiz’s Hum Dekhenge).

Bombay

There are two Bombays—one that exists in our minds, and the physical city. I am in love with the one that’s in our minds and I am frustrated by the physical city. The one in my mind is made up of an undying spirit, of togetherness, of belonging, a city that is everyone’s and yet somehow no one’s. The physical city challenges this spirit at every step with its crumbling infrastructure and disregard for human life. Bombay is an emotion, often only for those who sit atop glass towers and stare longingly at the ocean overlooking the sea of blue tarpaulin that covers the broken roofs of a million shanties. I aspire to make the two cities meet. And I’m not the only one. Because on some days, you come home battered and bruised and step out for a walk to clear your mind and you see an elderly couple feeding strays well into the night. You smile and realise that this city is full of people who are aware of the lives of others. On most days, that is enough.


Anurag Banerjee’s work lies somewhere between romance and romanticism. In 2019, he published his first photobook, ‘I’m Not Here’ and in an effort to make photography more accessible and democratic, disseminated it for free. You can follow his work on Instagram (@banerjee.anurag).

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