In a heartfelt, contemplative tribute, Ritesh Uttamchandani recollects his conversations with the elusive master, S Paul.
Based on where you stand and how you look at it, the world is either extremely crappy or painfully beautiful. Am currently smack in the middle of it. Not a pretty sight, yet a relief to have been touched by its beauty.
Five whole days of it.
They came to me from the master, who unlike others, never called himself a master.
Less of a photographer and more of a craftsman on some days, more of a student than a master on most, yet, equally, beautifully flawed like you and me.
More than a year after we met, he called me one afternoon and in a deeply nervous voice asked a question many uncles and aunties ask me on long train journeys.
“Are you married?” A little taken aback and mildly amused, I said – “no”.
“Are you interested?”
I said – “I could think about it, what do you have in mind?”
“I know someone. When you come to Delhi, I will introduce you to her.”
I said okay, and we hung up.
I must confess I know very little about S Paul. I doubt anyone can claim knowing him besides his immediate family. I often heard from people that he is difficult, temperamental, angry and reclusive. Others say that his work is too scattered, too many singles, not a concise body of work nor a theme connecting them all. Short sighted readings at best, because just like the world, it all depends on where you stand and how you look, at him.
There remains no doubt of his mastery of the craft. People complain that there is a disturbing lack of evidence though. Well maybe, but the defining quality of his photos is his childlike curiousity and instinct. It’s a two way street and wonder what stops viewers from being curious and seeking S Paul? Look around, if not his work, traces of him in other people’s work, in your own lives is easily identifiable.
There is another quality that set him apart, preparedness and his rigour. He had a camera with him always and irrespective of the weather, he would be out making photos. Like Bill Cunningham, or as has come to light now, Vivian Maier. The tool to draw out the responses built inside the triangular intersections of his brain, heart and the outside world was always on his shoulder or around his neck. Always ready to make pictures, as if the camera is just another part of his body. When the heat was bearable, he often wore a suit, making him, undoubtedly one of the most dapper looking photographers of our country.
I am in too pedestrian a position to wax about his photographs. I haven’t been through the kind of chiseling that he or his favourite contemporary Kishor Parekh had been through. But, one has to be made of stone to not notice how relatable his photos are. How infinitely simple they are. A buffalo in water, a pigeon in flight, an elephant on a street, a puddle ahead, a man at work, a tree in conversation with another tree, cat family, two donkeys and a road, four friends, five friends, Eid, Republic Day… , Pranab Mukherjee at home, Indira Gandhi on a tree, my son Neeraj, my son Dheeraj…
In 1966, he entered a photo of the elephant and his mahout walking on a Delhi street in the annual World Press Photo contest. Back then, the contest had only one winner in each category and his photograph came a close second. If they had a three tier ranking system as they have now, the honour of being India’s first World Press Photo awardee would have been his.
An undiluted simplicity is the most endearing quality of his photographs. He sometimes made cryptic photos like the one of a dead tree branch, shot from an angle which made it seem like a bird picking twigs to build a nest. There’s very little bullshit when it comes to S Paul and a man of that nature is bound to have a low tolerance for bullshit in others too. You can mistake it for arrogance, difficulty, reclusion, indifference, etc depending on where you stand and how you look at it!
Like many of my generation, we never saw him work a scene, but from descriptions by others, he was, as they say in jazz circles, a cat!
On the first day of our meeting, which lasted a good seven-eight hours, he would leap from one topic to another. He opened books and brochures and award citations and letters and one exhibition catalogue and reminisced about them all. He showed me this tiny sepia tinted book, which had a very cryptic set of macro shots, all about the study of scale and perspective. The photos had a freestyle text running alongside with the title – As Tall As Paul.
As he unveiled himself I kept thinking to myself, I wish I had someone along to record this on video. I wish I had just set up my damn iPhone on video mode. I wish I could pull my weight and make him understand how important his words are and what a great gift it would be for future generations if he would just let me record our chat.
On my way back, while I was on Nizamuddin Bridge, he called to tell me that he had changed his mind and wasn’t interested anymore in being profiled. I felt like leaping into the frothing river below but I muscled up and played a few emo cards. The cat changed his mind and agreed only on one condition, that I send him a draft based on today’s material. It was yet another test, like that give and take that our parents put us through often. I saw through it and gave him a draft, which he okayed and we were back on track.
He was a different man the next day, a little more welcoming, a lot well rested and wanted to waste no time sitting indoors. So we walked around. A group of kids flung balloons at him, he knew that they did so only because he had a camera in his hand. Reprimanded them but kept his camera in his bag and walked ahead. Once in the safe zone, the Sony was cupped in his giant palm again. He took photos of a broken piece of glass and I tried to photograph him while he did so. He sensed what I was aiming for, quietly, without my prodding, he moved a little to his left. His reflection on the glass entered my frame and his body moved out of it. Past the gurudwara, he hummed the first four lines of his favourite song – Saawan Ke Baadalon.
When we were sitting in the park in Surya Nagar, I had asked him about the title conferred on him by a magazine – The Henri Cartier-Bresson of India. I had a feeling that he doesn’t enjoy the title much and he insisted on being called as the S Paul of India, if referred to as anything apart from his name. Most of us would kill to be compared on that scale yet Paul wasn’t. He was well aware of Bresson’s genius and he felt he didn’t match up to it at all. Bresson travelled the world, while for Paul, his neighbourhood was his world. Bresson shot with a Leica, while Paul was happiest in the company of a new lens, a new camera. All one had to do keep him busy was introduce him to new gear. A lot like that genius child we have all come across in our school classrooms who could knock off the most complicated problems in a jiffy!
If a comparison must be made, the closest would probably be Eugene Smith’s years of photographing the outside world from the confines of his loft or Winogrand’s rigour. Paul wasn’t fully exposed to both photographers but used to see their work often in the second hand magazines he would purchase from the streets of Old Delhi. Yet again, he was aware of Smith’s stature and Winogrand’s grungy aesthetic and rubbished the comparison. He liked the sound of Paul Sahab though, a title that probably originated either at home or during his years of government service or from the mouths of the many men and women he has mentored.
A few weeks went by and our editor wasn’t sure if I will ever turn in the story. So much information, yet it still seemed so little. My friends helped me out, colleagues slaved over it and I finally cracked the first draft. On reading the first draft, he was furious. He hated it and accused me of having an agenda. I had quoted him on some topics, which, in retrospect, I feel he told me in confidence, as if I were his buddy. And there I was, a photographer with no previous experience of a long form story of this nature, having had his first draft quashed and being asked to redo it all. I am also someone from a newspaper background, where we were conditioned to spend all our day looking for that one photo, that one moment that will edge the others out. I didn’t know how to do options and this dented my morale considerably.
The final draft, the ninth one, was about 9000 words and my colleague Madhavankutty Pillai, also my senior was a bit shocked on seeing it. He ran his scissors over the piece and reduced it to half – removing major chunks of Paul Sahab’s personal life. He relented and allowed me 500 more words. The story was published across four spreads, and anyone who works in a magazine would know how prime that real estate is.
Much has been made or unmade out of his relationship with his brother, Raghu Rai. As outsiders we will never know much and it shouldn’t concern us. Our focus, if we have learnt anything from the two great minds of photography in India, must not be swayed by their personal lives.
A year after the publication of the story, we hung out again at his house, it was a humid Delhi monsoon day, his birthday.
He showed me more photos, more books, more magazines and was disappointed at how fake and fragile the photography community in India had become. He expressed deep regret and concern at the way some folks acted as gatekeepers, the lazy nexus between curators and some “artists” and how the focus now is more on the projection of one’s own image than one’s photographs. He also wished to meet Reza, whom I had met earlier that year in Bombay. Reza too wanted to meet him, but while he was in Delhi, Paul was in Kerala or Rajasthan. I can’t recall the exact destination, but I was happy to hear that he was finally travelling.
On my way out, he offered me sweets. He didn’t eat any himself. While keeping the plate back on the table, he miscalculated the distance and his long hand knocked down a glass. Paul Sahab’s wife and a domestic help came running and asked us to vacate the room. The master had an embarrassed smile on his face but forgot about it once we sat near the window.
Not a big fan of cellphone photography, after a healthy play of some more emo cards, he agreed to let me shoot some iPhone portraits of him. He also let me record two small videos of him, only after I assure him of one thing. As desired, I promised him that till he is alive I will not show them to anyone or post them on any public platform or share it with any TV channels. “After am gone, you can surely show it wherever you wish,” he said.
I jokingly asked him for something in return. A photobook: a memoir or a mammoth volume of books – of his finest photographs and his stories.
He laughed and said, “Jald hi, only if you promise to help me with it.”
S Paul passed away on 16 August, three days short of his eighty seventh birthday. Indian photography has lost its brightest star, one that preferred to stay in the shadows and was yet, bright enough to cast his light on us all. Rest in peace, Paul Sahab.
Ritesh Uttamchandani is a photographer based in Bombay. His 2014 interview with S Paul, published in OPEN magazine, is, quite easily, the finest and most insightful piece written on the elusive legend. Some of his other writings are on his blog called Kahaniyaan, where this piece was first published. Republished with permission.