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. 

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.