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A different take...

Juanita Kakoty, Dec 16, 2012: 19:28 IST

Portraiture

In a unique attempt of sorts, the Seven Percent opened at the Chashama Gallery in New York this October, depicting the story of those who have benefitted from India’s “booming economy”.

The project is a series of 15 profiles of India’s affluent, says Annalisa Merelli, one of the three artists to have contributed to this project, “Each comprising a portrait of the subject, a still life of their finished dinner plate and an interview and bio.”

The work is the result of a month-long journey and collaboration between three artists: New York-based portrait photographer and FABRICA fellow Reed Young, New York-based still life photographer Michael de Pasquale, and Italian writer and FABRICA alumna Annalisa Merelli. “Reed and Mike originally thought of the idea,” continues Annalisa, “They had been reading a lot about India’s economic boom, and being photographers, they were interested in its visual representation. So, the project was conceptualised with the aim of giving a face to the story of India’s economic growth, one that’s often talked about in the international press but hardly represented in pictures.”

“I interviewed the subjects to know more about where they came from and what were their ideas on India — its present, its future — and the kind of role the upper class plays in the country,” informs Annalisa. “The interviews happened before we went on with the photographic parts of the project. Reed took the portraits and Mike worked on the still lifes.”

The Seven Percent covers businessmen, professionals, and ex-nobility; and features three kinds of portraiture. There is the classic portrait of the subject in his or her comfort zone: home, office, or car; a still life with the subject’s finished dinner plate since the artists believe that nourishment is one of life’s fundamental acts, and its accompanying rituals and etiquette symbolise a lifestyle; and finally, a video and written interview that allows the subjects to tell their stories in their own words about where they come from, how they view their society, and what role they play in shaping it.

Reflecting on their month-long endeavour, Mike and Reed share a word about the challenges they faced, “At the beginning, we had a very difficult time getting people who were willing to speak about their wealth.

We realised early on that there’s a stigma attached to claiming that one is wealthy in India. We had to extend our trip from two weeks to a month; but once we started to meet a few people, they were all very helpful in putting us in touch with other possible subjects.” Annalisa adds, “It was a great experience. Our subjects were very open.

They welcomed us into their homes and really took time to tell us their stories. As the project developed, it became all the more interesting. And although most of the times we were meeting people from similar backgrounds, they sometimes had surprisingly different values and points of view on India and life.”

Citing a few individuals who they covered, Annalisa mentions Gaj Singh, the son of the last nobleman of Alsisar, Rajasthan. He owns three hotels in Rajasthan, two of which are his family residences converted into heritage accommodations.

He lives in Alsisar Haveli, his hotel in Jaipur, and was in the army before launching his hotel business. Annalisa quotes him — “We had so many people working around us… but gradually it faded and by the time I was passing out of school in 1976, we didn’t have many people working for us, but again, with this present business… the bygone era has come back.”

Then there is Tegvir Singh Sibia, son of former minister of state Gurbaksh Singh Sibia. Singh is an agriculturist and owner of a mechanised farm. Annalisa quotes him — “We were pioneers in whatever we did, in agriculture especially, we started the first seed business in India and we were very happy with that... We drove ourselves to do it and it was a time of change, and if we didn’t change, primitive farming was not going to pay, so we had to change.”

Talking of the project, Annalisa says, “We’d love to go back and extend the project to different areas of the country — we only touched four cities in the centre and north, and it would be really interesting to look at the south. It would also be interesting to interview a few people in Bombay, especially as a term of comparison with Delhi.”

Coming back to the opening, Mike and Reed offer, “We had an excellent turnout in New York. At least 550 people came in the two weeks the show was up. Those who were from India especially appreciated the project. They said it was refreshing to see a bit of affluence represented when most people only focus on the problems that face India.” Signing off, they tell me, this is “mission accomplished.”

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