Masters of light and shade

Masters of light and shade

The subjects are played out in myriad forms of light and shade, the hallmark of black and white photography era

They were masters of chiaroscuro. They played with spectral light with their rudimentary boxes capturing millions of shades that creep furtively on fleeting expressions of nature and human eyes alike. The National Centre for Performing Arts (NCPA) has put up at its Piramal Art Gallery an exhibition titled “Masters Indian Photography,” displaying original photographs spanning across early 20th century to present times.

A compilation of original plates and prints depicting changing technical trends from the massive box cameras to snaps taken with digital cameras, the exhibition has on display 100 photos selected from 500 prints of 80 master photographers that were
lying in the vaults of the NCPA.

They include works of photographers with a handful of them surrounded by the aura of being lost in the mists of time; some diligently working in obscurity; and some extremely well-known like Pranlal Patel, Tarapada Banerjee, Jitendra Arya, Sudhir Kasliwal, Kakubhai Kothari, Raghav Kaneria, T S Nagarajan, R Kasinath, Dr Pankaj Sharma and Santosh Verma.

The show, despite providing an enriching opportunity to both historians as well as to photography lovers, has severe gaps in the time line; there are periods like early 90s or even late 60s conspicuously missing. However, overall the exhibition exudes a nostalgic feeling for a past that shaped up the present times; the changing societal shapes of the bygone era were captured not by trigger-loose digital photographers but by lens artists weighed down with huge bags who with odds pitted against them still managed to capture the foibles of society on the plates.

And it is this keen eye of lens artists of the past that overcomes the feeling of sudden voids in the linear time structure of exhibits allowing seamless exploration of historical episodes, candid moments of people in power and the changing face of Indian
sub-continent. NCPA curator and veteran news photographer Mukesh Parpiani says: “There are visible gaps because it has been taken from the photo banks. Many of master photographers whose works are put up are no more and not much is known about them. And that is why we decided not to divide the sections in phases. But all the photographs at some point or the other were part of some exhibition put up in pas. These works were later donated. And that is what makes these works extremely interesting.”

Thus one sees family photograph taken in early 20th century-- with a modicum of sepia tint on the plate-- in a studio that was once a landmark in the old world Bhuleshwar lanes in south Mumbai; the next you see is the growing urbanisation in 20s and 30s.

The subjects are played out in myriad forms of light and shade--the hall mark of black and white photography era. The exhibits strikingly point towards the ideals once cherished, and the frames and focus reveal the ideology of the times. A powerful photograph by T Kasinath of freight trains carrying coal from a railway shed under heavily smoky skies simultaneously projects the Nehruvian obsession with big industries as well as the rape of the land and ecological destruction. The chugging of the powerful smoke from trains evocatively exudes the power of coal mining companies and big industries.

And the logical extension of the theme comes out is Sudhir Kasliwal’s photo of an elderly man in a ramshackled hut lying on a decrepit bed with a death rattling gaze. The man looks into unknown shaded by a dim light; the woman at bedside waits for his
freedom from the drudgery of poverty. The photograph does not celebrate death but subtly shows the kind of escape route that the masses wants from the strait-jacketed lifestyle dumped on them.

Morbidity was one thing that marked black and white photography acolytes. And news photographers from 40s till early 90s harboured a deep empathic sadness in their hearts. This empathy clearly stood out in their choice of subjects, forms and frames they envisaged.

Tarapada Banerjee’s snap of crowd spilling out of a tram makes a point on the dehumanised urban spaces. The photo without making an overt comme­ntary on the depleting rural scape, subtly points out to the loss of compassion and the transformation of individuals into mere cogs fighting for economic survival in a machine called metropolis.

The same is with the wildlife photography from an era that will now exist only in memories and archives. While E Hanumant Rao’s photo shows a lioness gazing lovingly at her cubs in a frame where the forests were still wild but gradually eroding, Kakubhai Kothari’s coloured close-up photograph of a tiger desperately seeking a path to in a jungle that is manicured and designed with a “motorway road”, brings out the changing face of the Indian wilds.

The two photos contrasting with each other depicts the inner minds of the two photographers belonging to different eras; one still had the deep fields of forests to tramp around while the other only has a forest designed by tourism lobbies. Interestingly, black and white photography format was also home to the roiling of the inner minds seeped in melancholy. Cult actress Smita Patil, who died at a young age of 31, was an avid photographer and like the films which she chose to work in, her photographic repertoire also depicts sublime sadn­ess and joys that make life meaningful and intense.

And come mid-90s, the subjects and perspective also change and they are visible. The photographs are more in tune to evanescent pop culture like snaps of the “lost and forgotten,” Pamela Bordes, a London society girl turned photographer clicking actress Madhuri Dixit at a film shoot or a girl with a with metal cups for bras etc.

Most contemporary photographers with the help of digital cameras going by the exhibit seem to over-focus on Andy Warholian pyrotechnics rather than searching for inner essences of their subjects. And possibly therein lies the difference between the superficiality of present times and the news photographers of yore who in Lord Byron’s famous lines spent lives searching for,” One shade the more, one ray the less/ Had half impaired the nameless grace.”

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