On razor's edge

IN BLACK AND WHITE

On razor's edge

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Photographer Prabuddha Dasgupta’s latest book Edge of Faith begins with an insightful snatch of conversation between two elderly Goan Catholic sisters, Celina Nazreth and Gertrude Paes. “We may not have had electricity in those days, but at least we had honesty!” Celina remarks tartly. The twins with identical hairstyles and dresses, then go on to reminisce about the good old days — not any good old days — but the days when Goa was more Portuguese and less Indian. Post-independence saw the coastal town grappling with a big identity crisis, and most affected by the changing geopolitical tides was its significant population of Goan Catholics, who found themselves caught between clashing worlds and loyalties. Between their spiritual and cultural fidelity to a nearly 500-year-old Portuguese rule, and a present that was confusingly Indian.

It is this state of suspended animation that Prabuddha’s fifth book explores with 79 images that paint a vivid portrait of the paradoxical community of Catholic Goans. With accompanying text by travel writer William Dalrymple, Prabuddha’s photo essays bear his trademark visual imprint — the self-schooled, silver-haired photographer brings the same quality of bold intimacy and black and white starkness to the wrinkled face of an old Catholic lady that he would to the contours of a leggy model.

A departure from earlier books like Ladakh a photo-journey through India’s expansive northern frontier, or Longing, a personal exploration of memory and relationships, Edge of Faith sees Prabuddha find his muse in old, colonial Goa. He trains his impressionistic gaze on its beautiful and sometimes decrepit bungalows, on its grand old Gothic churches, but most of all, on the haunting faces of the elusive Goan people, who seem simultaneously rooted and hopelessly at sea in their coastal home along the Arabian Sea.

“Whenever I am drawn to a person, place or community, I use my camera as a way to get to know them,” says Prabuddha, who broke into public consciousness in 1996, with his provocative book Women, a collection of nudes and portraits of urban Indian women. The New Delhi and Goa-based photographer, who straddles a hugely successful commercial career with an equally exciting artistic one with the candour of a Takashi Murakami, journeys from Parra to Panjim to reveal a never-before seen Goa. “A whole book on Goa, and not a single picture of a beach,” remarked Dalrymple in jest, at the launch of Prabuddha’s book in Bangalore recently. A far cry from the sossegado spirit that Goa is best known for — one of fun, surf and sand — Prabuddha’s portraits crack the simplistic surface and delve into the darker side of the Goan soul.

By turns vulnerable, resilient and downright quirky, Prabuddha’s images of Catholic Goans hanging at home with their families, praying at church, nursing their drink or just gazing into space in their own solitary company, reveals the real face of the community and its sense of unbelonging. Whether it’s the incongruity of an old lady sitting regally in her best Sunday dress with the peeling walls of a fusty kitchen as the backdrop, or the poignancy of a woman matter-of-factly looking up from her glass of rum, the photographs move past the stereotyped and often-caricatured perception of Goan Catholics to reveal the portrait of a people who seem frozen in time.

Haunting images of a deserted house or a beat-up Fiat reveal this Goan state of limbo, which Prabuddha describes as “a beautiful impasse of being caught in a time warp between comforting nostalgia and a doubt-ridden, insecure future.” But most of all, the pictures are the photographer’s tribute to this gentle and generous people and their rich heritage, be it cultural, architectural or spiritual.

Few of us recollect that history placed Goa in a unique place that led to its being a square peg in a round hole. India’s smallest state was under Portuguese rule, while the rest of India was under British colonisation. And while the rest of India won her independence in 1947, Goa became part of the country much later after the Portuguese ceded control in 1961. While many Goan Catholics chose to leave India for Portuguese shores after 1961, the ones who stayed behind were left with a void, says Prabuddha. He admits that he himself was unaware of the layered history of Goa, till he moved to live there four years ago. “I fell in love with Goa the first time I went there — but with the freedom, sun and sand. It was only when I started living there, did I find myself surrounded by a community with a unique cultural, spiritual and even physical character,” says Prabuddha.

Prabuddha’s deeply moving and visually captivating images in the Edge of Faith are no photo-documentary, but his body of work could well turn out to be an important source of documentation of a way of life on the brink of disappearance. Although Prabuddha shrugs off any larger intentions of cultural preservation, saying that his pictures are “personal, subjective and intimate,” he does admit that his book could be a keepsake for the generations to come. “In 25 years, all this won’t exist. Colonial Goa and its beautiful bungalows are being swallowed by fat cat real estate developers from Bangalore and Mumbai. The younger generation of Goan Catholics has left for Dubai, America and Canada,” he reveals.

Prabuddha’s compelling photo-stories are backed by interesting textual commentary by Dalrymple who chooses to investigate the undercurrent of Hinduism that runs beneath Goa’s Catholic veneer. Together, they tell the story of a colourful and intriguing people at crossroads, who like many minority communities around the world, find themselves walking the razor’s edge.

(‘Edge of Faith’,  an exhibition of Prabuddha Dasgupta’s photographs from his book is on till Jan 10 at Tasveer, Kastruba Road, Bangalore)

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