There’s always a fine line in art photography that both the photographer and the viewer are aware of. It’s the age-old debate of definition, of wondering, is it art? Or is it simply photography? Whichever side of the line you choose to stand on, it certainly makes you reflect. That’s how I started viewing Journey of a Mystic, the maiden showing of Spiritual Photography by Ashok Kochhar — engineer, fashion photographer, interior designer and creative art photographer — the first in what he plans will be a series of ‘spiritual’ photography. The next, he informs, is Colors of Life and thereafter, Dhamma.
Soon, cocooned in a mesmerising oneness with the photograph, such thoughts pale. Influenced by Sufism, Kochhar has worked for this showing on one theme. Catching the nuances of a mystic’s many moods in search of the eternal. In fact, although he has restricted himself in theme and tone, Kochhar does not turn repetitive in this journey in search of the divine.
Interpretation of spirituality can often be personal and subjective. To Kochhar, the body is one end of the soul and the soul is another end of the body. This makes them inseparable. That’s why, the nuances of a mystic captivate him so. As he explains, “To me, the movement of a mystic signifies life in its truest form. Life is never constant. It is never still. It keeps moving and presents such varied forms that the human mind is ever in awe. It was this progression, this journey that amazed me. A mystic witnesses extremes of life, from a drought to spring and that first drop of rain. His soul is dancing, and this dance of an awakened consciousness, after all the turmoil of life, seemed to be my message to the world.”
Although spirituality is the quest for eternal peace, there is no conflict in the fact that the photographs find their Muse in movement. On another plane, it is the chronicle of evolution, both of body and spirit. According to Sufism, existence is a constant flux from the state of Fana to that of Baqa or spiritual death and resurrection, and back. It is the whirl of being and not being, the whirl of the dervish, clapping, raising his hands in the dance of life and beyond. Kochhar firmly believes, “Some divine power is governing my life.” One of the reasons for this faith is that he is among a handful who have turned a hobby and passion into a profession.
The painter in Ashok Kochhar is evident in these creations. As he says, “As a painter, you express your deepest emotions on a canvas with a variety of colors. And even in photography, I have done the same when I started with spiritual photography. It is just the medium that has evolved but the expressions are that of a painter, who still lives on inside me.”
Mounted on black, the first impression is of an expanse of black. Blame the reflective glass for some of that. Till not many decades ago, art photography was often exhibited without the glass, prints pasted on board, panels or ply. But as you draw closer, each frame comes alive with a vibrancy that is gripping. There’s the bearded, long-haired mystic in a trance, dancing in a blur of movement and light. Each frame catches movement using selective light and conveys the ecstasy so effectively, you find yourself enraptured. Now, dealing with one subject, that’s a feat.
The craft is breathtakingly apparent in the deliberate play of light and non-light, in the focus on a particular part of the movement. Somewhere, as you go along, you do wonder if the art is also a trifle contrived or is it a sincere effort to catch ecstasy. The answer is up to the viewer to derive. For Kochhar, the series is something close to his heart.
“When I started the shoot, I had a clear picture of the end frame as I had already seen it in my thoughts. So, the composition, lighting, my subject were all meticulously planned but the energy on the location was much higher than I expected.”
As Rajat, one of the visitors wrote, “Never seen this kind of work before.” Quite.
Unlike commercial photography and photojournalism, fine art photography is for the pure pleasure of creating a work. So, how is it to sustain the photographer-artist?
Kochhar has hope. “India has always had a history of varied art forms, and it is the heart of many visual arts. Every child in India is exposed to so many colours, so many forms of music, painting and textures in everyday life. I am very certain that if anyone can promote art photography, it is India.”
Technically, too, the Indian shutterbug has come a long way. As Kochhar points out, “Indian photographers are today doing wonders on the global platform and I do hope that India can present its amazing talent to the world in the near future. I have initiated the concept of Spiritual Photography in India and wish many more join me in some amazing, new endeavours.
One answer may be for the photographer to balance it with something more commercially viable. The other is the fact that a niche but growing clientele is recognising fine art photography as a genre and picking up pieces.
May sound like a drop in the ocean, but then, every little drop adds up to a heartening appreciation for creativity.