Some years ago, I was sitting in the back seat of a taxi in Bengaluru. It was midday when the light is thin and bullying. I was only half paying attention. As luck would have it, I looked up for an instant and saw Superman whiz by. What followed was one of those moments where your mind, so much slower than your eye, tries to make sense of what it thinks you just saw. “Superman. On the outskirts of Bengaluru? Okay.”
I asked the taxi driver to take a U-turn and go back to the spot where I’d seen the superhero. And sure enough, after about 100 metres, we rolled up alongside Clark Kent in his cape.
I slowly got out of the taxi, drawn magnetically towards the wall on which Superman stood. Like the apes in 2001: A Space Odyssey who gape and dance in wonder at the strange plinth that has landed among them, I gawped at the scene before me. Like the apes, I wanted to touch this strange thing but was nervous I might get shooed away. I was at an artist’s workshop and didn’t want to be unceremoniously run off the lot.
I took a few shots, the best of which is shown above. The image is another one of those serendipitous gifts, which within a single frame seems to have captured far more than the value of its individual elements.
Artist at work
My interest in art as a photographer is not with philosophical debates, but rather in capturing –appropriating, for the academically inclined – other people’s art. And in particular the art of anonymous "jobbing" artists who earn each and every meal from the effort of their hands.
Which brings me back to the image from Bengaluru.
The picture has captured (quite by accident) some essential reference points for the contemporary Indian artist. Superman, up front and personal, acts as a spokesman for the other icons on the roof and could be an acknowledgement of the ubiquity and preponderance of Western popular culture in the global village. But the superhero is also held fast by a chain, as if to say, "Yes, but in India you are under our control".
Further in the background, and perhaps reflective of his diminished political relevance, Gandhiji keeps a fire burning for an alternative – long gone? – India. Lord Venkateswara stands in for the spiritual source of all artistic effort and as such is appropriately planted in the middle of the others. But what does one make of the well-toned naked European male upon the toilet? Can we see a naked reference to the colonial past? Or that European culture is simply going to pot?
Art is holding all of these massive influences and personalities on its shoulders and like the studio itself is crumbling under the strain of such weighty ideas.
This is all just a lot of fun, of course. But I find it hard to believe that these figures just happened to make their way onto the roof of this studio without any thought from the artist. Whoever he or she is, it is a truly memorable statement.
Much less ambiguous than the artist’s studio is this life-size mural from Pondy Bazar in Chennai, the city with the most accomplished street art of any place in India. Superficially, this is an advertisement for the Vishwabharati Sign Arts, a commercial studio in the T Nagar area. But it is far more than just a hoarding. You only need glance at this gorgeous portrait to be seduced by the anonymous painter’s great feeling for baby Krishna as well as his accomplished brush work and bold palate.
One can’t help but feel that public art in India, especially painting, will soon be a lost art. Everywhere you turn, simple signs, film hoardings and billboards, which for years have been the grand canvases upon which whole tribes of unknown artists have expressed their personal visions, are being replaced by the assembly line productions of an even larger army of graphic designers. Indian cities already are much poorer visually.
So I was overcome with great excitement when I wandered by this music shop near the Charminar in Hyderabad. Though the art seems relatively recent, the image of a smart jazz club drummer throws you back to a time when India was a more innocent country, when Western musical instruments were a rare acquisition and when drummers actually wore jackets and ties. The nameless person who painted this has not just a steady hand and but an accomplished animation-esque style.
Art is everywhere around us. And this is no more evident than in India. Sadly, much of the most interesting, individualised and vibrant art is fast disappearing. For all you photographers who are privileged to live in India, please document this, get to know the artists and at the very least keep a record of Indian art for future generations.