Landscape photography is a venerable old art. Who doesn’t love a shot of the sun going down over a beach or the same sun rising brilliantly over Nanga Parbat?
For most of us, the way we imagine a country, at least initially, is through images of its land. We like to know how high its mountains are and how fast its rivers flow. When we visit a travel agent, we flip through brochures covered with landscapes. For some reason we equate country with land. And based on photographs of sunsets, green fields, rugged mountains or rugged farms, we convince ourselves we have an idea of a place.
But in a country like India that is rocketing forward in its urbanisation, is the natural landscape still the best way to capture its soul?
Within 15 years, nearly 600 million Indians will be city dwellers. While today, only about 32% live in urban areas, the economy is largely urbanised. India’s cities are bursting and new ones will be sprouting up by the dozen if government planners are to be believed. Statistically, India may yet be a rural country, but energetically, it is a pumping urban nation.
In a situation like this, traditional landscape photography seems to be less relevant to grasping the essence of India. If the heart of the nation is its cities, what does photography tell us of that India?
Urban landscape photography is nothing new but it has become somewhat more codified in recent years. It is photography that seeks to find a country’s essential sprit through the way it lays out, develops, and manages its cities. The landscape in question is not the natural world but the physical world of concrete, steel, glass and plastic. And unlike traditional landscape photography its purpose is not necessarily to depict an idealised image of the scene.
Urban photography is, more often than not, photography of the ugly, the "in-the-way", the dilapidated and the abandoned. Alienation is never faraway. Where there is beauty it is usually accidental. It is a photography not suited to travel brochures. But when done by talented photographers it is exciting stuff.
Bharat Sikka is a fine art photographer educated at the Parsons School of Design in New York. Among his artistic interests is a project titled Space-in-Between in which he explores the impact of urbanization, mass communication and the globalising world on the Indian psyche.
His images are fascinating but stark. The skies in this country seem to be perpetually overcast and oppressive. The landscapes are devoid of people but cluttered, instead, with hulks of concrete or tin. To politicians and magnates, these things clearly represent progress but to Sikka they are far more ambiguous.
Things are out of place too: a tram in a courtyard, huge pipes in a forest, boats run aground at a brick kiln.
Has the Indian psyche become unhinged?
There is grandiosity in Sikka’s world, but it is not very beautiful. Rather, one is left to contemplate the ugliness and steely inflexibility of the Indian city.
Rabi Rashmi Roy
Rabi Rashmi Roy, a financial bureaucrat, is not a professional photographer but has a keen eye for seeing urban space from a variety of vantage points. With a passion for urban planning and documentary photography, he has already a number of city photography projects under his belt.
Beginning with Cuttack, Roy’s ambition is to photograph the urban realities of 48 other similar sized towns across India over the next twenty years. In an ongoing project titled India: Unplanned Urbanization, Roy documents the bewildering but functioning chaos of India’s smaller urban centers.
It’s tempting to hear the bitter cry of the frustrated public servant in Roy’s photographs. Everywhere you look there is nothing but unmitigated rule-bending and mayhem. What was originally designed to improve man’s lot is now wreaking havoc.
Indeed, man is almost impossible to see in this chaos. His humanity sucked out of him; even his face is obscured by a jumble of wires. Shot in low contrast black and white, Roy eliminates all drama revealing instead the minute sinews of rampant unplanned and unregulated urban development. For Roy, the message is clear – Indian cities are a mess.
One of the general rules of urban landscape photography is that people should not be the focus of the image. Indeed, the fewer humans cluttering up the frame the better. Druv Malhotra’s well-regarded project, Sleepers however, boldly defies this basic tenet.
In addition to being one of India’s most exciting young photographers Malhotra is a chronic insomniac. Driven to wander the streets after dark, he began making photographs of people sleeping in the open, perhaps in response to his own yearning to slumber.
These photographs are touching and humane. Of course, there is an involuntary vulnerability in the subjects, most of whom are hard working labourers. In many of the pictures they lie crumpled on the chairs, in the rickshaws or on the dhaba floor where they make their living. As if they fell where they stood, exhausted and deflated.
In several images the sleepers are enveloped in gauzy mosquito netting which has the affect of transforming them into something animalistic and other worldy. Yet, Malhotra manages to depict these people without any sense of voyeurism or exploitation. Rather, each image is filled with an amazing and powerful feeling of humanity. Again, the photographer’s own struggle of insomnia is palatable.
Though the city plays a subdued role in these pictures its presence as a tough, unrelenting taskmaster is absolutely unavoidable. Sleep now for a few short hours, it seems to say. When you wake I will be here waiting for you to serve me again.
While Sikka’s cities seem to overwhelm and Roy’s confuse and frustrate, Druv Malhotra’s vision of urban India seems to be that of a mother, eternal and patient if not exactly protective.
In the end, all three views are arguably accurate. And whichever one rings true, the images of all three artists are deeply satisfying, engaging and worthy of intense study.