Till October last, at almost every classical concert or dance performance in Delhi, you would be sure to find a slender, somewhat frail figure in a second-row seat of the auditorium. Come rain or shine, he would wait with a camera in his right hand to capture those elusive moments of creativity on stage. Occasionally, a tremor would upset the steadiness of his effort, but he would park his hand on the arm rest and wait again for that perfect frame.

Avinash Pasricha, at 87, is now in fragile health and his much-loved presence at Delhi’s soirees is sorely missed. He is convalescing and itching to return to the second row with his camera. And to go back to his home and studio for nearly 70 years – a cosy, quiet first floor flat on Hanuman Road, minutes away from the manic buzz of Connaught Place.

“Madam doesn’t let me go,” he said of his wife Santosh, a steadfast companion at every event and, in many ways, his collaborator for six decades. After his last bout of illness, the couple moved to their east Delhi home and the convenience of a ground floor. “I am missing out on so many moods I can capture,” he said. “There is so much left to do. But life affects us in ways that are hard to tell.”

Reclined in his drawing room on an unusually cold February morning, he recalls his life’s work. “I knew neither dance nor music,” he said with disarming candour. “But over the years I learnt to anticipate what was coming next and was there to capture it.”

Bhimsen Joshi. Credit: Avinash Pasricha. Courtesy: Collection of Gandharva Mahavidyalaya.

Pasricha’s story, of a classical arts photographer who has documented nearly 60 years of Indian dance and music, is fascinating. But he has yet to get the recognition he deserves for patiently and diligently archiving India’s cultural history at its most critical points, framing its artistes and forms. He started in the 1960s, when classicism was being feted in India and celebrated worldwide, and continued without a break till the 2020s, when individualism, innovation and technology rule.

“His work is monumental: he chronicled entire eras of Indian classical music and dance, starting with the Vishnu Digambar Jayanti festival and moving on to every concert and performance in the city,” said Odissi dancer Madhavi Mudgal, one of his earliest subjects of off-beat arts photography. “It was not easy to be this regular, landing up without fail, photographing the young and old, or creating evocative images without using the flash so that he did not disturb the artiste or the audiences.”

Last month, the seventh book of his collected works on the classical arts, Legends in One Frame, was released, with text by Delhi’s beloved compere and former television star Sadhana Shrivastav. The two staples of Delhi’s culture circuit have known each other for four decades, travelling together often for arts festivals.

Harpriya Mahari doing abhinaya at a performance with Kelucharan Mahapatra. Credit: Avinash Pasricha. Courtesy: Collection of Gandharva Mahavidyalaya.

“Over the years, every expression, every emotion, be it a glance or a flick of the hand, every nuance of the artiste has been very artistically and aesthetically been captured by the lens, and preserved and immortalised by him,” said Shrivastav.

If you have seen an exceptionally expressive image of a classical dancer or musician in the last few decades, chances are it has been clicked by Pasricha: Kumar Gandharva submerged in his music, arms thrown out; Bhimsen Joshi’s face contorted in a torrential taan; the fascinating Begum Akhtar, nosepin flashing and a grin to signal the irony in a ghazal; MS Subbulakshmi aglow with passion and piety; or Kishori Amonkar, eyes closed and swarmandal clasped to the chest.

Festival displays, books, posters, brochures, even logos bear his stamp (including the sparrow perched on a tabla from ITC music festivals and academy). His photos illustrate some of the best-known books by dancers and scholars. These include musicologist Ragahava Menon’s The Musical Journey of Kumar Gandharva and Leela Samson’s Rhythm in Joy.

For dancers, Pasricha has always been the go-to photographer. He created portfolios for them, his photos illustrated their books and captured what they wanted said through their work. Among these were Odissi dancer Madhavi Mudgal, Bharatanatyam dancer Leela Samson and the legendary Yamini Krishnamurthy.

Yamini Krishnamurthy. Credit: Avinash Pasricha.

Go-to photographer

The Pasricha family’s engagement with photography goes back to the decades before independence. His father had set up a studio in Delhi in 1938. The family lived above it and young Pasricha spent an inordinate time in it, watching the making of studio portraits. In 1950, the family moved to Hanuman Road, a quiet lane tucked by a Hanuman temple, creating both work and living space.

It was on the first floor of this space that Pasricha lived and worked recently. When dancers came by to be photographed, Santosh recalls, a small room with black curtain would be used as a backdrop with light flooding in from the Connaught Place skyline.

“He was incredibly generous,” said Mudgal. “We would all flock to him for free, because he only charged us for the print. And Santoshji would feed us. It is impossible to imagine this generosity today.”

Kumar Gandharva. Credit: Avinash Pasricha.

Mudgal’s family, founders of Delhi’s Gandharva Mahavidyalaya and hosts of the annual Vishnu Digambar arts festival, had an early role in shaping Pasricha’s life in arts photography.

Pasricha took on a job as a photo lab assistant with the United States Information Service in 1957, moving three years later to its magazine Span as the photo editor. His first encounter with classical arts was something of an accident.

“I knew nothing of music or dance,” he recalled. “It was in 1966 that a cousin dragged me along to watch the Vishnu Digambar festival, then being held at Sapru House.” He was hooked enough to explore the idea of photographing classical arts further. The annual Shankarlal Festival at Modern School was the other big arts venue. In Shrivastava’s book, Santosh talks of standing in queue to get passes and tickets for shows.

“Going through his old contact sheets he nostalgically recalls the sarod and sitar jugalbandi of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan and Pandit Ravi Shankar, the rendition of ‘Lagi Lagan’ in Rag Hamsadhwani by A Kanan and Malvika Kanan, ‘Rasia aao na’, in Rag Behag by Begum Parveen Sultana, and the queen of Thumri and Purab Ang Gayaki, Girija Devi whom he photographed till the very end,” says Shrivastava in her book.

Malavika Sarukkai. Credit: Avinash Pasricha.

Following instinct

Early in his arts career, Pasricha swore off flash photography after a somewhat unsatisfactory photo session with Odissi legend Indrani Rahman for Span. Mudgal at the Vishnu Digambar festival was the first image he shot without flash and he recalls the results being great. “I was very particular about not disturbing the artiste or the audience, unlike many other photographers,” he said. “I would kneel in the pit of Sapru House and click so I would not obstruct anyone’s vision. Those were some of my best works because I was working with my instinct.”

Photographing Indian classical musicians is a challenging task. Unlike western concerts, the music is not visually showcased, the artistes sit on the floor and there is a wild mess of mikes and wires obstructing a clear shot.

“I had to wait patiently for that moment when from behind the mikes and wires, a visual would emerge of the singer’s mood – an expression on the face, the arms flung out,” he said. “My aim was to capture the artiste’s involvement with their art. The eye had to learn to anticipate. But I also shot them in profile. I remember Parveen Sultana dropping in for a shot and taking several copies home, and Yamini [Krishnamurthy] posing in the green room.”

Madhavi Mudgal. Credit: Avinash Pasricha. Courtesy: Collection of Gandharva Mahavidyalaya.

Some of the landmark compilations of Pasricha were for Gandharva Mahavidyalaya. He recalls going to Dewas in Madhya Pradesh with Mudgal to shoot Kumar Gandharva at his home for an audio-visual footage to celebrate the master’s 60th birth anniversary. “I recall how excited Kumarji was, he would lay out his certificates and medals for us to photograph, and being a foodie, how much he fed us,” said Mudgal.

In her eyes, among Pasricha’s most historical works was his photography from the ambitious Angahara festival of dance she organised in 1984. It was an effort to document the state of Odissi at that moment, photographing each artiste and guru – Priyambada Mohanty, Kelucharan Mahapatra, Minati Mishra and so on. “Those were priceless images and they are still used in works documenting Odissi, often unacknowledged,” said Mudgal. “The greatness of his work was capturing dance in movement, a really tough task. And, remember, unlike today when you can take 5,000 images and pick one with ease, those days you had to pick the right moment, the right shot, or you missed it.”

For the while, the daily schedule he and Santosh revelled in for decades is paused. “We have an events diary,” Santosh said. “Till October, at the start of every month, we would look at the monthly schedules of IIC [India International Centre] and IHC [India Habitat Centre] and note every event down in it. I love music more, he loves dance, solo especially.”

Why does he opt for the second row though? “The space between two heads is the best place for a photographer who cannot move around much,” he said.

Avinash Pasricha. Credit: Innee Singh. Courtesy: Amit Pasricha.

Malini Nair is a culture writer and senior editor based in New Delhi. She can be reached at writermalini@gmail.com.