Imagine walking into a quiet gallery filled with the faces of people whose lives you have always wanted a peek into, but were deterred by the gap between your lifetime and theirs. Imagine seeing those people in their element, in images shorn of artifice and contrivances. Some Portraits at PHOTOINK, a photography gallery in Delhi, offers those observed portraits.
A group show of photographic portraits from the archives of Pablo Bartholomew, Madan Mahatta, Sooni Taraporevala, Ketaki Sheth, Richard Bartholomew, Ram Rahman and Sadanand Menon, Some Portraits is unusual, for it celebrates a group archive rather than focus on a single body of work by a photographer.
The charming show indulges in showcasing painters, writers, poets, architects, dancers, designers and photographers, most of whom are no longer alive. It is a subtle homage to cultural icons of a bygone era as this year draws to a close. The 45 photographs on view are arranged close to one another, the small gaps between the frames almost suggesting the closeness of that generation’s political and artistic leanings. The arrangement also creates proximity between the photographers on display, since none of the portraits on show were commissioned, and belong to disparate bodies of work.
Sadanand Menon’s portrait of the late dancer Chandralekha, as she performs the Naravahana sequence from her production, Angika, is a striking first in the exhibition. On a beach and balanced over the head of another dancer, Chandralekha’s raptor-like, confident poise is symbolic of her non-conformist life as a performing artist.
Just a few images later, appears the silent, atmospheric portrait of writer Anita Desai sitting alone on a bench at Lodi Gardens in 1984, by Ketaki Sheth. Sheth is known for her observant eye and she catches Desai gazing intently and away from the camera, aware of her guarded posture despite the relaxed environment. There is something out of the ordinary about this photograph despite its simplicity of composition and expression.
One knows immediately that Desai is an important figure, as Sheth keeps the intrigue strong about her persona – by photographing her from a distance and from the side. Sheth also uses Lodi Gardens as the backdrop to photograph the poet AK Ramanujan, but this time, straight up and close. The two images could not be more different from the other.
The most striking of Sheth’s photographs is that of the writer Mulk Raj Anand at his home in Mumbai. In a space that is visually arresting, in its built and arranged elements, we see an old Anand looking curiously into the camera, perhaps asked to hold his pose while in conversation with Sheth. The books and decorative column on the wall show their sharp edges in this black and white image, as Sheth finds the perfect light. It is clear in Sheth’s style through the show (especially in portraits of Nalini Malani, Zarina Hashmi and Krishna Reddy) that she is keen to bring the spaces in focus as much as the people.
Pablo Bartholomew’s photographs of Dilip Chitre and Nasreen Mohamedi are intimate, but not without a dash of humour. Chitre’s curly hair and staid expression as he balances a cigarette in between his lips is borderline comical. Bartholomew wastes no time in bringing his own persona to the image, making his way of portraiture seem like a smooth collaboration. His photographs are also the most temporal in the series, indicating the life and times of artists in the 1980s in India. There is also VS Gaitonde, whose photographs by Pablo Bartholomew and his father Richard Bartholomew are both on display.
Meanwhile, Sooni Taraporevala’s photographs of Parsi icons – writer Rohinton Mistry, India’s first woman photojournalist Homai Vyarawallah, and journalist Behram Contractor (better known as Busybee) – are wonderfully whimsical, a quality fondly associated with the Parsi community in India.
Richard Bartholomew was a painter, art critic and a photographer, known for his closeness to the artists of his time. His portraits are often theatrical in their expression of the people he chose to photograph, especially Jeram Patel and a lovely one of MF Husain and Ram Kumar together, both young and caught in an unguarded moment, as they listen intently to someone. This is evident even in his stylish portrait of Manjit Bawa, in which he is seen sitting in a room full of empty chairs with a lit cigarette.
Ram Rahman’s photograph of the artist Bhupen Khakhar has him sitting on a giant statue of Mahatma Gandhi, where their limbs feel like they are merging into each other. Rahman’s photograph is expressive, and also a fine suggestion of Khakhar’s own work around the male body.
The most formalist series of portraits in the show are by Madan Mahatta, whose photographs of architects Joseph Stein, Ram Sharma and AP Kanvinde are against environments designed by the architects themselves. Even though the images do not have any of the architects looking into the camera, there is a strong sense of their awareness of the moment.
It is clear that all seven photographers were close to the people they photographed, and this ease of access, was the driving force of the portraiture they practiced. If one were to think that portraits were to function as glimpses into the lives of famous people, this exhibition serves that purpose well in its simple and obvious grouping, of a generation of cultural giants.
Some Portraits is on show at PHOTOINK, New Delhi until January 14, 2017.