In Zendo, an inspirational exhibition of 46 photographs, Prabir C Purkayastha takes us through his spiritual and artistic journey. The large black and white images are as stark and compelling as the towering rugged landscapes of Ladakh. A shaft of light pierces the darkness as the Buddha image sits in serene grace, a prayer flag stands lone vigil, frozen water caresses the river grass.
Entering this sacred space, black and white against dove grey walls, the viewer is engrossed in the spiritual realm where Zen-do (sitting meditation) is practiced. We, too, enter a sacred space to contemplate the vastness of our inner and outer world. The gallery, like the designated space in every Buddhist temple, becomes the transcendental – a place where people go to practice Zen.
Purkayastha trekked the arid, rugged terrain of Ladakh, mesmerised by the silences he witnessed. “The silence was Biblical, like the beginning of time, when nothing moved and the light of God covered the face of the Earth,” he said. That element of awe increased with each journey: “Each experience [to Ladakh] brought out another avatar, and each time I felt reborn, emerging from the womb of this silence.”
The compelling collection of photographs were taken over 20 years, in freezing temperatures and scorching heat, in silent monasteries and in wide open spaces. In this period, Purkayastha undertook an epic journey from Ladakh to the Central Zanskar plains, the Chang Thang plateau and Eastern Himalayan range of Bhutan and on to Laos, Vietnam, Thailand, Mongolia, Myanmar, South Korea, Japan and Indonesia. The selection of images reflects this expedition, although the majority of the images are from Ladakh.
The exhibit underlines Purkayastha’s creative evolution as an artist, manifest both in the content and style of the work and its development. His artistic journey evolved from landscapes to photographic portraits, to portraying the icy river and the many notes in its songs.
“When I started photographing I photographed landscapes as that was what my eyes were seeing,” he said. “I was creating images that would be crucibles to hold the silence and after several years I started seeing this silence in certain people and started doing portraits. I sought to capture the element of spiritual grace in the fold of a garment, in a look in the eyes, in the lighting of a human entity to best express the land’s silences. The subject, a nun, priest or child becomes the land.”
The person, in many ways, was the carrier of that emptiness.
Encouraged by a farmer to experience Ladakh in the deep winter, Purkayastha began an intense love affair with the river. “Now all my work in Ladakh is concentrated on working with ice-covered water, river, lakes... but in that moment of freeze is eternity for me. In that spectrum of eternity is the spiritual grace I am constantly seeking and finding. I am amazed that the river has not claimed me,” he said referring to the many accidents he has had on the river and the rigors and risks of working on shifting ice.
Working in Ladakh is challenging at the best of times. Purkayastha’s current body of work, shot in temperatures well below zero, intensifies the challenges and risks of working at this extreme place. Since he first ventured to Ladakh over 20 years ago, Purkayastha has had to get acclimatised, and walk through remote areas, where the infrastructure is still almost non-existent. Often, he is at the mercy of nomads or army patrols stationed there. “The first six or seven years of wandering made me feel like a nomad,” he said. “I was walking through the bleached bones of the Earth. I did not see people for days, I slept in caves, and lived on meagre rations of almonds and raisins.”
Walking on the freezing river to capture it on camera intensifies the challenges of this frozen wasteland. Purkayastha likens his artistic forays to playing a game of Russian Roulette: every time he steps on to the ice, he is haunted by the possibility that he may not return. Shooting at minus 40 temperatures can give one hypothermia. The best of cameras malfunction. One’s skin can be burnt accidentally, touching the tripod at this temperature, or get stuck.
“On the river I walk on thin ice,” he said. “When the river ice cracks it is like exploding cannon fire. The fury of Nature is quite terrifying. In the late afternoon, because of the heat of the sun the thin crust of ice on the mountain tops start to melt and stones and boulders fall and crash in the water like bombs falling.” There are times he has taken a long shot from a precipice over a hundred feet high. In these situations he is tied by rope that is tethered to his vehicle or held by two or three people. Yet, despite the madness and the risk, Purkayasta cannot resist the call of the river and feels the risk is worth taking, each time he takes a great photograph.
His art has been recognised nationally and internationally. In the past 15 years, he has regularly exhibited in the UK, US and in India. He is the recipient of numerous awards including The Habitat Award for best Photography Exhibition in 2002. In 2005, he published his picture book, Ladakh, which received critical acclaim and won the prestigious gold medal at the federation of Master Printers Awards Ceremony in Mumbai.
A consummate artist, Purkayastha’s virtuosity, discipline and soul connection with the region and its deafening silences resonates through these transcendent works. Zendo represents another important landmark in his artistic career.
Zendo is on display at the Birla Academy of Art & Culture, Kolkata, from February 25 to March 26, 2017