Photographer Ankit Agrawal has been visiting wild pumpkins in Miraj, in southern Maharashtra, for the past year to document their transformation into the tanpura, a stringed instrument essential to Indian classical music.

The process begins with the selection of the right pumpkin, which is sun-dried for three-four months and then, after more steps, exactingly attached to the right sound board. Every stage requires patience and know-how. Even selling an instrument requires a degree of knowledge, said Agrawal: “It’s not like buying a standard order of a bucket of chicken at KFC. Before they sell you a tanpura, the makers need to whether you are a pro or an amateur.”

Miraj’s tanpuras are popular among musicians. “There is a sense of pride associated with making a tanpura that meets the ustads’ approval,” said Agrawal, who began training in Dhrupad with Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar in 2011. In some families, the knowledge of making, and selling, the instrument has come down seven generations.

Agrawal visited these families repeatedly over the past year, cataloguing their processes with his Canon 7D camera. Now, his series of 18 photographs is part of a group exhibition of works by the winners of the 2017 Neel Dongre Grant for documentary photographers.

The show, Framing the Living Traditions, at the India International Centre, Delhi, also features images by Vikas Gupta, who chronicled studio photography in Kurukshetra, Haryana; Mrigank Kulshrestha who captured the process of making Muga, Eri and Pat silk saris in Assam; Taha Ahmad, who focused on a family of Mukaish embroiders in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh and Bharat Tiwari, who documented Chanderi weaving in Chanderi, Madhya Pradesh.

Credit: Ankit Agrawal

The Neel Dongre Grant began in 2011. Every year, photographers Aditya Arya and Parthiv Shah vet 25-40 proposals to select five-eight photographers, each of whom gets a grant of up to Rs 50,000. In previous iterations, the grant focused on themes like the recycling industry and bandwallahs. For the fifth edition of the grant, which is organised around the theme of living traditions, Shah said he applied two main criteria for selection: the first was to look at crafts which were lesser known.

Mukaish work from Lucknow. Once paired with chikankari to highlight intricate work and favoured by royals who had real silver and gold inlaid in the garment, the craft is now practised by a handful of Badlas. Credit: Taha Ahmad

“More people know about Warli or Madhubani today than how a tanpura is made,” Shah said. “In the case of Chanderi, it is not talked about as much as, say, Banarasi or Patola, and Chanderi in Madhya Pradesh is not a tourist spot in the way that Varanasi is or Bhubaneswar is.”

Shah’s second criterion was to examine the photographers’ technical expertise and vet their creative process. “We need to see how their eye works. Because, after all, it is a photography project. When the applicants send us eight to 20 photographs, we can see how they think and shoot.”

Credit: Taha Ahmad

In each of the five projects developed for Framing the Living Traditions, there is an attempt to build narrative through pictures. In Agrawal’s series, for instance, the documentation begins with the farming of pumpkins. Tanpuras are not made of garden-variety pumpkins – each pumpkin used for the instrument weighs 40-45 kg and has to be sun-dried just so to retain its shape. In Agrawal’s photos, visitors can see the pumpkins still on the vine, only vaguely resembling the final musical product.

Credit: Taha Ahmad

“I asked Ankit to go back and shoot the pumpkins in the farm, to give us a sense of where they come from and where it all starts,” said Shah, who also mentored the photographers over seven months, viewing and reviewing their work. Through this time, Shah said he encouraged photographers to go back to the same places, revisit the steps involved in the craft they were documenting. “You start seeing things differently the third time you visit a place.”

Credit: Ankit Agrawal

Mrigank Kulshrestha, who spent days and weeks shadowing the silk threads which go into making Mogu, Eri and Pat silk saris in Assam, had a similar process. His travels began last September from Sualkuchi, where the handloom weavers live, and saris are sold. Kulshrestha then traced his steps back to the beginning, to the sericulture farms of Boksar and Rattanpur. From there, he followed silkworms to Tokradiya, where he said the livelihood options are limited to extracting silk thread from cocoons or fishing. Kulshrestha followed the threads back to Boksar, where they are straightened on charkhas, some of which he said are no more than rims from bicycle wheels. Finally, Kulshrestha shadowed the silk threads as they were dyed (except Muga silk, the most expensive of Assamese silks, beloved for its natural golden colour), photographed the weavers at work in Sualkuchi and then, returned to the market where he first saw the saris.

“I must have walked kilometres on end,” said Kulshrestha, who is showing digital prints on photographic paper and pat silk at the exhibition. “In some of these villages, there is no conveyance, no roads even.”

Credit: Taha Ahmad

Each grant winner has exhibited a distinct style: Kulshrestha’s set of 30 images are installed as digital prints, as well as printed on Pat silk. Following the journalistic approach which has guided his work so far, Agrawal has not touched up his photos except colour-correcting them for the show. Taha Ahmad, who focused on a single family of Badla Mukaish embroiders for the project, shot the images on a D-7000 digital camera, but is showing them as black-and-white prints with sharp contrasts.

This is a large show, from which visitors can expect to learn a great deal about the five crafts through picture stories. Anyone hoping, however, for a more nuanced approach on why these crafts are falling out of favour through these photos may be somewhat disappointed.

Framing the Living Traditions is on at the India International Centre in New Delhi until May 2.

Credit: Bharat Tiwari