The photo of Erykah Badu jumps out instantly from Farrokh Chothia’s series of jazz portraits. Her face doesn’t even make the frame, all that is visible is the singer-songwriter’s torso, and two fierce blurs on each side. She’s swinging her arms around. It is an impermanent moment, captured forever by the eye of Chothia. There’s another of Miles Davis, the man who has arguably done more for jazz than anyone else. Davis is in an almost meditative state, staring absently at his guitar player’s fretboard, his eyes visible from behind the sunglasses he’s wearing. He is mid-note on his trumpet. The photo was taken in 1990, Davis died a year later.
These photos were among the 19 recently displayed at an exhibition at PhotoInk in Delhi. Titled Jazz Portraits, the exhibition featured some of the most influential figures of jazz, all shot by Chothia at the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands, between 1989 and 2005. The photos were earlier displayed at the Sensorium exhibition at the Sunaparanta Goa Centre for the Arts.
Chothia is best known for his fashion photography – he has shot magazine covers with some of the biggest names in Bollywood – and commissioned works. “My main path, the direction of my photography, is more on the commercial side, rather than fine arts,” he said. His personal evolution as an artist, though, has been shaped by music.
In the 1980s, when he was in college, Chothia was surrounded by friends who were mostly musicians or sound engineers. They would perform gigs in Bombay, including at Rang Bhavan, the landmark venue in the city’s musical history that used to host Independence Rock each year. Chothia had an interest in rock music, but, like any other college kid, he was broke. “When you don’t have money to pay for the ticket, you can either jump the wall and get in, or you volunteer,” said Chothia. So he ended up photographing gigs for free, if only so that he could get access to the music. Slowly, he got entrenched in what were the origins of Bombay’s independent music scene, and ended up shooting the cover for the first Rock Machine album (the band would rechristen themselves Indus Creed later).
Thus began Chothia’s indoctrination into the world of music and concert photography. “One evening, I was at Rang Bhavan,” he recollected. “We saw a concert that ended with Zakir Hussain and Hariprasad Chaurasia. They used to double bill in those days. After the main jazz or rock concert would get over, they’d put on an Indian classical artist. There was nothing else then. No TV…access to music was also limited. You had to travel to Andheri to record a cassette of an album a friend got through a cousin who worked in Air India.”
Despite his stature, Chothia speaks with a sincere humility. He’s well-aware of his skills with a camera – he’s not faking modesty to appear endearing – but he has the self-awareness to keenly engage with his own work intellectually, as perhaps an exercise in self-improvement. The photos in Jazz Portraits are all black-and-white and, despite being shot over a period of close to two decades, there’s a unifying voice underpinning the works. The consistency of the visual aesthetic here, he said, is thanks partly to the rote nature of live performance as well as the fact that the venue remained the same all through.
“I’m guessing the lighting engineer at North Sea didn’t change for 15 years,” he said. “I was piggybacking on their lighting. Concerts are pretty straightforward. It’s not a laser show or a fashion shoot. So there were a lot of constants. It’s not a great imposition of my style or something, it’s that the variables remained the same.” Seeing a live performance for the first time, he said, can be thrilling with all its volatility. But upon a second or third viewing, patterns begin to emerge. “It’s a rhythm. You just have to wait and figure it out. The jokes are the same, it’s a band, it’s a set, so the same thing will happen at the same time each night. Any random motion you see, if you stare at it long enough, it becomes a pattern.”
To understand these patterns though, requires a keen ability to observe, as well as a familiarity, not just with the works of the artist on stage, but a general grasp of music and songwriting too. Concert photography, Chothia said, isn’t such a drastic jump from the other work he does, even if it is in a more chaotic environment. “The challenge is in trying to get something special in composition or lighting – you’re at the mercy of the lights and the movements of the person on stage, so you just have to sit and wait. It’s a bit like wildlife photography. You anticipate things, you know where someone is going to end up, where he’ll draw a breath. If you know the music, you know he’s going to take his lips off the sax and breathe.” His “biggest enemy,” he said, is the mic stand that’s present in front of most musicians.
Each photo in the series reveals the kind of intensity synonymous with live music performed by artists at the top of their game. But Jazz Portraits goes a step further, as Chothia is able to capture the playfulness that often accompanies performative art. This, he explained, is in part thanks to his familiarity with the artists and the music, and also a result of the selection process. The one of BB King, in particular, is reflective of the blues maestro’s identity. King is presumably in the midst of one of his trademark guitar slides, mouth open in avuncular amazement, and his eyes betray a sense of mischief.
Given how so many of the artists featured in these photos are no longer alive, the images have a historical significance today. Chothia is quick to underplay that canonical value of these photos – he points out how his exposure to the world of live jazz music was limited to mostly the jazz movements of India and the North Sea Festival. Growing up in India, he didn’t quite have access to the major jazz artists of the time, unlike a William Klaxton, who began shooting jazz in New York while he was still at college, or Jim Marshall, who got the chance to shoot at Woodstock. “One can’t compete with that,” Chothia said.
What made him realise the value of his works though, was when he got a call from Landor Associates years ago, asking him if they could use one of his photos of BB King for the Fedex branding at a new stadium in Memphis. “I thought, you’re in San Francisco, and you’re calling a guy in Mumbai, to use a picture of BB King, for a project in Memphis,” he said. “It’s the heart of the blues. They’re like, ‘No, no, we liked the live energy you captured in it.’” The project eventually didn’t materialise, but today, Chothia looks back at the incident fondly, as a reminder of the power his works may have. “They tracked me down for a picture to be used in Memphis,” he said. “This is what I tried to do, to capture that energy. And it’s resonating with someone somewhere, you know.”
Today Chothia speaks of his experiences shooting music with a great deal of joy and nostalgia. His commercial work is important to him, and he respects the processes involved there. But at heart, the photos he’s clicked purely for himself, with no financial agenda involved, have kept him going. Shooting concerts from the photographer pit, so close to artists he’s grown up admiring, has led to unfettered joy for him. “If you want to enjoy something, it’s best to keep the commercial angle out of it,” he said. “The minute you take their money, you’re beholden to them.”
But Chothia has no plans to shoot concerts anymore. “No way, man, I can’t do it. I told Farhad Wadia [of Independence Rock] years ago, ‘I can’t do this anymore. Or you give me three bodyguards.’ I’m not going to go up front surrounded by sweaty, drunk guys. Also, at some point, I guess you get old – not jaded, but you want to be comfortable,” he said, a touch wistfully.