It is refreshing to see photobooks from India that do not present the usual orientalist tropes – the bright reds, the sadhus in saffron, the ash covered faces, the Kumbh, the Ganges, Rajasthan and a funeral pyre by a river. Most of these tropes are not false, they do exist. But there is another way to see India, through the eyes of contemporary working photographers from there. Their point of view is as much a response to the environment as it is a representation of it. The Red Cat and Other Stories by Ritesh Uttamchandani, End of Time by Ronny Sen and Angst by Soham Gupta are three such bodies of work that are honest in their response to their environments and what they see.
Bombay is a state of mind and Mumbai is a city. Ritesh’s book The Red Cat and Other Stories, I reckon, is made in Bombay and photographed in Mumbai. In form, it is a white colored square-shaped book with an exposed coptic bound spine. The book is not housed in any protective cover and over time its white cover will stain and scruff. This is very much the experience one will have as one moves through and lives in the megapolis that is Mumbai. This is not a coffee table book on Mumbai, which makes it fantastic. This is a storybook, where the elements in the images are the words and the image is the sentence. Laid out beautifully in a meticulous edit, this body of work narrates a short story of urbs prima in Indis. It is not a fast-flip through, but a slow read novel – a love story perhaps, one that Ritesh shares with his hometown and one he invites you into.
In reading the Sindhi folklore of the Laal Billi, one may take away a message of compassion with one’s environment, of how that what you seek may be right where you are, not elsewhere. You know what they say, if you think the grass is greener on the other side, it is time for you to tend to your own lawn. Did I mention that this is a fun book? It is, those back alley golfers, the street-savvy workout enthusiasts and the two Ronalds who escaped McDonald’s to watch existential TV! In this city, where life is a grind and unbearable for many, Ritesh provides a hint of a smile.
The opening image of Ronny Sen’s End of Time, speaks straight to the title of this book and also to a sentence in the book that reads, “Jharia was once a green forest”. End of Time published by Nazar Foundation follows the success of his project The End, which won him the 2016 Getty Images Instagram Grant. This is an apocalyptic story set in a contemporary coal mine town in India and photographed exclusively on Ronny’s phone. This tight set book, the pages of which are housed between two thick cardboard pieces, comes enclosed in a plastic case. As I turn the pages of this photo-book, I feel a perverse desire to witness the suffering in and of this scarred environment. Apocalyptic is a word that is very center and present in this body of work, and perhaps the existence of this scenario in our current time is what gives rise to this desire. To say that the environment is dramatic is, putting it mildly, the images consequently are fairly dramatic too. One may say Ronny’s images in this book are literal in how they speak about the rape of Jharia. There is decay, destruction, smog dust and dirt on every page, the message is constant and relentless. A ruined temple and broken mosque and residential complexes that are as soot-laden as the lungs of those who reside there. One may ask if the photographer is being too cynical, or one may say that Ronny has a high standard for accepting and then representing the honesty of a situation. Either way, End of Time is a photo-book from India that I recommend taking a look at.
Soham Gupta’s Angst, is a dramatic photo-book that is made up of four chapters/sections/ stories, each one separate from the other, but equally dramatic in their sense of tragedy, with characters that might appear in your strange dreams and nightmares. There is, however, a tenderness and endearment in the souls depicted within its pages. Angst also brings up questions: Who is that human with his face hanging off his face? Where did that naked round fat man come from, where is he going? Why were we not invited to that glitter party, where we possibly would have met her? Was there ever a party or is that glitter the only shine in an otherwise squalor of a life? Angst is a fictionalized body of work and it was written at night – the images here are staged after Soham would engage the subjects in conversations, which give the base to the stories presented in the book. While all of this work was photographed in Kolkata, there is little in the book to anchor us to the city. There is a heavy emotional weight to this book – it is not one that you can go through in a single sitting. My experience of reading this was like reading a fantastic hybrid of a graphic novel – one with live action photographs instead of drawings. You finish one chapter or a few pages of one, set the book aside and then go back to it again. Shortlisted for the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation First Photo-book Award and Shortlisted for the Photo-Text Book Award at Les Rencontres d’Arles, France; Angst is published by Akina Books. There are also 100, made by hand, by Alex Bocchetto editions of this book.
It has been close to a month that I have been sitting with these books and I have to say I am not entirely done with them. All three of these books pull me back in, to look, re-look – they bring me home. They also change the visual zip code on India that we have been subject to this far. If you are at some point considering a visit to India, take a look at these books. Most of what you will see here will not be part of your tour itinerary.