Utpal Borpujari

January 11, 2010

Imaging modern India’s icons, the royal way

By Utpal Borpujari

The mission was to “create a record of and a tribute to those who have achieved prominence in shaping India of today” and the intention was to “acknowledge those personalities whose endeavour have had a discernible impact upon the development of modern India”.

The Nand & Jeet Khemka Foundation, the mover behind this idea, zeroed down on Antony Charles Robert Armstrong-Jones, one of the most-respected photographers of the 21st century, better known as Lord Snowdon, one-time husband of the late Princess Margaret, sister of Queen Elizabeth of Britain. One gets to understand why the celebrated photographer, also an Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker, is so famous for his work as one takes a look at an exhibition mounted in Delhi’s Photoink gallery coinciding with the release of a hardbound book comprising the photographs he took for the project of some famous Indian names.

Take for example a photograph of veteran politician George Fernandes, perhaps the best of the lot he took of subjects whom he had no idea about and who were introduced to him by the project managers through ready biographical sketches. The photograph shows Fernandes in deep slumber on his bed, a significant part of it occupied by books, as his dog sleeps in an almost identical posture on the floor. The photographer, who was given the title of the First Earl of Snowdon following his marriage with Princess Margaret, apparently reached Fernandes’ home when the latter had gone to sleep after a hectic and tiring schedule. Not wanting to disturb him, Lord Snowdon took his photograph as he slept, creating an enduring image of the simple man that Fernandes is in his personal life.

That Snowdon is a master at his work comes through in another photograph he took, of ageless beauty Rekha. Dressed in an off-whitish Saree, Rekha looks every inch the diva that she is known to be, even though she is believed to have used minimal make up for the session with the master photographer. There are several other photographs that capture one’s attention – of former Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee posing with a twinkle in his eyes, reflecting his witty persona, of a relaxed L K Advani on a traditional wooden swing-chair, of walking acting school Naseeruddin Shah sitting with an impish smile, of the multi-talented Girish Karnad sitting in the shadow of the bullock cart, and of Marxist veteran Jyoti Basu next to his own wax statue. Some other photographs that catch one’s eyes include those of a beautifully-framed Karan Singh against a dark backdrop, lyricist Javed Akhtar and actress Shabana Azmi striking a cozy pose, anti big dam activist Medha Patkar standing amidst dirty, rundown surroundings, actor Kamal Hasan standing like a devoted fan next to a poster of Charlie Chaplin, and veteran journalist-writer Khushwant Singh sitting relaxed on a verandah.

However, some of the 105 portraits that have been showcased in the exhibition and included in the book, come across as straightforward portraits, the kind that one would see adoring magazine covers, not offering much clue into the subject’s persona. Surely, a dampener from the octogenarian photographer whose life has been as colourful as it could be for a commoner who married a princess and went on to live a life that many a times cocked a snook at the British royal family’s dour lifestyle through his stormy and colourful married life with her. Some of the photographs that best exemplify this, and also perhaps his unfamiliarity with the subjects’ backgrounds, include those of Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh, supercop Kiran Bedi, a bored looking heart surgeon Naresh Trehan, a visibly-conscious Pandit Hari Prasad Chaurasia, author V S Naipaul, Ratan Tata, Jayalalithaa and magician P C Sorcar (Junior). There are quite a few photographs of this nature, but fortunately, the imaginatively-framed ones – even though some of them are predictable – outnumber them.

Unfortunately, the project, aimed at capturing on camera those who have helped shape modern India, has missed out on quite a few faces that should otherwise be sureshot inclusions. So, though it comprises Dilip Kumar and even Aishwarya Rai, it does not have Amitabh Bachchan, the biggest superstar India has produced ever. And while it has senior Congress leader Digvijay Singh and Samajwadi Party’s mover and shaker Amar Singh, those missing include, most notably Sonia Gandhi, Rahul Gandhi, Mayawati and Mulayam Singh Yadav from the political firmament. Varghese Kurien, the man who ushered in the milk revolution, is also not there, and so is Sitar maestro Pandit Ravi Shankar, cricketing legends Sachin Tendulkar and Kapil Dev (the only cricket hero included is Sunil Gavaskar), none of the film industry Khans as well as Hrithik Roshan, the Ambani brothers, Olympic gold medalist shooter Abhinav Bindra, and world champion woman boxer M C Mary Kom.

But as project director Devika Daulet-Singh of Photoink explains, the photographs taken during 2004-05 could not include some prominent names because of their non-availability for the purpose. “Some personalities are absent in the book and multiple reasons can be attributed to that – availability being the main issue. Some people turned down the invitation and it is perfectly reasonable to have some declines in a project of this scale,” she says. Lord Snowdon was provided with the biographies of those featured, prepared by veteran journalist Malvika Singh, so that he could get an idea about their backgrounds and achievements, she says. “He could not be expected to make a selection of the people as he is not Indian and is unfamiliar with the careers and histories of the sitters in the book,” explains Daulet-Singh, who describes the experience of working with one of the world’s living legends in photography as “marvellous!”

(Published in Deccan Herald, www.deccanherald.com, www.deccanheraldepaper.com, 10-01-2010)

http://www.deccanherald.com/content/45869/faces-todays-india.html

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