September 16, 2009

Coloured Worlds at Cymroza Art Gallery

Bus number 63 operates between Chunabhatti in Kurla and J.M. Mehta Road near Churchgate. The Breach Candy Hospital lies enroute. We could have boarded the bus outside Byculla (West) railway station but chose to hire a taxi instead for Bhulabhai Desai Road, a little under five kilometers from Byculla (W) station. Located in Hormuz Mansion, the Cymroza Art Gallery is across the road from the Breach Candy Hospital bus stop on Bhulabhai Desai road, an up-market address in South Bombay.

We passed Mahalakshmi on the way. Past Heera Panna at Haji Ali circle we turned right. Tirupati Apartments rose to our left at the turn. I kept my eyes peeled out for the seemingly nondescript art gallery tucked away above corner shops on Bhulabhai Desai road, next door to Breach Candy Club and Miami Building on one side, and Battery House and Skyscraper Building on the other. A blue board announces the gallery in white letters. A tree partially obscures the view at an angle. It is easy to miss the gallery if you’re not paying attention or are unaware of the landmarks along the road. Established in 1971, Cymroza Art Gallery is among the city's older galleries.

A short stretch of bustling market largely characterized by residents flocking in the evenings for spicy Chaat and a delectable array of Donuts at the Right Place and Mad Over Donuts respectively lay opposite the gallery.

I remembered this much from an earlier visit to Cymroza when it hosted Mario Miranda’s works. The road is named after Bhulabhai Desai, an erstwhile freedom fighter and an accomplished lawyer active in India’s struggle for independence from British rule.

Designer showrooms, art galleries, exclusive boutiques, and fruit vendors among others line the street. To many their first trip to Bhulabhai Desai road is occasioned by an appointment at the U.S. Consulate General for an American visa. Affluence rests easy on the street and so does style and the stylish in certain pockets. Residents on the street will likely identify more with Bombay than Mumbai.

We were headed to Cymroza Art Gallery for Coloured Worlds, A Photographical exchange between India and Germany, comprising works of photographers Sudharak Olwe and Helena Schatzle.

Helena Schatzle studied visual communication at the University of Kassel for five years, finding her way through India, South-East Asia, Australia and Eastern Europe, her camera keeping her company. Since 2003 her photography has found acceptance with Brand Eins, Spiegal-online,, Taz, Sudkurier and Medio.

Sudharak Olwe is the Chief Photographer with the Bombay Times, his works drawing from his travels through India, Bangladesh, Sweden, Portugal Holland, the U.S., and Japan. He has authored Spirited Souls: Winning Women of Mumbai and was honoured by National Geographic with the All Roads Photographers Award for his work on conservancy workers of Mumbai.

I was unsure of what to expect at the exhibition. With photography exhibitions it is usually a hit and miss affair, more likely a miss than a hit. Each time I hope to be rewarded with images on the Indian street that go beyond the predictable. If it has to be predictable then it might at least be a fresh perspective.

Sometimes, to successfully photograph India on the street you’ve to step off it, into the shade for, it is in the shade that Indian streets make sense in the Sun outside. If you’ve seen Raghu Rai’s works you’ll know what I mean. Steve McCurry did it with some success. The American photographer Betsy Karel tried it with her Bombay Jadoo series, scratching the surface, sometimes barely, other times delightfully, seemingly ‘getting it’ before ‘losing it’ in the next frame and so on. She missed out on the shade and that told in her work. Most miss out on the shade in the street, and they’re legion, Indians and foreigners alike.

India’s pulse throbs as much in the street as off it so I was curious to see how Helena Schatzle, a German photographer from Kassel, approached India through her lens. As for Sudharak Olwe, the Bombay-based photographer trawling the streets of Germany with his lens, prying open the German street to a curious eye would present a difficult challenge, probably having less to do with skill and more with the society’s acceptance of candid photography on the street. At least that is a factor.

Aside of events where purpose infuses a picture with dynamics there’s very little I’ve seen of European or American streets in the works of photographers that can pause a breathing moment into taking in an everyday moment, a moment that would interest a native as much as it would an outsider. It’s anybody’s guess if the Western street, with its notions of privacy and the laws governing it, is conducive to candid street photography anymore.

From Sudharak’s images of Germany it quickly became evident that he didn’t even manage to get to the surface let alone scratch it. If these pictures were not hanging in an art gallery they might’ve been mistaken for works of someone who happened to find himself accidentally offloaded on a German street and eager to get off it. I haven’t seen Sudharak’s earlier works so there’s nothing I can compare with.

Helena Schatzle had no such barrier. The Indian street in most parts is welcoming, and vibrant. Where individual space derives from shared space the ownership of a moment is often that which is snapped up in a candid take by a roving eye looking through a viewfinder.

Helena’s India series was only marginally better. In her case she had the opportunities but rarely the eye except maybe for the life her image from Dhobhighat breathed into the quiet hall. It was a riveting moment. The turbaned washerman gazed fixedly while a mound of clothes beckoned his effort at the washing platform while the colour of his turban lit up the grey of his washing block, contrasting strongly with the rigour of his profession. It helped that I once spent a morning with the dhobhis at Dhobhighat.

Her take on fisherwomen on the beach was close behind. And so was the quiet on the river where a boat stilled the waters while a monkey lorded over the moment in a tree on the banks. Beneath the tree an elderly woman was seemingly finding her steps. This was an India moment. The technical quality of this particular picture left a lot to be desired but the essence more than made up for it.

The rest of her works made little impression. An opportunity missed.

Her choice of a featureless market littered to high heaven with rubbish was inexplicable. And so was a garbage dump. There was no coloured world I could possibly relate to in those two and in a few others as well.

Interest the country to the native and you’re through.

Note: Coloured Worlds: A Photographical exchange between India and Germany is organized by Goethe-Institut, Mumbai and is exhibiting at the Cymroza Art Gallery, 4th-17th September, 2009.

Related Links

1. Coloured Worlds: A Photographical Exchange between India and Germany
2. Goethe-Institut, Mumbai
3. Helena Schatzle’s Work


Darlene said...

I am an amateur photographer so I really am unable to critique the technical qualities of Photography, I think it's like art; what speaks to you is good, providing the horizon is level, the background doesn't distract and the subject is composed well.

Perhaps beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

Sarah Laurence said...

Interesting analysis of Helena’s photography. Your street scenes are always so personal. Her images are more stylized but still beautiful. A native would have an easier time seeing through the veil.

karen said...

Hi Anil, I've been catching up on your blog. Great photos of the art gallery and its street atmosphere. The Coloured Worlds exchange sounds like an interesting idea, and it's always amazing what one can learn about through reading blogs!

I also loved the previous post, about the doctor in Lalbaug, and the beautiful photos you have posted, too!

Kamini said...

An excellent review and commentary. I wish I could see these for myself.

Rouchswalwe said...

Hello Anil! Your comments about the shade are incisive. And I agree wholeheartedly with your last statement. Do you think that a "guest" photographer has a greater feel for what the native takes for granted? Some no doubt do, but then, as you say, the eye has to be sharp. Are you familiar with the work of Ilse Bing?

Granny J said...

As a journalistic snap shooter, I find the idea of photos as art difficult to deal with. I think what I am almost always looking for is the story that is defined by the picture. (Except of course, beautiful flowers and critters.)

Lunatic said...

Nice insights into photography...loved the Mumbai street pics that you have put up too...just a bit further off, I believe is Ambani's 6 storeyed house that is under construction....that would also have made a nice snap.

Nice post. Keep posting... :-)

Cate said...

Interesting analysis, I think your view possibly differs to others because you are Indian and the way you capture your shots shows that you know the underlying culture very well.Vistors often see beauty in things less known to them like saris and grace and want to capture that. I love your thinking and ideas and the way you present these in your posts. This makes your blog a real travel blog.

Which Main? What Cross? said...

Interesting. Like the way the you have captured what you have seen on your way there. In India, we always have a show outside our window.

Lucy said...

I think I find it quite difficult to know how to look at street photography, I think it's one of the hardest kinds of photography to do and to evaluate, for me anyway. I always love yours, but then it always goes with your words, which help me know how to look.

You've given me much that informs and to think about, especially about the shade. Interesting, thanks...

Anil P said...

Darlene: At one level it is true that beauty is in the eye of the beholder. At another level, when on public display, art needs to justify its presence against certain benchmarks.

Sarah Laurence: Thank you. Only a few of Helena's pictures were stylised and could be said to be aesthetic. The rest were not.

Karen: Thank you. The doctor in Lalbaug was a revelation for the way communication took place between him and his patients.

Kamini: Thank you.

Rouchswalwe: A 'guest' photographer will revel in many things we might take for granted. But for that matter a native photographer with an obervant eye will rarely take any imagery for granted, instead forcing himself to look beyond the ordinary in the ordinary.

But yes, a visiting photographer will attempt to picture everyday things, partly because it is novel, and partly because they know not when they might pass this way again.

No, have not seen Ilse Bing. Now that you mention it, I must see it.

Granny J: I agree with our assessment to a point. And I'm sceptical of photography abstracts that parade as art. If that is so why shouldn't realistic images that evoke aesthetic feelings be art as well?

If nature is about art forms then any picturisation that captures it must necessarily qualify as art. The art needs to be in the image as opposed to the medium or the method of creation.

Lunatic: Thank you. Is it? I was not aware of it.

Cate: By all means visitors can see beauty in colourful saris and the like. And many do 'see' it beautifully.

Where everyday instances of colour and vibrancy are concerned, eventually the quality of an image needs to boil down to the framing of a moment as if frozen in time such that if there were to be a play button then it must seemingly flow as a natural sequence from the frame frozen by the click of the shutter.

Thank you for your kind words.

Which Main? What Cross?: Thank you. India is a series of unending windows.

Lucy: As you rightly said, it is among the hardest form of photography, to do and to evaluate.

Thank you.

magiceye said...

brilliant review prefaced by the insightful descriotion of bhulabhai desai road!
you have a lovely way with words and a keen eye!
love your blog!

Amber Star said...

Anil P.,
So glad you dropped by my blog overnight, for me. You always have such nice things to say and they are very appreciated.

Sometimes photographers leave me cold. Sometimes I just don't "get it", but being from Texas I do get taking pictures in the shade. I can't tell you how many squinty pictures my step-father took of me when I was young with the sun glaring in my eyes, plus it was just darn hot.

I saw this post last week and tried to get time to drop by, but as you read it was all about the reunion for the past few weeks.

Anjuli said...

You are one of the better street photographers which I have seen. Your pictures don't just capture the scene they tell stories. I was thinking about "what if I took the picture out of the context of the words" and I would say- they would still tell a story. excellent!

Merisi said...

Reading this post made me ponder about taking my blog off the web, it is so hard to look at such beautiful photography and think of my own humble way to document what I encounter on a daily basis.

I went to Helena's website, what an interesting experience! I got the impression that she sees herself as strictly documenting, not creating "art". Her series about daily violence is quite touching.
I love this photo,
Do you know which camera she uses? I find her choice of depth of field interesting.