February 19, 2008

Freeing Up Gender Space At Kala Ghoda

Like with the opening day of any event, the one at Kala Ghoda Arts Festival is riveting for the activity that defines its spaces as artists, entrepreneurs, NGOs, and performers go about putting their act together for the ten-day long event that’s now come to characterize the city’s Art Scene. Bombay became Mumbai, but the Kala Ghoda Art Festival is quintessentially Bombay.

On the Pavement Art Gallery that runs by the Jehangir Art Gallery, past the Max Mueller Bhavan, before morphing into the seating area of the Open Air Amphitheatre adjacent to the Bombay Natural History Society, a lightly built gent in faded blue denims was bent over a bag while he rolled a contact sheet of photographs in his palm. Behind him a large display board in black stood to one side of the pavement, pictures in fluorescent green displayed at eye level. The other side was rented likewise to another artist, busy preparing his exhibits for display.

Every now and then Chirodeep Chaudhuri looked up to talk to a friend who was helping him with setting up his exhibits - ‘Graffitti’. A sprinkling of curious passersby ambling lazily on the pavement while taking in the plethora of activity by each allocated display space along the pavement and beyond now paused by the photographs, in silence. Where I stood I could not make out their expressions unless they turned sideways to exchange an opinion or two with their friends.

Supported by Project 88, Chirodeep’s exhibits transported explicit Graffitti from Mumbai’s local trains to the middle of Bombay’s Art District. It took Chirodeep Chaudhuri over six months of trawling Mumbai local trains on the Central Line to bring ‘home’, in more ways than one, how graffiti that lie still on walls enclosing commuter space actually intrude and shrink it. In their silence they etch noise. Much as they target women, they seek to concur with like minds while encouraging latent urges into manifesting visibly.

“A group of friends were working on a project, ‘Gender Spaces’, essentially about how women negotiate public spaces. They asked me to shoot for that project,” Chirodeep paused to smile at a visitor before continuing, “but I wasn’t quite comfortable with the approach they suggested. It was a direct approach.” And while I try and imagine what he might mean by ‘direct approach’, he dwells on his discomfort with it. “A direct approach doesn’t work, I mean how do you show something as intangible as discomfort in a photograph, so I refused. But it was kind of going on in my head. At a certain point I heard people talk ‘Compartment mein aisa drawing tha,’ and all that.”

Chirodeep, like many photographers, strings his words like visuals. Where a visual seeks to evoke reactions, it poses questions. Chirodeep articulates the questions so that he may answer them for me. Behind him a hastily drawn female anatomy in a train compartment commands attention at eye level. On my travels by the local trains the morning rush hour ensures that space makes itself felt by its absence. Only late at night, under tube lights, the words emerge, engaging the desultory suggestively while egging on the interested. Over time hardened travelers learn to ignore it like a wart they’ve lived with all their working lives. Only pointed references get the graffiti to swim back into focus, occasionally in a camera lens.

“And I kept thinking about it,” said Chirodeep, of people talking of explicit drawings in train compartments, “and suddenly started seeing it all over again, more consciously than I’d seen it earlier. That’s actually what kind of got me into doing this set of pictures.” He throws a backward glance at the photographs, the black throwing them into sharp focus in the shade of the Max Mueller Bhavan adjoining the Jehangir Art Gallery behind me.

“It can get tricky,” he says of pulling off the photographs without drawing the attention of passengers. “This image for instance,” he points to a photograph in the series before continuing, “people are sitting neeche (underneath), I mean they could take offence, they might think you’re photographing them along with that (explicit graffiti). Most of the time people don’t realize what you’re doing but I don’t think that’s the point. The point is you don’t want to get into an ugly scene.”

Just then a lady in a sari walks up to Chirodeep and asks him if his photography exhibits are on sale. He nods. The lady asks to meet him to discuss the exhibits after he is done talking with me. He nods again and smiles before turning to me.

“So the point was not to get confrontational unnecessarily in a train. I’ve been in lots of confrontational . . ., it didn’t make sense to get confrontational, and I mean how do you start explaining this (photographing graffiti) to people (passengers), so I was trying to see if I could do it (without making it obvious that I was photographing),” he said. He credited his digital camera with making his task easy.

“I could preview the photographs. I would be probably sitting there (in the local train) and . . . it’s like taking aim . . . 28 mm hai, aisa shoot karega tho (if I shoot it from here it’ll need to be at 28 mm), you kind of lift your camera up and take a shot, and check it (in preview mode), and then you do the next frame which is your final frame,” he explains. Turning to look at his exhibits he sweeps his hand to take in the breadth of the black canvas and says, “lot of these happened like that.”

Most of the pictures on display were shot in Mumbai local train compartments at night, in tube light. He explains that if not for digital camera he might’ve never done this series. Pointing to a picture in the series, he says, “Tube light mein tho jaan nikal jaati hai (it gets difficult to shoot in tube light). Digital allowed me to address the White Balance because they were all shot at odd hours.”

Chirodeep credits his stint with PUKAR (Partners for Urban Knowledge, Action & Research) for the idea. He’s worked on several PUKAR projects besides conducting Workshops.

“There are friends who work at PUKAR, so when you have varied friends, somebody says something and an idea comes up. My previous show (The One-Rupee Entrepreneur) also came about while on an assignment with PUKAR. I was conducting a workshop on how to document a city for a group of students and that idea (The One-Rupee Entrepreneur) came out of there. We were trying to do a fairly odd exercise and that came out of that, so you never know (what might strike you when),” he trails off.

The One-Rupee Entrepreneur documented instances of entrepreneurs using the one-rupee coin-box telephones to earn ‘on the side’ while they ran their shops. The series of photographs ‘looks at the phenomenon of the one-rupee pay phones as a metaphor for the idea of “enterprise” in the city of Bombay.’ The series was remarkable for portraying pay phones in settings that reinforced their utility to entrepreneurs - a ‘mere’ side-business.

Chirodeep’s portfolio draws heavily on Bombay. I first saw his work in the book Bombay, Meri Jaan, a collection of writings on Bombay. Edited by Naresh Fernandes and Jerry Pinto, it carried a section showcasing Chirodeep’s Bombay photographs.

I returned to the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival on the last day, and found Chirodeep sitting on a makeshift table. The duration of the festival and the effort at manning his exhibition appeared to have taken its toll.

“How has it been?” I ask him.

“I’m amazed at the response,” he replies. “I never expected it to draw the response it did.”

In not ‘touching’ even as it intrudes, graffiti such as on display constrains, and shrinks gender space. To be able to breathe freely from the suffocation that shrinking space makes inevitable, it’s only natural that the series on display frees up space to vent feelings.

Even though Graffitti is about women, it is not just about women!


Unknown said...

I think it's important to bring something that we see everyday into the forefront. It is only by this sort of display that public opinion can be truly voiced. I can't imagine the difficulty at obtaining these shots without confrontation.

Pranay said...

Wow....am very impressed by these sort of initiatives. Would love to do something of this sort someday. And talking of women harassment issues...you can't talk about them enough.
Very well written post.
Keep it up.
P.S. I missed the Kala ghoda festival and now i am regretting it.

Anrosh said...

Through your eyes we see India that is seldom known.

Sara at Come Away With Me said...

Greetings from California! I have spent about 30 minutes perusing your blog and enjoying your photography and wonderfully descriptive commentary...your blog is quite interesting.

Thank you for leaving a comment at Much Ado About Something...I agree, there is indeed an endless stream of books to be discovered!

I am adding your blog to my sidebar so I can come visit often. Your writing truly is outstanding and paints pictures in one's mind.


Anil P said...

Seamus: True. It's important to pitch them into the public sphere is for nothing else than to highlight them as 'issues' that won't die away in the intimidating silence of embarrassment.

Visual assaults such as these graffiti coerce the affected into averting eyes, and averted eyes 'shrink' space.

Chirodeep told me how only a week ago he was nearly 'lynched' by the group of street hawkers while photographing in and around the arcades near J. N. Petit library in Fort, next to the Thomas Cook building.

The hawkers suspected he might put up their picture in the newspapers that could potentially lead to their eviction.

Strangely, the incident he narrated implied a fear of 'violation' of space of another kind - working space.

Pranay: Thank you. Such initiatives connect Art to the everyday. The reality of everyday when married with the aesthetics of photography as in its technicality and execution, the combination brings alive the reality of everyday life.

It may not be Art in a strictly visual sense, but it goes beyond and hopefully stirs, invokes, and agitates.

Anrosh: Thank you. It's a pleasure to know that you think it so.

Sara: Thank you for the kind comment. What cannot live by pictures alone, needs commentary to survive. Mere survival is not always enough, it needs to survive with its identity close to intact.

dharmabum said...

a very evocative post. i've always seen that kind of stuff, on trains, and wondered what it is that prompts people to do such things. i mean, what end does it serve - i have no idea!

Merisi said...

As always, I appreciate your work. Seamus and the other commentators have already expressed some of my thoughts. Chirodeeps comments regarding the new frontiers that digital photography is opening up reflects what I am experiencing (I had a very hard time saying good-bye to my analog film camera, and black and white silver gelatine prints, but have few regrets now for that same reason). The difficulties he encounters while photographing people, even as a "side effect" while documenting other things, are probably not much different from what the pioneers of photography encountered, during the Great Depression in the USA for example. It's a photographer's responsibility to keep the people's dignitiy and safety in mind. I liked to photograph workers high up on scaffolds, but have stopped doing so when I realized that some of these workers were illegal, and simply frightened for their livelyhood when I aimed my camera at them.

Anil P said...

Dharmabum: Thank you. As for why people do this, well, maybe for the 'kicks', or maybe for the sense of power gained from knowing this will make women squirm, evade, and push them on the defensive.

Vienna for beginners: Thank you.

Other than the fear of 'exposure' on account of illegality, there's now an increasing trend towards 'objecting', and from what several photographers have said in conversations, apparently the 'objections' are more 'obstructions', more so when there's no legitimate fear of 'exposure'.

In India, the shrillness of television channels competing for TRP ratings have contributed to making people wary of anyone with a professional looking camera, generally associated with members of the Press. In pursuit of television TRPs, intrusion into people's lives has further eroded trust.

Together it has made documentary photography, especially in cities, a risky proposition.

Abhinav Maurya said...

I miss Kala Ghoda, especially the film section at Gallery Beyond and Max Mueller Bhavan. The new World Movies channel about which I heard at one of the screenings is a compensation though. I just saw it yesterday and said hey that's pretty fast for India. ;-)

Ekta said...

Ur post got me nostalgic abt bombay!!!
Miss that place and the gallery and that whole area!

Lakshmi said...

great post as always..always seen this stuff on trains and sometimes it goes beyond just gender

delhidreams said...

yes its more abt men than women
and to bring some everyday thing to notice so easily and etchingly, i don't think, photography has a rival in it, apart from the possible exception of poetry...

Anil P said...

Abhinav: The festival is pretty comprehensive in its range of events.

Ekta: I'm sure it would, more so if it's been a part of one's life for long. Thank you.

Backpakker: Thank you. Yes, it goes beyond gender.

Adi: Photography has its niche, and its utility for sure.