“Photography isn’t looking, it’s feeling,” the old man said…

<RAIOT OFFER >  Yaarbal, publishers of this remarkable photobook WITNESS, have offered RAIOT readers in India, a special online release price of Rs. 2400 (inclusive of courier charges) – a discount of Rs. 1000. So grab the offer.

Witness / Kashmir 1986-2016 / 9 photographers, Yaarbal books, February 2017. Rs. 3400/ Rs 2400 (RAIOT OFFER).

I reviewed stuff before the age of the internet – plays, novels, anthologies of poems, travelogues and histories – and, a closely guarded secret – books of recipes and food under a pen name. But I never, never reviewed a book of photographs. Why?

Simple: In the days when you hadn’t enough money to buy an appropriate shelf for them, these inhabited a different world. It was the Editors who took those home to review.

These were big, glossy, expensive books of forts and Maharajahs in Rajasthan; showing you swarthy moustachioed men with bright eyes and coiffured turbans; women shyly hiding half their faces behind a a bright veil, dressed in dazzling earth-friendly clothes; you saw shiny double-spreads of caravans in the desert, and gaily decorated bazaars. The nomadic life was given make-up, poverty and underdevelopment shown the back door. Even the camels were Kodachromed so that no one knew they were nasty, cantankerous animals who hated their subjugation and showed this by letting go evil-smelling farts.

Those were different times, perhaps more innocent. We didn’t have to worry about a few thousand Yemeni babies dying of cholera, so we complained of having to chose between yet another tome on the relevance of Gandhi by some retired VC, or a self-published novel by an army officer’s wife who was the editor’s family friend. Just to earn the extra buck with 800 words.

But we didn’t come cheap, we knew glossy books of photographs were specially designed for editors’ coffee tables. We knew we were witnessing a nascent industry that would soon make everything – life included – sexy. Glossy books on Indian Classical music and dance, Classical Erotica, even Bollywood – all went to the photographer’s darkroom. They were the precursors. Some would argue quite rightly that these coffee table images set the standard for the equally shitty advertising industry of that time. It was faff posing as art.

Not that things changed. If anything, like life itself, the world of the authentic image-maker got more complicated than ever before. As we all know, we still have those who erroneously – stuck as they are in their comfort zones – fetishize their art, at the back of their heads the post-modernist syllogism: “I am I, and you are you; if by chance we meet, it’s beautiful; if not, it can’t be helped”. Not too many people today realize that loading a spool of film so that you get 38 exposures instead of 36, is very different from shooting a couple of thousand images, and selecting 3 as a testament of one’s sense of quality. So there are some who contend that the photographic image is in danger of dying through excess.

Yet, let’s not lose sight of an important signpost shall we say, that point to this work under review on the one hand, while on the other, keeping our focus on what tomorrow may bring. Bear in mind that on the other side of this overloaded spectrum, are young Indian photographers obsessed with following a ‘theme’ emerging, that makes them join the dots and capture images that enable – for want of a better term – their ‘visual ideology’ to break through. This is their history. If it’s real, the images will stay, if not they’ll pass. So let’s stay on the other side, at the fringes, where one’s photography makes linkages that transcend the individual, and produce images that mirror the photographer’s hunger.

That we have the chance to do so, and reclaim space for books of photography that are refreshingly different and sorely needed – like the voices of needed, here-and-now poets – we must show gratitude to the persons who brought this vital collective work under review, Witness, to fruition.

They have created a product that freezes an ongoing history that is in any case, not going anywhere. So the bigots will beat their chests as is their wont, and twirl their greying moustaches, even though we all know, the news is not good and is only getting worse.

In the final analysis, Yaarbal has made this visual history as if they were shooting a film, naturally embracing everyone involved in the project. No thumping of chests here, just the relaxed ease with which they affirm themselves.

 

Witness can never be confused with the old ‘touristy’ coffee table relics of photography I remember, not even by accident.

As its editor, Sanjay Kak – articulate and impassioned as one expects – notes in his short but brilliant introduction, the essential idea of Kashmir most Indians recognized was that marketed by the tourism industry; the calenders we all grew up with; the sequences of Bollywood lovers running around a tree in Srinagar.

Everything about this book breaks those images set in our consciousness in fake diamonds. Should editors still take it home to review, it would need a hefty amount of shamelessness to keep it in their living rooms for guests to flick through as they sip their wine. Is such lack of shame in short supply?

For the record therefore, our starting point as glib salesmen on some of the TV Channels will tell you, is an ‘anti-national project’. For us, it is those excruciatingly sad, painful, bitter, even angry memories that Kashmir conjures up in our consciousness today and which this book leaves loose, like snarling leopards.

If ever evidence was needed, in a single place, captured in stark form, this may be the last chance for Indians trapped in the touristy images – or worse, still reading Balraj Madhok and the other veteran Sanghis – to reboot their take on Kashmir.

Its starkness leaves you little place to run. It follows you. Whether one looks at the simple but stunning design and layout, or the tightly edited written text, it is pared to the bone. There are reasons for this.

“At some point in the journey to get Witness off the ground,” Sanjay writes in an email to me, “and only a few months before we actually went to press, I decided to self-publish. The book was too large, too expensive, and our design too eccentric for any publisher – even the smaller ones – to take on. A 440-page photo book has all the makings of a Titanic. And I’m not even going to enter the issue of the content of the book…”

My email to Sanjay wanted to probe what made this project came across as such a palpably collective experience, and I was not wrong in sensing this. As he wrote:

We announced a new imprint: Yaarbal is a Kashmiri word, the river’s edge, where people in Kashmir gather (or used to in the old days) several times a day. To bathe, to wash utensils and clothes, to chat, gossip, even flirt, a place of conviviality and exchange. Of course in Hindustani, Yaarbal (Yaaron ka bal) could also mean the Strength (or Solidarity) of Friends. Which is the only way the book came about: the generosity of the photographers, the designers, and so many people who helped get the book off the ground. Our logo incidentally is a Y, but it is also a catapult. I leave the reference to you to figure out…

 

Good quality, naturally coloured industrial cardboard stuck over painted canvas completes the covers and binding. It’s so simple you laugh, and yet, it is anything but. You know that it’s a book that will never find its way to the coffee table in the living room because there is a design ideology at work, and one that is not at odds with the obviously political material given.

The rib of the binding is painted just short of being the colour of blood, like it’s been done with make-up. On it, is printed the title in a dominant white block, a single line in white giving you the sparse details. With the cardboard the way it is cut, one gets the illusion that a book with a red cover is placed in a cover – like the old fashioned plastic case for a video cassette.

On the sheet of the industrial cardboard cover, the large, centralized title in black becomes a palimpsest delicately cut by an almost tiny white line telling you this is about Kashmir between the years 1986 and 2013, and features nine Kashmiri photographers. The idea of Kashmir is there, we are told, but it is fading.

The design of the book is the brainchild of Itu Chaudhuri Design, an iconic firm not unknown for its design sensibilities, although it helps that Itu Chaudhuri and his partner Lisa Rath have been designing DVDs and posters for all of Sanjay’s films close to 30 years.

What I find most commendable – given we live in an age when mentors now need to be paid a fee – Itu Chaudhuri Design took on a final National Institute of Design (NID) student, Sukanya Baskar, who made this her diploma project for nine months!   As Sanjay tells me, he sees this as Sukanya’s book too. She handled the sails, her seniors had their hands on the tiller.

If I have one problem with this book, it is that there was no ‘design note’, one perhaps following the acknowledgements, which like the rest of the book, is understated yet taut. Which once was the hallmark of NID graduates.

Sukanya may not know that at NID – many, many moons ago – there was a crazy lecturer who almost forced his students to read a particular book, telling them they wouldn’t understand design if they didn’t. It was a campus joke in the good old days. “Oh God,” students would groan, “he’s asked you to read it too”.

Does NID still have crazy lecturers who prescribe that book for 1st Year students? Probably not. But who cares, thanks to this project, thanks to her many seniors, people will keep an eye on the young Sukanya Baskar. Her diploma project will ensure that her life will never be the same again. It’s that kind of a book.

In any case, a ‘design note’ may help the reader of a book such as this understand the politics of design. Especially when this is not a ‘sexy’ project done to get a leg up. Because otherwise it’s almost as if ‘design’ does not have a politics, that the designer too faces the predicament of the theatrewallah who’s called to NGOs to do a 5-minute ‘street play’ and then given two hours to put it together. You get a cheque, if you’re lucky you get paid in cash. Everybody forgets that neither design nor theatre persons partner certain clients and not others, merely because they understand the meaning of ‘pro bono’.

Should I apologise for the roundabout narrative I’ve ended up with? At one level you can put this down to the confusion this book spawns, jolting me back and forth in my time and my history. Or you could just put it down to impending dotage. Either way I am still trapped in this book.

If you have never reviewed a book of photographs in your sorry life, you try to get a methodology that will put you close to it, close enough to catch its ‘feel’. I am what I’ve seen and what I remember, is as good a place to start. This is as true for the refugee without a home, as it is for me.

Sanjay Kak, editor of Witness reviews the final picture edit, with Richa Bhargava, Sukanya Baskar

I’m in Pune, drinking coffee with my daughter and her photographer partner when they give me the book as a present. You should review this she says. I’m excited but don’t show it. They talk about their trip to Kashmir, perhaps match some of the photographs in the book, with what they’ve seen even as they talk. They tell me about people they met, trees and flowers they’ve seen. He’s photographed in Gaza, she’s worked in Occupied Palestine, and was in Istanbul when the coup was staged. They don’t need to be educated, even the dots are joined in short hand. They look worried. I am the father, I must have consolation at hand.

I can’t control it. Even as they talk, images I remember come into my consciousness, like a background score, made by people who looked at photography as a mission. I remember getting these from newspapers and magazines in the USIS and British Council in Delhi although, it’s so much easier today. I remember, as if it was written just for me, a book that changed the way I looked at the world.

When they go to sleep after the long journey back from Kashmir, I am left to to brood, to embrace unhappiness because that seems to be the only way of the world.

A good two weeks later, when everyone leaves, I follow their advice and read Sanjay’s introductory essay first, several times, without looking at a single photograph. On a day when the monsoon hits Pune, changing everything to a matte grey, I start looking at the photographs at random, breaking the meticulous chronological sequence. I do this over a few days, knowing which ones I want to look at again, which one frightens me.

Then the night happens, and I find that the book is still alive, intruding into deep sleep to pin a solitary, haunting image that won’t go away, or, like a demented sequence from a Guy Ritchie film, throwing frame after frame at me, like a montage made brutal, just short of being a nightmare.

It only gets worse when you view the images chronologically, and worse than that when you read the beautifully trimmed introductions to each of the photographers and get into their minds, into what moves them, grieves them. It is no longer photographs you see but photographers, persons with parents, partners and children in their lives just like us, and hearts that throb until that split second when they stop the world and press the shutter. Above all they are names and specific identities, and never will you see images from Kashmir and not look for the byline, because you know them.

From the oldest to the youngest: Meraj ud Din, Javeed Shah; Dar Yasin; Javed Dar; Altaf Qadri; Sumit Dayal; Showkat Nanda; Syed Shahriyar; and Azaan Shah. They become their photographs.

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I want to tell my daughter and her partner – and Sukanya too – that the memories of Kashmir are mine too. I want my children to know that they are as much stamped in blood in my head as in theirs – like the four-day pogrom against the Sikhs in 1984 – when I lived and worked in Delhi, and came to know what stain a grown man leaves behind on a cemented floor, when a mob throws tires into his blockaded house and sets it ablaze.

Should I show them a road in Aligarh that was the epicentre of a major riot a few years earlier, and how when the mob on both sides was bulldozed away, the shops were long closed but the road was covered with thousands of slippers people left behind as they ran? Or the strange accompanying thought that there were no women’s or children’s footwear any where to be found, just chunky, worn chappals obviously worn by men.

Or should I tell them about the man with tears in his eyes in Bhiwandi who told me that both Hindu and Muslim businessmen had colluded in planning and indeed fanning the riots in his small town – because they wanted some prime land cleared of a slum.

Maybe I should tell them that when the sustained attacks started against the Pandits in Kashmir, a lot of people got hit in the crossfire. Like the elderly distinguished Parsee gentlemen who found out when he was in Pune, that the house his grandfather built in Srinagar, had been burnt to the ground. He wept like a baby, telling me he had no ‘home’, that he had lost his memories of Kashmir, of neighbours over four generations he had grown up with. “Please”, his wife told me later, “don’t talk to him about Kashmir, he just starts crying”…

*

Maybe it’s just the rainy season that bring on the sadness, that grey, uniform pallor that absorbs laughter and makes it disappear. And then spits on hope. Do I tell these kids to throw out the sketchbooks and the cameras, and give in to a world that collectively, for all the wrong reasons, believes it can do nothing but hurtle to entropy? That all one can do is wait for the end??

If I put a long quote in front of you and blank out the names, as for instance:

“Of course, it was a scary time. My dad had to find food for us, and some days he’d have to drive out of the city to do that. One day he went out looking for food, and he didn’t come home. We were terrified and thought he’d been captured or killed. But he came home after three weeks, and it turns out he’d been stopped by the ___army, and they’d forced him to transport the corpse of an ____ soldier back to the soldier’s family. The story of how he got back to _____ is too long to tell.”

What will you say when you read it? Eloquent you will say perhaps, straight from the heart, your voice made up of equal parts of pain and anger. Yes, but where is its home? Is it Yemen, South Sudan, or Mogadishu? Is it Mosul, or a part of West Asia even its inhabitants have forgotten? Is it an Adivasi mother who had hid herself in Kondegaon?

It’s as if the rest of India will always have more important things to do. The rest of the world too. 2,000 babies dying in Syria; 40 shot by Boko Haram; 300 burnt to a crisp in a housing estate; 20 Dalits massacres by upper castes; 15 Muslims for carrying dead cattle; 20 in a bomb explosion in Belgium; 200 kids injured by army pellets in two days in Kashmir.

I would need the length of this article to just list the conflict zones, right now, as I key this in. Does anybody give a shit?

 

Jazz musicians will tell you that there are some musicians whose shoes you have to step into to understand the possibilities of the music you stand by. The names I have heard the most are Monk, Coltrane and Miles, in that order. With photography, you would probably get the names of John Berger and Susan Sontag in that order.

It was Berger, who in his assessment of a famous Donald McCullin photograph depicting the horror of war, suggested that the photograph rather than making us more aware of the travails of such violence, depoliticized all the issues.

But then again, he wrote that in 1972 when the war in Vietnam was almost over, when we didn’t think wars would be an inevitable facet of everyday life, or as in Kashmir, over the years, both sadden and shame us as matters escalate almost exponentially.

Closer home, something we may identify with, may be the last work that Sontag produced, with theatre not photography, and that involved people who unanimously said no more war. Witness too, strikes me as having that quality and tenor. Moreover, some more recent interpreters, make a compelling case for us to revisit the photography of conflict.

“Two thoughts occurred to me while reading Berger’s piece”, writes this blogger, commenting on it, “The first was that his sentiments very closely echo the criticisms made of photographers like Sebastiao Salgado that began to surface a few years after this essay was published: for example, the criticisms referred to by David Levi-Strauss here. I would be curious to know what Berger’s opinion of Salgado is.

“Does he see Salgado’s images in the same way as he sees the McCullin photograph, i.e. as evidence of a universal suffering that does little to cause the viewer to question the political roots of the situation? Or does he agree with Levi-Strauss that Salgado’s deeper engagement and empathy with his subjects somehow transcends this? The fact that Berger wrote a glowing introduction to David Levi-Strauss’s book might indicate the latter and it would be fascinating to hear Berger’s take on this”.

Get this book, like me if only to keep for your daughter’s children or younger friends, as a record of something that will be valuable in ten years time, as a example of how we failed in front of the right-wing rant. This is not “simply an attempt on the part of the photographer(s) to insert a certain grandiosity and purpose into (their) work in order to aid (their) transition from the newspaper to the art gallery”.

In the final analysis, this is a project against all violence, one that knows that in the shadowy moments when the killings abate, even momentarily, it is the women and children who will come out to weep and bury the dead.

 

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Hartman de Souza Written by:

Hartman de Souza has a background in theatre, education and journalism. He has been associated with several theatre groups in the country and was, till September 2015, the artistic director of the Space Theatre Ensemble, Goa.

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