Photographer Prabuddha Dasgupta’s homecoming

September 23, 2015

He was no stranger to Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art. He spent several years in this Lutyens’ Delhi edifice because his father, a sculptor, was the gallery’s director. So it’s a homecoming of sorts for the museum to hold a retrospective of photographer Prabuddha Dasgupta, whose sudden death three years ago during an assignment shocked the art community.

Born into a family of artists in 1956, he had no formal training in photography. But he rose to become one of India’s most well-known photographers, most prominently in the field of fashion. After studying history at Delhi University, he began his career at an advertising agency and got his first photography assignment in the late 1980s.

“Prabuddha Dasgupta: A Journey”, the first comprehensive exhibition of his photography since his death, was unveiled last weekend in Delhi. The show features his commissioned projects and personal projects, with most pictures in black and white.

A walk through the gallery demystifies the man, whose controversial photograph of two nude models in an advertisement once sparked a prolonged court battle.

The female nude was a ubiquitous presence in Dasgupta’s photography. The inspiration came from painter Amrita Sher-Gill’s “dark skinned” women with “upturned breasts,” he said. The preoccupation with the woman’s body was also an instrument for him to challenge socially accepted ideas of beauty and femininity.

His pictures of nude women may attract more attention for their explicitness, especially in a conservative country like India, but there’s more to Dasgupta than scandal or “obscenity”.

The “Edge of Faith”, for example, is an intimate portrayal of Goa’s Catholic community. Published into a book in 2009, it’s the story of a people torn between their colonial Portuguese past and a multi-cultural Indian ethos. He takes you inside people’s homes, details their furniture, takes part in rituals and brings his subjects in a close contact with the viewer. The pictures make for one of those quaint family albums you don’t mind seeing often.

The “Ladakh” collection juxtaposes images of terrifying topography with portraits of residents who have made this vast terrain their home. Dasgupta continues to create the landscape of unfamiliarity in “Hampi”, a World Heritage Site in Karnataka.

Delhi, which makes a small appearance in the retrospective, looks exotic. Pigeons are seen on top of a parapet and another is perched on an expensive-looking handbag, with the Jama Masjid in the background.

The highlight of the show is “Longing”, a collection Dasgupta was in the process of publishing when he died in 2012. The images, earlier showcased in New York in 2007, reveal the photographer’s obsession with his own mind.

Memories and experiences are manifested in misty black and white photos, where he plays with elements of time, distance, light and shadows. The rawness lends an abstract quality to his vision, a subversive break from his predetermined commercial assignments.

The commissioned photos – some of them in colour – are part of the show as well, but they pale in front of Dasgupta’s experimentation with obscurities.

If the so-called abstractness doesn’t appeal to you, there’s more: from good-looking models to a smiling writer Ruskin Bond or artist Paritosh Sen, Dasgupta catered to myriad sensibilities.

“Photography, for me, is not about itself. It’s about everything else. It’s about who we are, our experiences, our influences, our connections with people, with things, with music, with family, with life, with everything. I like the idea that my life can be not just one thing, but it can be many things,” the photographer said.

The exhibition will continue until Nov.22, from 10 a.m. – 5 p.m. (The gallery is closed on Mondays)

(Editing by Robert MacMillan. Follow him on Twitter @bobbymacReports and Ankush @Ankush_patrakar | This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission.)

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