Prabuddha Dasgupta: Personal and Impersonal Impressions
At the climax of his photographic journey, he becomes intimately personal, dissolving the rigidity of forms and structures. But the journey that took him to that place of an internal investigation is grounded in the revelations that different phases of his career provided him. Born in Calcutta, the genesis of Prabuddha Dasgupta’s career lay in his indulgence with portraits. He has produced both commissioned and personal pieces of work. Almost all of his colour photographs belong to commissioned projects. Even then, irrespective of Dasgupta’s expertise, amongst the differences that he manages to capture between these two strains of photography, the commercial approach is deeply rooted in our inherent wish “to be as we appear, rather than appear as we are” hoping that expression and body language will convey our aspirations or indifference to those who may later gaze upon our visage. On the other hand, his character traits as a portrait artist which he would later imply in his more personal projects are visibly planted even in his earlier rhetoric of image-making. Since he began his journey as a photographer in the 1980s by working on commissioned projects, he has produced a remarkable body of work for Vogue, GQ, Elle, and many more. There are some easily visible differences between his commissioned and personal projects. One of them is his conscious choice of colour for commissioned projects and monochrome for personal ones.
“to be as we appear, rather than appear as we are”
“Black and white is a language I am comfortable with… Also, black and white suits my minimalist approach. It avoids the surface prettiness of colour and seeks the essence of the subject”. Even in cases of a few commercial photographs, Dasgupta takes shelter in black and white to bring out his personal renditions of concepts. (Figure 2)
It must also be considered that until the 1970s, colour photography had remained limited to the extent of commercial purposes only. It was in the 1990s that it received its proper credibility and became the “staple of photographic practice”. Prabuddha Dasgupta’s colour photographs succeed in provoking the sentiments of the consumerist culture suggesting the undeniable imprint it causes in the visual longingness of a particular class of people. Using colour for portraying the objective beauty of a particular commodity does not depend upon the event-capturing nature of photography. It instead becomes a study of objective sublimity under a visually compatible ambience (Figure 3). The underlying purpose of colour is to pose as a medium to guide the objective gaze towards the particular product. Dasgupta uses this the best of his purposes.
In 1996, Dasgupta’s investigation of the ‘woman condition’ is a study in the universality of performance. Consider this image for example (Figure 4). Once stripped off of the contexts that surround this expectant lady, she becomes a representative of a particular performance which is universal to the biological formation of ‘women’. “These are portraits of urban Indian women, selected for their interestingness rather than their physical charms, drawn from a variety of disciplines, sometimes conforming to gender stereotypes and sometimes defying them.”
Of all the photographs in this series, the one that stands out is this one (Figure 5) because of its incongruity in the matter of subject placement with respect to other photographs. At the same time, take a look at this photograph by Alex Webb (Figure 6) from Hot Light / Half-Made Worlds Oaxaca (1982). In both the images, the nudity of the figures has been transformed to a ‘simple symptomal subject’ or a signifier of gender; nothing more. The perspective of Webb’s image is more a social statement while that of Dasgupta is an intimate one. Webb’s portrait is that of the environment itself. On the contrary the portrait by Prabuddha captures a moment, or more precisely an event – an event of the lady’s conscious awareness. The internal continuity of an event which constitutes one’s consciousness transforms into a moment in the case of photographs. This image is a play on the eyes of characters. On the background is an incomplete figure of a man whose spectacles take a peek into the frame while his hands hold a cigarette and on the far end is a photographer lining the camera with this lady. But it is the distinctness of the woman’s eyes that absorb all the sublime prominence of the image. For this woman, privacy is not an external space. It is an internal organization. The urbanity with its complexities of economy, class and culture becomes the lack of private space – it transforms into the anatomy of her body and on the other hand, her constitution as a woman and her gendered construction becomes an internal significance, the only anatomical expression of which reflects in her eyes.
The chronological order in which the works of Prabuddha Dasgupta are presented in this article intends to showcase how the photographer’s involvement with his ‘subject’ becomes more complex through time. The shift from Urban Women (1996) to Edge of Faith (2009) is arrested in these series of photographs where the photographer appears to be breaking out of his predominant socio-political allegiances. Ladakh (2000) becomes a milestone marking the transition from one school of philosophical investigation to another.
While giving an interview on television, Dasgupta confesses that his relationship with Ladakh began with a sense of revulsion. When he visited the place for the first time, he had not been able to realise the essence of the place until he had returned back to the city. The images speak in retrospect of a certain belongingness to a land so strange, so unexplored and so solitary. We are evoked sometimes by images engulfed by a complete absence of human character (Figure 7), sometimes by the frame closing in on the faces (Figure 8) and at other times by the camera positioning to accumulate both conditions (Figure 9).
“For Ladakh, the entire philosophy and practice of life is based on the connectedness and unity of all things, big and small. Nothing has an existence of its own. Everything is inextricably linked … all are a part of the great flow of the universe, constantly in motion, but always unified.”
Since Dasgupta was trying to convey the essence rather than appearance, he did not see the landscape as a “scenery with the grandeur of identifiable landmarks”. He agrees to strip off the “background of cultural symbols or social indicators”. In the process, he tries to focus on the intersection of man and nature, remaining committed to the essence of sublime. Hence, Dasgupta’s pictures do not go deeper into the power-politics of the place. His website uses words such as ‘tortured’, ‘fragile’, and ‘threatened’ to define Ladakh; yet there can rarely be found such symbols that justify these appropriations.
Prabuddha Dasgupta assimilates historical, religious, cultural and political aspects for an objective inspection of the Goan identity. While colonial and postcolonial renderings of Indian nationalism tend to focus into the major cause and effects of the partition, Goa remains left-back blurred far in the background. In such case, Edge of Faith attempts to rekindle a discussion into the minuscule complicacies of Indian identity.
“Even if you were to remove or forget the actual atmosphere of the photos and regard them just historically, culturally, then the community is unique, especially in the Indian scenario”
Towards the early 19th century, the Goan identity had connected itself to the Catholicism introduced by the Portuguese. Therefore, when there came a time for their identity and territory to be dissolved into the larger Indian framework, they stood at the Edge of Faith. A large population did not approve of the expression – liberation of goa. Instead, to them, it was more appropriately an “invasion of Goa”. India has been more on the periphery of the Goan imagination in more ways than one. It has never been absorbed into the mainstream of Indian thinking. That kind of duality has now to be confronted – that brings us to the edge of faith.
“It has been difficult for the Goans to be divorced from the mainstream of Indian history for four hundred and fifty years and suddenly have to embrace India.”
The colossal shroud being dragged across the floor appears grim on the foreground (Figure 10). Christ on the wooden cross takes the shape of a corpse retiring away from its materiality (Figure 11). The religious magnificence is outlived by sombre shadows of existential struggles. Edge of faith addresses issues which were lacking in Dasgupta’s previous works. It invokes the multiplicity of emotional complexities that emerge from cultural dilation. Dasgupta’s positioning of the Goan situation borrows from the metaphor of parallelly decrepit architectures – of both the catholic institution and the human body (Figure 12 and 13).
“this too shall pass and this shall pass because of my faith and belief’”
Most of the portraits in the series are of people on whose appearance time has carved deep impressions. In one of his images, the camera closes in on the creased hands holding on to a chain containing a picture of Christ (Figure 14). The malleability of faith and the temporality of belief places us deep into the people’s heart. This is where the viewer is emotionally transformed.
“What I did see was that among the older generation there is a nostalgic longing for, and a closer affinity to the Portuguese, than there is among the younger generation.”
Prabuddha Dasgupta, while expressing a certain discomfort in explaining this particular work says that “we are all at the edge of something, we are all on the edge of faith…yet here the faith is strong because every home that I visited there was this quiet sense of ‘this too shall pass and this shall pass because of my faith and belief’.”
The disorientation of time and space, the haphazardness of human thought and the metaphysics of its inherent chaotic nature gets reflected in Prabuddha Dasgupta’s final and most personal series of photographs. Irrespective of the character of an image, it is inevitable for any artist to indulge in a process of self-revelation as they slowly submerge themselves into a subjective worldview. In Longing, a chaotic sublimity emerges out of the intimate and passionate ‘bodies’ thereby transforming into a statement on the “selective memory of personal experience”. Space and mystery, intimacy and melancholy, eloquence and tranquillity, chaos and harmony. These semantic codes prevail extensively throughout Prabuddha Dasgupta’s deeply personal collection of photographs. They do not adhere to the conventional notion of documentation. In fact, they represent a reality seized from within, through sensible intuition and not by mere analysis. It represents the flow of personality through time. Each of the images are distinct, and might see disconnected. But even in their differentiation, they are drawn from the periphery towards a centre which contains the ‘personal’. None of them mark the beginning or the end, but they all extend into each other. Most of the images promote erotic delicacy of romantic bliss even though they lie in the most quotidian spaces. Yet the passionate intensity is inherent not in the space but in the memories that they convey, in the bodies that mould memory’s shape and form. When the images in this series move out of the boundaries of sexual performances, they speak of the butterfly against a curtain (Figure 15) or the food left beside a pair of shoes (Figure 16); they all mark the intimacy in which two individuals share a common space. When individuals are portrayed in isolation, they are either impersonal portraiture of melancholy or the distant remoteness of solitude (Figure 17 and 18 respectively).
The Longings of a persona is visible only through a modernist gaze which seeks a pathway to look inwards and Dasgupta does it for himself. In the process, he blurs all figures that could have defined and drawn a boundary around the photographer as an individual. Instead, Longings becomes an attempt to capture the inner life, the variety of qualities, continuity of progress and unity of direction. Beginning from his Commercial photographs, Urban Women (1996), Ladakh (2000), Edge of Faith (2009) and Longings, Prabuddha Dasgupta (1956-2012) provides us insight into the philosophical development of the personal and impersonal worldview of an artist, of their continuity that entails throughout the artist’s work.