Shades of three cities

Print edition : September 06, 2013

A bird in my room, Bombay, 1979. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/Photoink

Churning sea, Bombay, 1979 . Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/Photoink

The C Power Station, Ring Road, New Delhi, 1977. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/Photoink

A black and yellow taxi in Bombay, 1974. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/Photoink

Two girls on a Bombay Street, 1978. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/Photoink

Building, Bombay, 1978. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/Photoink

My bathoom shelf, New Delhi, 1974. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/Photoink

Katey and Naseer, Bombay, 1977. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/Photoink

Rubber gloves hanging in my verandah, New Delhi, 1978. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/Photoink

A kitchen, New Delhi, 1974. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/Photoink

Boatmen with horse, Bombay, 1979. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/Photoink

Medha knitting, Delhi, 1974. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/Photoink

Pooh in bed, Bombay, 1975. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/Photoink

Receptionist at OBM office, 1977, Calcutta. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/Photoink

Hanging out with the Maharani Bagh gang, New Delhi, 1976. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/Photoink

Nommie dancing at a party at Koko's, New Delhi, 1975. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/Photoink

Yusuf, New Delhi, 1973. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/Photoink

Band playing at the St. Stephen's College winter festival, 1974. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/Photoink

Chander with guitar, Delhi, 1975. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/Photoink

Somewhere on the Bombay-Poona highway, 1974. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/Photoink

Fan and glass, Bombay, 1979. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/Photoink

Nizamuddin gang hanging out at Ruhan's pad, New Delhi, 1978. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/Photoink

Nariman Point, Bombay, 1978. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/Photoink

Sunder with Pablo Jr, Calcutta, 1978. Photo: Pablo Bartholomew/Photoink

Hanging out at Sunder and Ammu's with Poli, Sheena, Jai and the kids, Calcutta, 1976. Photo: PPablo Bartholomew/Photoink

Set in the 1970s and 1980s, Pablo Bartholomew’s pictures of Delhi, Bombay and Calcutta trigger an unsettling experience of simultaneous joy and sorrow.

FOR the photographer Pablo Bartholomew, a city’s soul rests in its people, its social fringes and its rubble. For him, a city becomes itself in its chaos rather than in its uniformity. Inbuilt tensions, unseen friction and a capacity to live beyond the facade are, in his imagination, what constitute the image of a city. Bartholomew’s images capture the city—in this case the three metropolitan cities of Delhi, Bombay (now Mumbai) and Calcutta (now Kolkata)—caught up in transition. Mostly set against conflicting backdrops, almost oxymoronic in nature, the subjects of his photographs underline the enduring nature of a temporal city space.

Often seen as an outsider all his life, Bartholomew, through his teenage, had his real interactions with people in the invisible gullies of metropolitan India. And that, in a way, made Bartholomew the photographer he became. From opium dens and eunuch households to posh settlements and industrial ruins, he covered them all very early in his life. As a flourishing career in the media took him all over the world, these works lay in oblivion until he decided to go back to them a few years ago. Fundamental to this phase in Bartholomew’s life is the city and its various shades.

In his latest exhibition, mounted in New Delhi’s biggest gallery of contemporary photography, Photoink, he recreates the life in the three metropolitan cities. Set in the 1970s and 1980s, his early years when he roamed aimlessly with a camera, the pictures trigger an unsettling experience of simultaneous joy and sorrow. The exhibition, “Outside In, A tale of three cities… the 70s & 80s”, is a series of black-and-white photographs laced with sfumato effect which Leonardo Da Vinci had effortlessly manifested in his famous painting Mona Lisa. Bartholomew achieves this by shooting in natural light, under dim lights and in closed corridors, and in dusky exteriors. In a breathtaking sweep, he covers junky lives of city youth and mundane commodities to dilapidating modern buildings and debris of the city, all on the same platform.

Socialist thought

Bartholomew belonged to an upper–middle-class family that was conscious of its privileged position and social responsibility. His father, the famous art critic Richard Bartholomew, and his mother Rati, a renowned theatre personality, were trained in the leftist ideology of the 1950s. Bartholomew himself grew up to become a photographer emoting socialist thought.

The 1970s and 1980s were periods when “breaking free” from the exploitative material relations of Indian society became a norm. Idealism amidst a chunk of middle-class educated elite called for change. In the rural hinterland, feudalism became the main enemy. And in the urban space, gender inequality, sexual morality, and the Victorian ethics of the elite were being questioned. The personal had become political. The idealists chose to live by asserting informality (as opposed to propriety) in their conduct. Simultaneous idealism and cynicism among the youth drew them towards junky lifestyles where they broke free from a life their class demanded from them. When they did this, they also formed informal spaces where women could assert their agency or people could interact irrespective of their classes. As a result, they became outsiders in mainstream society, often subjects of contempt and ridicule.

Bartholomew was one of them. Ousted from school on disciplinary grounds, he drifted away from the newly built Victorian cityscape and became a permanent outsider.

Precisely because of such factors, Bartholomew’s interface with the city draws attention. It is atypical and critiques the lifestyle of the middle class through a middle-class positioning of frames. This is why “The Kiss” becomes surrealistically real and “Pooh in bed” evokes an innocent sensuality. Bartholomew devotes a large section of his exhibition to women. His friends are shown in their routines as knitting, napping, smoking, dancing and chatting.

In public spaces, the intimacy between the same sexes is shown through close conversations as in “Two girls on a street” or in “Katey and Naseer”. In most photographs, the audience can see women as independent people having their own opinions. Bartholomew makes a statement by showing the indoors as un-gendered spaces where women and men mix freely in comfortable postures. In “Nommie dancing at a party at Koko’s” and “Band playing at St. Stephen’s College winter festival”, women are shown as dancing with abandon, a manifestation of freedom without gendered boundaries. At a time when movements to reclaim freedom in public spaces is gathering steam, these photographs make compelling viewing.

Bartholomew also draws the audience towards the mundane aspect of lives, something that is cherished and yet does not get the glory it deserves. He photographs his shaving kit in “My bathroom shelf” and at the same time documents “Rubber gloves hanging in my verandah”, an asset in the chilly winters of Delhi.

“A kitchen” celebrates cooking and “Bed sheets” make you crave for a nap in the sultry weather. Bartholomew is obsessed by the mundane and yet it does not look awkward. In fact, it universalises mankind across class and caste.

Bartholomew then makes the audience leap from the inner worlds to the ever-transforming city. Often these pictures are set against conflicting backdrops. Nariman Point is set against Bombay’s high-rises on Marine Drive but Bartholomew’s vantage point remains the excluded industrial debris. Around the same time, the vibrant working-class movement in Bombay was systematically crushed by the forces of capital. Textiles mills were forced to close and Bombay started to become a finance capital. The surge of capital took a toll on traditional occupations as is seen in “Boatmen with horse” and “The horse and a matador van”. Cities were creating new symbols, and machines became integral to the new India. “A black and yellow taxi in Bombay”, “A pavilion at the trade fair grounds” and “Solar eclipse on TV” document the churning in those decades, which led to the birth of the modern city.

At the same time, Bartholomew’s disdain for non-inclusive change is reflected in the pictures of a dilapidated middle-class housing society or a fire in a building. By shooting the crumbling walls of a well-arranged modern house or the smoke emanating from the chimneys of a power station, he guides the middle-class viewer to reflect upon the anarchic directions of a city. Is this development coming at the cost of millions of people? Do we value what we may not? Do we need to look differently? These are some of the questions “Outside In” throws at us.

Intelligently titled, the exhibition is an insider’s viewpoint of middle-class society from the outside of it. At the end, “Outside In” is not about different cities but about the common ways of life in the three cities. Bartholomew tries to universalise social relationships irrespective of the physical space, and yet he does not shy away from celebrating the subtle distinctions between the three cities. These remain integral to his universal vision.

However, for a compulsive nostalgic who swears by the differences, Delhi could still be seen as one that had the makings of an intellectual capital. In the same way, he could still look at Bombay as transforming its character to become the new financial hub. And outside the fixations of power, Calcutta would remain the city relishing its reformist Bhadralok culture for posterity. It is precisely where Bartholomew succeeds, and quite flamboyantly.

Related Articles