Capturing the intangibles

Photographer Sooni Taraporevala’s exhibition “Parsis”, opening at New Delhi’s National Gallery of Modern Art on September 16, is a reminder that the mundane can be made memorable.

Published : Sep 04, 2013 12:30 IST

The Man in the Sola Hat, Bombay, 1985.

The Man in the Sola Hat, Bombay, 1985.

IT would be facile to say that Parsis –Sooni Taraporevala’s exhibition of photographs–is just about the Parsi community. Though the exhibition is certainly a documentation of a variety of aspects of the Parsi community, Sooni Taraporevala’s photographs have multitudinal layers that capture the dynamic essence of Mumbai… the physical changes in the city and, amazingly, also the ways of living, thinking and being.

In shooting the community she undertook something of a balancing act. Being a Parsi herself, she could have fallen into the traps of either indulging the community or criticising it overzealously. Or, while aligning herself with her role as a documentarian, she could have distanced herself to the extent where her pictures would have been pale, lifeless things. She does none of these.

Instead, she defuses all potential minefields by an astounding skill in which she is both the objective photographer and the involved Parsi persona. The result is images that draw you in and, amazingly, seem almost like viewing a family album. There is a high degree of familiarity with the pictures brought on either by the subjects (people like J.R.D. Tata and Zubin Mehta) or by location (the ubiquitous Mumbai streets and the identifiable architecture) and, of course, by the quintessential Parsi portraits themselves (the dress, visual eccentricities, sola topi and even the furniture in the homes).

The overarching feeling is the gentleness with which Sooni Taraporevala has handled her subjects. And yet, she is not kind when she presses the camera button; it is not a priority with her to make women look pretty or the old look graceful. Not that she sets out to do the opposite. She is just preoccupied with documenting the moment and all else is negligible. The results are arresting. Indeed, it would be a tough fight to change an opinion that said she had portrayed stereotypical Parsis—stooped, sola topi wearers, sharp-eyed old ladies wearing sarees with embroidered kors (borders), or an exuberant athlete, her short crop coloured a flaming red, straddling the west and the east with an ease typical of the community. In doing this, Sooni Taraporevala is not attempting caricature. She is just intent on freezing the dying trademarks of the community. Her photographs do an amazing job of capturing the intangibles and creating well-rounded portraits —characteristics shine through the one-dimensional medium and you see characters who have a love of life, who are amiable and benevolent and have a general readiness to laugh at themselves.

A letter Homi K. Bhabha, Professor at Harvard University, wrote to Sooni Taraporevala has been used in the exhibition catalogue: “Your photographs portray the vulnerability of a distinctive cultural group that strongly believes in the contribution it has to make, and yet struggles to survive its diminishing presence.”

Recording the city The collection of over 100 photographs, many in black and white, shot over three decades has the added advantage of recording the city. Changing skylines, automobile models, the old Palm Lounge at the Taj Mahal hotel and Irani restaurants are just some of the visuals that haul you back in time to another Bombay. And then there are the little things. Small powder boxes on dressing tables, a porcelain-backed hand mirror, the ubiquitous carved furniture, a portrait of Queen Elizabeth II or John F. Kennedy. None of these is the focus, but because of the excellence of the pictures and because they contribute to the scene they become smaller players in this wonderful show, teasing you to linger in front of each photograph. The clarity of her images is stunning. You can tell the time on a small ladies wristwatch, appreciate the fineness of lace and see the grain on wood.

That Sooni Taraporevala did not shoot these images with the intention of rushing them into an exhibition, and instead shows works that were shot over the last 30 years, adds greatly to the integrity of the show. In fact, the gallery becomes a sort of time machine as one drifts slowly through, stopping at each photograph. Some nostalgic as they remind you of the rapid changes in Bombay-Mumbai, some haunting as you see a face you recognise and realise how time has passed. To this extent, the choice of Mumbai’s Chemould Prescott Road Gallery as the locale for the inauguration of the show was excellent. The gallery’s generous interiors lets both, viewers and exhibits, breathe and create their own intimate bubble within which they silently interact, gazing out intermittently across the roofs of the old Fort area, home to many Parsis.

In the late 1950s, the celebrated photographer Henri Cartier-Bresson told The Washington Post : “There is a creative fraction of a second when you are taking a picture. Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera. That is the moment the photographer is creative. Oop! The Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone forever.”

The Cartier Bresson-like freezing of the decisive moment is what transforms Sooni Taraporevala’s photographs from mundane to memorable. It is nothing earthshaking but the broad grin of a bride, the leaning posture of a man as he hunts for something in the deep recess of a pocket, the attentive tilt of a technician as he listens while repairing a typewriter, are all images that force you to look again. And then there are the timeless favourites of the show—the photographs that everyone talks about—The Mystic Piano Tuner Mr Ratnagar standing still while the world around him is in a spin; a photograph that speaks not just of the obvious present but of people and professions like him who are fading away. Or, The Man in the Sola Hat, which is hauntingly beautiful and almost like a painting.

Sooni Taraporevala’s pictures are documentary in the truest sense. With her Cartier Bresson-like skill she does not embellish, and so skilful is her innate understanding of composition that the viewer’s eye is instantly drawn to the main element in the frame—the photographer and the viewer are in total sync.

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