The following essay and photographs are on display at the ongoing eighth edition of the Indian Photo Festival (November 18-December 19, 2022) in Hyderabad. The photographer, Shivaraju B.S., who joined the Karnataka Police Department in 2001, calls himself Cop Shiva. In 2010, he quit his job to become a full-time photographer. His photographs are about ordinary people in their daily lives: in capturing their beauty, the images turn them into something extraordinary.
In one of his acclaimed projects, Cop Shiva documented the life of a rural schoolteacher, Bagadehalli Basavaraj, who has been dressing up as Gandhi at various functions for the last 20 years because, he feels, the country is forgetting the Mahatma’s ideals. Later, the project became an examination of Gandhi’s values in contemporary India. Another project, “Street as Studio”, captures the lives and dreams of migrants on the streets.
For Cop Shiva, the job of a policeman and that of a photographer is similar in that they entail respecting people and listening to their stories. As a migrant himself, he could identify with the thousands of people in Bengaluru who have left their villages in search of a better life in the city.
Cop Shiva’s works are represented by Gallery Sumukha in Bengaluru and Art Heritage Gallery in New Delhi. He has held solo shows and has been a part of several group shows, nationally and internationally, including Chobi Mela in Bangladesh, India Art Fair, and Kochi Biennale. He was awarded art grants by Prohelvetia-Switzerland and the Swedish Art Council and was the finalist for the Robert Gardner Fellowship of Photography of Harvard University Peabody Museum in 2016.
In 2001, I migrated from my village in Ramanagara district, Karnataka, to join the IPS. Moving to Bengaluru was challenging but it also allowed me to pursue a career as an artist. In 2007, I began working as the coordinator of 1 ShanthiRoad Studio Gallery, and this gave me an opportunity to work with as well as learn from the many visiting artists.
My body of work is about negotiating the spaces between being an artist, a policeman, and a migrant. My eye gravitates towards those on the fringes of society, who refuse to accept their predetermined destinies. I document the complexity of rural and urban India, focussing on people and portraiture as a genre. I am fascinated by the idea of masquerade and the roles people play in their public and private lives. This fascination has led to a portfolio of intimate portraits of urban migrants, people of alternative sexuality and street-performers.
The photos here are part of a project titled “My mother and her many techni-coloured sarees”. It is a tribute to my mother and a celebration of her desires.
For a great part of her life, my mother dreamt of owning saris. The saris she wore once reflected our economic condition—the cheapest yet the strongest, with limited space for aesthetics. Whenever she had to attend a function, she would borrow nice saris from a relative or neighbour.
After I found some success and financial stability, I made it a point to fulfil her longstanding wish for good saris. We went to the market together and bought a large collection, which she now proudly displays and lends to her friends and neighbours. I realise that she finds pleasure in searching and adding to her ever-growing collection of saris, many of which are old-fashioned now. Sometimes her collection feels like an act of vengeance against a life which deprived her of small joys and pleasures, owing to years of back-breaking labour and the numerous hardships she endured to raise her children.
I was a restless child and my mother was my fellow player in all the games I concocted in my childhood. I was closer to her than my sisters were but lost that connection once I started working. Quitting my job as a policeman and the COVID-19 pandemic brought us close together again. She has always been a rebel who taught me how to live. She is very proud of her flowing hair and her saris: I have tried to capture the loveliness of both in these images.