It was a regular workday for photojournalist Ritesh Uttamchandani sometime in 2004. He was walking around in Lalbaug which is home to idol makers in Mumbai. It was there that he spotted an unusual idol — a white idol of a goddess wrapped up in what once used to be a Congress party banner.
The idol had five hands, two pairs jutting out on either side of the torso and the fifth one on its stomach. That was the hand from the banner — the symbol of the Congress party. Amused, Uttamchandani clicked a picture, and very soon forgot about it for nearly five years, when he started noticing these political banners in the strangest of places, put to uncanniest of purposes, more often.
Now, it was almost as if he were looking for them — stretched out fragments of flex and vinyl superimposed with faces of politicians, big and small, in saffron, green red, white and more, that had served their political destiny of campaign banners, and were reborn as cover for a food cart, a mat for a vegetable vendor, a surface to sleep on for a homeless person or a waterproof roof over someone’s head.
Curated by Ranjit Hoskote, it is on until February 28. Having been a photojournalist for almost two decades, Uttamchandani has done it all in terms of what is considered the conventional form of photojournalism, particularly when it came to politics. He has photographed politicians in all their glory — while giving rousing speeches, during a campaign rally, awarding “underprivileged” children and other social work.
For “A Lease of Life,” however, he digresses from the traditional practice and redirects his lens as a medium to explore the relationship between people and their leaders. In these photographs, he doesn’t seem to be interested in chronicling the banners when they were installed, but what happened when they “came down from the pedestal”. He says: “When the banners come down, get dismembered and mutilated into shop covers etc…that is what really fascinates me. There’s a subtle hint of violence that is directed towards the people on the posters.”
A photograph in the show captures a bloodied political poster that has now been repurposed as a surface to clean, cut and sell fish. Another banner has found itself at the top of a transportation tempo providing cover and security to the material inside. The faces of the politicians on the banner line the edge of the vehicle.
Uttamchandani’s photographs look at how the theatre of politics plays out in the minds of people in the aftermath of the spectacle that is political events, be it the elections, the opening of a school or simply an inauguration of a small stretch of road. “I also feel that these photographs illustrate the very push-pull exploitative, up and down relationship that people have with their representatives,” he says.
The paradox comes across in an image from the show where a banner lines the internal facade of what looks like a dwelling in a slum — the faces of the politicians overseeing the lives of these people, quite literally.
Hoskote selected the 21 photographs from a collection of over 130 unique photographs clicked across Mumbai over a period of 13 years. During this time, he says, he never left his camera behind even for once, not even at a family wedding, or when he was out buying soap from a neighbourhood grocery shop.
“It used to be a point of embarrassment for my family that even if I would go to a cousin sister’s wedding, my camera would be there. I would always have my bag and a small lens because sometimes things happen and you don’t really have the luxury to go back,” he says. He hopes to continue adding to the collection for another two years and eventually bring out a photo book.