The way into Amit Mehra’s Kashmir is just the way one’s mind reaches the inner shrine of a mosque, synagogue, temple or church—deeply meditative and detached at the same time. There is both the joyous celebration of colour and the understated silence of the textured monochrome, either polarities balanced by an audacious control of contrast and composition.
If one observes Mehra’s recent black-and whites frames with their single-point focus centres with the rest deliberately blurred out, on Facebook, or even the colour-drenched, super-saturated images in his earlier book, India: A Timeless Celebration, one can see where the bokeh and seed of this philosophical trajectory was laid in the Kashmir portfolio, however subtle it may appear here.
Some of my favourite photographs in this book are where Mehra sets up a tension between beauty and warfare, such as the one in ‘Sopore, 2010’, where a machine-gun in the front-frame focus wrestles with the natural world of pigeons in flight as a blurred backdrop. Another example is one at ‘Baba Rishti, Tanmarg, 2009’ where lethal loops of barbed-wire barricade and tarmac split asunder the deserted snowscape.
‘Tanmarg, 2009’ works beautifully as an abstract, with melting water striations on a glass wall of condensation. This wall divides and juxtaposes the sharp-focused plates, bowls and a ketchup bottle inside, with the rainy street-scene outside. There are also minimalist sequences of snowscapes in Sonmarg, Tanmarg, Yusmarg, Baramulla, Affarwat, Gulmarg, etc, where the interplay of black silhouette lines create understated drama against the grainy white and of ice and sky.
Kashmir is both documentary and art—simultaneously and alternately—within the same sequence of frames. There is hope (‘Jama Masjid, Srinagar, 2010’), joy (‘Gurudwara Chatti Padshahi, Srinagar, 2008’), loneliness, humanity, beauty, modernity, everydayness and much more. Mehra’s book is an introspective piece of work, but ultimately, it is an artistic plea and a prayer for peace.
In Bombay/Mumbai: Immersions by Priya Sarukkai Chabria and Christopher Taylor, the text and photography are of equal importance. Both aspects balance each other in unobvious ways—and that is the book’s inherent strength.
Chabria’s writing is contemplative, using the long-form essay format to poetic effect. Metropolitan moments that otherwise might go unnoticed are observed and detailed in what is, in many ways, a personal narrative.
Christopher Taylor in his deeply haunting photographs uses the ‘idea of time’ and the ‘quality of time’ as it transforms and transmutes, and eventually arrests. He captures the texture, mosaic, tide, traffic, money, from the south to the north, almost as an impulsive whisperer.
A highrise clad in bamboo scaffolding in Malabar Hills; a peeling wall with an old door of a disused mill with marigold as its awning in Lalbaug; two ravens on a railing of a bridge contemplating maritime trade at Ferry Wharf; a dug-up grave in Byculla’s Jewish cemetery; people, building, trade, squalor in Dharavi; Bombay Duck in Versova; porters and sweetmeats in Bhuleshwar; temples and pigeons in Dadar’s Kabutar Khana; Kanheri Caves, palm fronds and silhouettes of urban forests at Sanjay Gandhi National Park; even the Warhol-like facade of the United Cotton Mill No. 1—all these images compete and coalesce to make a conglomerate mis-en-scene that drives the visual and textual narrative.
The photographer uses not the usual modern-day dslr as his tool, but a Lindof set on a tripod and silver gelatin plates, sometimes even a 50-year-old Rolex and a manual Nikon. This is what lends a sense of gravitas to the rich full-frame images—tonally subtle, with a great depth of field and story.
“Bombay is kindest to the very rich and the very poor,” says a khali-pili taxi driver. It is this fused polarity and graphic quality of both the images and writing that are balanced and carefully controlled. Furthermore, the book’s conceptual idea—the fine design, typography and layout—enhance the book’s overall presentation as a persuasive case for relooking with a fresh eye the city of Bombay/Mumbai and its ‘immersions’, and the important remapping of its complicated soul terrain once again.
(Sudeep Sen’s books include The HarperCollins Book of English Poetry [editor] and Prayer Flag)