April 07, 2020
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Patels In A Pod

An unusual and intimate book that tracks the astunding number of twins in one community

Patels In A Pod
By Ketaki Sheth
Dewi Lewis Publication Rs:795;Pages:104

THIS book arrives after weeks of discontent. At least three exhibitions of photographs held in Mumbai and other parts of India recently had something missing. The exhibitions were Some Children of the Dream (Australia), Ageing India (photographs by Samar S. Jodha, text by Vijay S. Jodha) and the T.S. Satyan retrospective. What they lacked was a book.

Along comes Ketaki Sheth's Twinspotting, exhibition in tow. My discontent should be over but instead it intensifies. The publisher of the book's a Welshman, its printer Italian. Indian photographers have nowhere to turn to in India if they want to get a book out.

Publishing a good book of photographs is an expensive business. We know. When I asked Samar Jodha if he was thinking of bringing Ageing in India out as a book, he was appalled. "We have to keep trying to raise funds just to keep the show going," he said. The book was an exorbitant dream.

It needn't be if some of our big business houses, who have smartly woken up to the value of our contemporary painters and sculptors, see the value of our photographers too. Couldn't one of them sponsor a yearbook of the best press and commercial photographs? Or an annual of the best press photographs. Or Ageing in India, a subject of crucial importance as anyone can see?

I write this on the last day of this year's World Press Photo exhibition in Mumbai. Also, Sheth's book arrived when I was writing an article on the shameful neglect of photographers in this country. Sheth's text talks of the recurrence of coincidence in the lives of twins. No twins I know shares this coincidence in my life, if it is coincidence. The confluence of exhibition, book and outburst is more likely the result of a growing, sickening realisation that for the moment at least the professional lives of the best Indian photographers lie elsewhere.

Sheth's own life has taken her elsewhere through marriage and otherwise. Her attempts to get her work noticed here, through postcards for example, were only briefly successful and the last of her photographs which I saw before Twinspotting were printed in England, in a book called An Economy of Signs and in London Magazine. On her frequent visits here, meeting fellow photographers, she must be fully aware by now that the best Indian photographers rule India with their prints abroad.

Having got that pun out of the way-I had to, I had to-here's the book. It's a perfect extension of the Mamiyaflex format-the photographs square, the books not so square-with 82 photographs of Patel twins in Britain and India. The British and Indian twins generally appear on facing pages. There's no squaring off, no aggression between them since each set of twins faces the camera or, when not, is involved in an activity of its own quite independent of the British or Indian sides of the book.

Yet there's a link, as Sheth intends there to be. Her camera makes the physical distance between the twins on facing pages run on parallel tracks. Or rather it's the book's design, by husband Aurobind, that makes that happen.

So Neelam and Nimita in Gujarat and Bijli and Bindya in Kent are linked by the similar look of trees behind them. Niky and Nikunj, sandwiched between a rubber-tyred cartwheel and a car in Gujarat, have their richer and more relaxed female counterparts posing in a car in Middlesex. Adult twins Muni and Kuki let a cat pass between them in a garden in London like stylish matadors would let pass a bull, while child twins Amrit and Amish, bored at home in Anand, allow Macho, their dog, to come between them and bite one of their feet.Fine designs, fine resonances.

Does more come through? The mystique of twins, for example the bonding, so unnerving to the twinless? It does. Two photographs especially made this viewer's skin crawl. Bijli and Bindya in another photograph, the sunlike flower on their T-shirts and the floral pattern on their jeans eerily linking them to undisclosed forces of nature, another world; and Milan and Mayur reclining on the front porch of their home, their elbows and part of their forearms touching to give the effect of an angled mirror, so perfectly do the pair reflect each other.

There's hard work in this book. Spotting twins in a London directory, then spotting them in person, the journey to remote areas of Gujarat, breaking the ice photographers sometimes face in every climate, even the hottest, the freeze, the thaw, the distance-endangering warmth. Sheth's detailed account of her twinspotting quest and her descriptions of her subject's habitats suggest an anthropologist's zeal. There's plenty of worked-out detail in the texts too.

My one flinch-point was with something Raghubir Singh wrote in his foreword. He believes that with these photographs Sheth has taken a leap from her previous 35 mm street photographs and that she has found her voice. But it isn't final, this voice, this quest to have a voice and be heard. A hundred years from now these photographs may be valued more for their anthropological content than for the reasons we value them now. They may grow, in time, to be the equivalent of Deen Dayal's photographs of Indian princes or Mathew Brady's portraits from the American Civil War. They may grow, in time, to be poignant fixtures of our past, just as Singh's own photographs are growing to be with his untimely death in April this year. His foreword, dated April this year, must be one of the last pieces he wrote.

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