The population of Port Blair seemed united in the opinion that if I wanted to photograph trees, I should proceed to Chatham Jetty, take a ferry to Bomuphht and move on to Monterrat. Careful enquiries with my ear turned towards the speaker elicited beautifully enunciated answers: Bo-mu-phha-tt, Mon-te-rra-tt. I pounced gratefully at the opportunity offered by Chattham Jetty, which I knew of, hailed an auto with faux confidence and was immediately exposed as a pretender. “Which side of the jetty?” asked the driver. Then he took pity on my weak-kneed smile. “See, one side, the ferry goes to Bomuphht…” “That one,” I said gratefully and jumped in to strains of Bareilly ki Barfi.
This is adventure, I told myself. This is seeing the world. This is being a photographer, just venturing into the unknown with a camera. The feeling lasted till the ticket seller for the ferry asked me where I wanted to go. “Glmpph,” I said. “Aah, Bomuphht,” she nodded and gave me a ticket. So I boarded a vehicle-cum-passenger ferry, filled with college and office goers, sprinkled with motorcycles on the lower deck and peanut shells on the upper. It was lovely. How often can one say: I am sailing on the Indian Ocean and have no idea where I will land? But the local police were not sympathetic to my state of exalted ignorance and the moment I landed I saw a glorious banyan and a police station which announced that I was in Bamboo Flat.
By this time I had entirely forgotten the syllables that indicated my final destination. Thankfully, a jeep driver asked me where I wanted to go. A place with old trees, I said firmly. “Aah, you should go to Monterrat,” he replied. “Fine,” I said, “take me.” And off we went. On the way the driver stopped at a delightful vista of a bay. “This is the view on the back of a 20-rupee note,” he pointed proudly. We scrambled in our wallets for a 20, found one, and I was delighted to see that he was right. He then drove over to what we locals call Monterrat, known to you tourists as Mt Harriet National Park, which had especially arranged a most glorious tree right at its entrance for my delectation.
I love trees. It is simpler to make this bald statement and hope that the listener will understand the truths that it embodies, than try to explain my passion in detail. It would be incorrect to say I have been photographing trees for some years. The fact is, it was photographing trees that turned me into a photographer. When my mentor for an upcoming exhibition (ace photographer Aditya Arya) suggested that I try to shoot trees that emerge from old walls and buildings, I plunged into a world of ficus trees from which I never quite emerged. Old peepuls, bargads and pilkhans started making themselves visible as I walked through the streets of Delhi, Kolkata, Kumaon’s villages, my native town of Dehradun…and, now, Bomuppht.
Initially the idea was just to walk through Delhi, looking for trees. It was late spring and the semal (silk cotton) was winding down its spectacular show, while bougainvillea was beginning to take over, even as I waited for the summer because it would bring the blazing amaltas. What could be better than strolling around looking for sculptural trees through the last of the pleasant weather, occasionally stopping to have a bread pakora? Apart from, that is, actually finding and photographing those trees and celebrating with chhole bhature?
I found lovely symphonies of wall-and-tree in Mehrauli and Chandni Chowk (a pizza at Olive and some deadly bedmi puri-aloo, for the interests of keeping the records meticulous). But the one that made my heart stop was a majestic beauty that grows out a wall in the dirtiest and most crowded part of New Rohtak Road. It was impossible to photograph during the day, when all the traders, commercial van drivers and their horns took over like so many parrots descending on fruit trees, so I landed up at five in the morning with a tripod. A pig wallowing in the drain beneath those artistic roots, two strays and three locals with daatun came over to discuss and advise. A salesman from a nearby Karol Bagh sari shop wanted to leave his job and join as my assistant.
Soon, presumably in revenge for my Facebook posts on these trees, friends and strangers started sending me photos of the trees they saw in their neighbourhoods and inviting me to their towns with many emphatic exclamation marks. “Come to Banaras now!” said Navneet. And I found myself walking through the ghats, a bit intoxicated, as a boatman’s song cut through the morning fog and the dhobis spread impossibly colourful saris in front of the 18th-century Chet Singh Ghat. “Dehradun has many old houses,” said Pramod Mama, and drove me around the villages on its outskirts, shouting every time he noticed an abandoned house: “Juhi, shikaar!” Pria Lall, in our very first meeting, helped me enter Kolkata’s long-closed Birds Jute Mill complex, fed me lunch, and appointed a guard to accompany me through the thousands of katthas of factory land taken over by ficus trees. It was like a mini Angkor Vat and for a day I completely forgot myself (or my fear of snakes). “You must go to Chandannagar,” messaged Lipika. “The trees have become part of the architecture in old houses.”
On a beautiful Sunday—the kind of weather which used to make travel writers say ‘salubrious’—Chandannagar’s tiny one-kilometre promenade next to the Hooghly is filled with lazy newspaper readers and parents entertaining their children. In the former French colony town, Dupleix’s 18th-century mansion stands facing the river breeze. My friend appears with her mother in a local auto, musically called a toto, to help me locate some old houses. I thank Kaberi di for indulging us on a Sunday and she points out that one could always depend on mothers. “In Bengal, we say there are only three things you can completely rely on: LIC, Boroline and mother.” We all laugh, but she can’t help pointing out that, mind you, Boroline is actually very good. She enters neighbourhoods she used to frequent decades back, easily invoking memories of people and times past. Plucked out of their lunches or afternoon siestas, people are incredibly hospitable to a photographer from Delhi who, for some reason, wants to enter rooms in their houses that have been shut for years. They beam encouragingly at me across the language divide.
Returning to Kolkata, I think to myself that wherever I go looking for trees, it is also people that I find. This is perfect for the idea underlying the project: that the human and the natural are so interrelated as to make a whole, and seeing them as separate spheres does violence to both. Unable to call my project ‘People Tree’, for the iconic Delhi brand got there first, I decide to call it ‘Human/Nature’. Then, thinking deep thoughts, stopping only to photograph a lovely peepul emerging from a wall in Bhawanipur, I make my way to the nearest Bhojohari Manna for some golden luchi and alur dom...
Juhi Saklani’s photo project has been made possible by the Photosphere fellowship grant (2018–19) from India Habitat Centre, New Delhi.