Bengaluru based artist Shibu Arakkal’s latest showcase, ‘Four’, is a photographic interpretation of his emotional journey through the past four decades of his life. The showcase acts as a philosophical take on horizons, and is the artist’s poetic and visual story of the dualistic nature of his life.
“Seen from another perspective, Shibu’s images are not really about physical objects at all,” says art critic, Giridhar Khasnis. “They explore the gorgeous mysteries of nothingness, and unearth the pickings of an implausible treasure. The images are not besieged in the confines of space, time and material. They are not visual explanations of a targeted, premeditated destination. More accurately, they stand out as evocative fragments of a momentarily interrupted journey. The result is intense and inventive, lucent and lyrical, patterned and rhythmic, classical and contemporary, sensual and cerebral.”
‘Four’ is Arakkal’s first solo showcase in five years. The show opened on September 4th at the Time & Space Gallery in Bengaluru. The photos in the series travel between the shores of the Pacific sea and the Arabian sea, the United States, and the artist’s native country, India. The works are divided into groups of semi hyper-realistic mirrored montages, impressionistic singles remain solitary photographic works, and ultra-minimalist iPhonographic mirrored triptychs.
Walking us through the thoughts and ideas that led to the creation of the series, Arakkal says, “The series is about realising the truths of the here and now, as much as it is about questioning the past and the future. The series interprets my beliefs, struggles, fights and losses, and traces my emotional footprints through contexts that have constantly challenged my existence and my unwillingness to conform.”
Artist and photographer Rafique Sayed is another fan of the artist’s work. “Most works created in a panoramic format are quite amazing. I believe that it is easy to work on high-contrast or medium-toned images, but to work on flat and low-key images with not much contrast is difficult,” he says. “These colour works have a surreal feel to them that makes them almost painting-like. Normally, I am not very impressed with experimental photo art done in this country, because I feel most of it lacks in concept and depth, but this new series is brilliant and very original. In my opinion, Shibu is a complete artist.”
The artist’s extraordinary photographic art has garnered respect across India and in international art circles. He currently has, to his credit, 15 solo shows and 40 group exhibitions spanning 20 years, as well as 250 photographic works that have found homes in private and institutional collections across India, China, Singapore, Australia, Italy and New York. In 2013, Arakkal became one of a small number of Indians to have won the prestigious *’Lorenzo il Magnifico’ Gold Prize in Digital Art for his work from ‘Constructing Life’ at the Florence Biennale* in Italy.
A Political Science and Economics graduate from St. Joseph college, Bengaluru, the creative spirit began his journey as a student of fashion illustrator during which he picked up photography. He says, “My father, artist Yusuf Arakkal, and his friends stoked the fire in me that convinced me to go beyond the boxed canvas and explore a limitless world of art and its myriad interpretations.” Unraveling the tenets of the art on his own, he says, “My foray with fashion magazines pushed me to experiment with the medium whilst I nurtured a childhood ambition of being a footballer and a motorcycle racer.”
His interest in photography followed. “My first photography assignment was around the pubs in Bengaluru for an Indian Airline in-house magazine. That assignment opened the portal to explore the layered world, to unravel the austerity and rawness of the subject.”
Arakkal’s preferred medium of black and white photography is composed of a complex arpeggio of greys that unfold across the frames, and give his work its trademark depth, profundity and the deliberate aesthetic of renunciation that he has sought to embrace. Austere as his choices may be, they manage to maintain a continuous relay with his appetite for sensuous experience; his desire to commemorate a moment of deep understanding culled from the flux of time, from the texture and palpability of rock, the shade, a shrub, or a streetlamp. His eyes grasp every nuance, seizing the essence of memory and sealing them into frames to be re-visited and re-imagined.
Arakkal has the heart of a painter and the mind of a photographer, a fact that is evident in his work. He leaves the viewer to navigate the complex lines of the seen and the unseen. On future projects he says, “I would love to work on a series that threads a narrative around the human ego.”
Just keeps walking,
Spreading his magic,
These are the chorus lines from Black Sabbath’s debut album Black Sabbath and it talks about a mystical all-powerful wizard, but why would I choose to open a piece like this? Well, these lines and Bangalore-based photo-artist Shibu Arakkal have a lot in common. Arakkal, like others, never talks (his work does) and he spreads magic every few years or so. His newest body of work titled Four (on view till 24th September) is his philosophical journey through the last four decades of his life. Started in and around 2013, this is his first solo show in five years.
The works from this series are fragmented ensembles of semi-hyperrealistic mirrored montages, impressionistic black and white photographs and minimalist pictures taken with his iPhone (something he calls iPhonography, a term he coined back in 2014), and sees the shores of the Pacific Ocean, the Arabian Sea, as well as the wild landscape of the US and India.
It’s a chilly Saturday morning, I am in a relatively good mood because the tea had brewed perfectly, and my cabbie arrived right on time (without me having to give him the directions over the phone). Usually, I am anxious when I meet people for interviews, but this one, not! I was actually looking forward to it for a while—this meeting has been dragging on for over five months now. Arakkal is a busy man, planning the show has taken a toll on him, because he is a nit-picker, and a good one at that, but this trait of his is what makes him an ace artist in my book. As I make myself comfortable in a cab with a mucky back seat, I wish I reach his apartment on time. He dislikes waiting. Another 50 minutes, and I was sitting in his apartment in Whitefield, enjoying the view from his house, petting his dog Zoie, and sipping on some well-made filter coffee.
Arakkal is in his early forties but looks much younger, a grey stubble shadows his chiselled jawline. His hair, other than a few strands of white, is well-kept, and with a red polo shirt and a pair of distressed denim shorts, he is dressed for comfort. His show is in its last week, so he is relatively peaceful and is elated that it was received well, and things went as planned (well, most of it), he says in his slight baritone voice as the nit-picker in him emerges. He assures me that he has learnt to control that trait, but I highly doubt it.
Chapter 1: The backstory
Normally, when Arakkal starts a series or a body of work, he has a theme, or a concept that is already crystallised, a thought (process) that takes like a year-and-a-half, to two years, as it grows, it’s then consolidated into a workable concept. For instance, In his Skin Series (that he showcased in 2009), the essential question of the whole anthology was, ‘Why is a curve seductive and a line not seductive?’ “And that’s a heavy question, because when you dive deep into answering that question—a curve symbolises a woman, and a line symbolises a man. So, they have different traits,” he clarifies. Similarly, with Finding Nowhere (2012), the question was, ‘what would Bangalore look (like to him) if he could go back to a blank canvas and reimagined it’, which is why, the central theme of that anthology was to find Nowhere, and reimagine the city.
Four was rather impromptu, like any good piece of art it wrote itself. “I didn’t have a concept, I didn’t even know I was starting a series in the first place,” enthuses Arakkal sipping his coffee. “Do you remember the one with the fisherman, and the picture of the plan back ocean and the sky? He asks me. “Yes they were my favourites,” I answer back. “The ocean and the sky was the first one I did from this series and was shot in Kannur. Again, I did not know I was shooting a series at that time,” he points out.
To add some perspective, he was working on a commissioned assignment for the International Gallerie (2013). They had commissioned six to seven artists to strive on a body of work in Kerala that was personal to them. So this is what took him to Kannur to discover his father’s ancestral roots (the Arakkal family were the rulers the Kingdom of Cannanore and the owners of Fort St Angelo for over 600 years). In the untitled series, Arakkal took photographs of various mosques in Kannur. This is when he unconsciously ended up taking pictures for his present series as well.
The first picture of the series (Four) sees the plan black ocean and the sky (of the Arabian Sea), which he shot around 7 o’ clock in the evening, it was way past sunset, which is why the image looks really dark and there is hardly any light. Further, the shot was exposed for over 10 minutes.
When he composed the shot the horizon was at one-third. Immediately after he pushed the shutter button, a thought crossed his mind, “Why does the horizon have to be at the third, why can’t it be half, why can’t I split the image exactly into halves.” As he went along, he realised that when there are two halves, they have to be equal halves—not just in proportion, but also the substance that goes into each half, like the kind of colours, contrast and the detail they hold. “One half can be detailed rich, and the other half can be plain, (and yet hold its own) so then they become complementary—they are equal, and still, they come together to form a whole.” And he knew that that was going to be his biggest challenge, but he shot it, keeping the harmony in mind.
The fisherman, on the other hand, was the simplest to take, also he happened to be at the right place at the right time. This guy was fishing alone in a sea which looked quite calm but the sky was ominous, it looked like it was ready for a thunderstorm, but this fellow was peacefully fishing. Arakkal recognised the moment, and he took just one single shot. The capture that you see is the exact composition—without cropping, no adjusting, no Photoshop, nothing. “I know I am making it sound simple, but it’s not actually that simple to get a shot that you want. There will be something that will bother you, either the horizon will be tilted, or something or the other will happen. Then the exposure has to be correct, the contrast, the fisherman has to be exactly where you want him, without the horizon getting cropped. But with all that, you have to get it to what Henri Cartier-Bresson calls ‘The Decisive Moment’, where you fix everything and you say, now, and you fire the shot. It looks simple but it’s not,” highlights Arakkal.
He also created a lot of the iPhonographs throughout this period, like the one he shot in Varthur Lake, and many images of the sky which he mirrored later.
“Except two of the works, I have split all the pictures into two halves. Also, I don’t think they are fighting against each other, there is a lot of harmony, in fact, there is a lot of peace. Which in itself is a success to me, because only when you try it, you will realise that it’s not easy, it’s hard to achieve that,” adds Arakkal.
So, unintentionally, without even having a concept, Arakkal (over a two-and-half-year period), kept shooting a lot of horizons. And then, this horizon turned into a philosophically spur, ‘what is a horizon all about?’ In fact, in some of his artist notes, he calls it, the ‘vanishing point of hope’. “I started thinking what this horizon meant in my life, but I had no clue.” From there, the concept just kept evolving. Also, this was the first time he started work without a working title. He did not have a title till a few months before the show.
Chapter 2: Arriving at Four
“So, how did you come to Four?” I ask. “I kept questioning myself what this horizon meant in my life, and how those two halves fit in my life and then I realised that everything in life is broken up into two. Like you say darkness and light, Yin and Yang, earth and sky. Similarly, for me, I saw that dualistic nature of my life,” he answers promptly. Further, “Like, this is the first time you are seeing me in this avatar, no? I nod. This is my domestic avatar (gestures by tugging his t-shirt); you have also seen me in my professional avatar, right? Those two are disparate sort of opposites. Yesterday, I remember an artist saying, but isn’t that usually the case? Probably, probably not, I don’t know, for other people I cannot comment, but in my case, they are so disparate. When I go out, I have a certain demeanour about myself, but when I am home, I am different, I am more chilled out, I don’t talk as much, because I am running after my two daughters, (his 8-year-old daughter Zarah and his 10-year-old English Cocker Spaniel Zoie) cleaning up after them, worrying about more mundane things, about groceries, whose eaten, who has not, who has taken a bath, does my dog need to be cleaned, and things like that, you know? A different half of the dualistic life that I have.”
But, the series hit home only when he turned forty (last year). He says that he is not so big on birthdays, but this one was different. He knew that he had to do something meaningful, something that warrants his 40 years of existence, and throwing a party was not a part of the plan. Instead, he went to California. For a long time he wanted to ride a motorcycle on the spectacular roads of the California coast, and since motorcycling is a huge passion of his, it was an apt choice. He went on the trip and shot a lot of the series there as well, but then disaster struck, it was the same year he lost his father (Yusuf Arakkal). And that’s when it really consolidated the idea in his head, about what that horizon meant. “I hadn’t realised it till now, that that horizon was my dad because he was the only one who was constant for four decades of my life, everything else changed and when I say changed, I mean dramatically, so whatever the template, mine was clearly the road less travelled,” he recalls.
Chapter 3: Honour thy father
The series took a rapid turn after his dad’s passing. Shibu fondly calls him his North Star because his father was the person who moulded him into the person his is today. When he reminiscences his pre-teenage years, Arakkal remembers a painfully shy, timid, super hypersensitive boy—so sensitive that if you clapped loudly, he would burst into tears. By the intensity of the exchange, I knew he was not making this up. ‘My dad moulded me into this person who was ready for the big bad world because I wouldn’t have survived it otherwise’, he says. The no-holds-barred attitude (that is in everything he does now) came from his father. ‘Don’t hold back, you are what you are, but you are also more than what you think you are. You are not just limited to the imagination of what you are.’ His father used to remind him now and then. “He was harsh with me, (which I thought he was), but now I think it was for the better.”
He then tells me that the first car his father owned was a Fiat Millecento, he remembers because ‘It had a beautifully rounded booty,’ he explains gesturing with his hand and he learnt how to drive on that. He was 13 when his dad got that car as a barter for some couple of paintings from one of his collectors, (who today is one of Shibu’s collectors).
When he got the vehicle, it was Shibu’s responsibility to wash that car. Every time he cleaned the car, he would tell his dad that he had done what his father had asked for, his dad would then peek out of the window and ask him to clean it again, and go back in. He would do it again, call him out, and Shibu would get the same response. So, he was cleaning the car like four to five times every day. But he did not have the balls to ask him ‘why was his pop making him do this?’ “I was scared of him. I wished I wasn’t, but I was,” says Arakkal laughing.
One fine day he mustered enough courage to ask him, why was he making him clean the car more than once? His father just calmly said, “If you had cleaned the car properly the first time, I would not have asked you to do it the second time.” From that day, his goal was to clean the car like Usain Bolt runs the 100 meters. In his head, he was the best ‘fucking’ car cleaner on this planet. That teaches you two things, he says, “when you do something you do it better than anyone else around, or you aim for that. And the second thing you learn is you take pride in whatever the fuck you do. And this has always been the way ever since, all thanks to my father,” Arakkal tells me. So, through his twenties and thirties, Shibu became this ballsy person, so much so that there were times when his dad told him to calm down. But he never stopped him from doing things because he saw that fire, that desperation in Shibu. No wonder, the series is dedicated to his father.
Chapter 4: Going to California
Then his journey took him to California. The whole hyperrealistic works (coloured photographs) were captured in places like the Del Monte Forest, Moss Landing and the Pacific Ocean.
Once he landed in San Francisco, he went to San Jose and stayed there a while. From San Jose he headed to Scottsville to go to Monterey, that’s when he started shooting. (The riding came much later) That whole trip from Scottsville to Monterey, he stopped in places like Moss Landing. Shot a lot on the 17-mile drive to Pebble Beach. (the Pacific Ocean work was shot on the drive).
Interestingly, the shot of the Pacific Ocean was taken on a pinhole camera, and I am sitting there thinking, ‘who the hell does that?’ He recalls driving over the previous evening to recce the place and he drove down the entire 17-mile trail (and back) because he knew he wanted to shoot seascapes there. “So, I decided on the spot where I would shoot the next day. I was there at 5:15 in the morning and it was freezing cold. I was staying at an Airbnb at Pebble Beach, and I had to tell the folks there that I was leaving for a shoot early morning so that they don’t get too worried about where I vanished off. This is again the Pacific Ocean so the winds were strong, a problem when you are doing long exposures because you don’t want the camera to shake.”
Why did you choose to shoot with a Pinhole camera? “The fascination I have for pinhole cameras is because of the ultra-simplistic nature of that object. Basically, it’s a box with a hole, that’s all it is, there is no lens, there is nothing there. But, if you think about it it’s such a magical idea no?—a scenery that is outside, is filtered through that hole and is projected onto a sheet of film and it exposes that sheet of film. It’s is such a fantastic concept, man. I mean, think about it, I can’t ever get over that idea. In a nutshell, that’s what a camera is.
Every time I think about it I am blown by that whole idea. And the fact that it’s a pinhole, there is no lens, because there is no lens, the images are not ultra-sharp, in fact, they are not even sharp, you also don’t have a shutter, you can only control it by the minutes or seconds you expose it for, you don’t have an aperture, there are no bells and whistles, you cannot do whatever your digital camera does on that and my pinhole camera does not even have a viewfinder, so I can’t even see my composition.”
“How long did you expose it for?” I ask. “If I remember correctly, it was long, somewhere above 15 minutes, because it was so dark that early morning.” The aid that he uses for exposure when it comes to pinhole cameras is his iPhone, there is an app that allows him to measure the exposure. “So I got my ballpark figure (through the app), also, the other thing is, that the pinhole camera that I own has just four exposures, four sheets of film, that’s it and you better get it right, and the margin of error in (terms of exposure) a 4×5 film is greater compared to a 35 mm film. What I mean by that is, on a 35 mm film if you are off by one stop, half a stop or even two stops it’s not a great difference, but in a large format film if you are off by a third of a stop it’s a massive difference, you have to get it spot on.”
After that, close by was the Del Monte Forest, that’s where he shot the wooded landscapes. “When I was driving back to Scottsville, is when I shot the photograph you see of the electric poles. It was crazy because I was pulling over at lots of places you were not supposed to be pulling over,” he illustrates with a laugh.
Chapter 5: Making the cut
Four’s final set has three set of images, and each set has four works. “It’s twelve works because I have a thing for numbers. When I decided that the series would be called Four, three happens to be my lucky number, so 3×4=12. It’s not some other reason,” clarifies Arakkal.
But the selection process was painful since adding and deleting photographs can be tricky sometimes. Up until December 2016, the selection was different. (Four was supposed to happen last year, but since his father demise, the show was postponed). Also, in January/February, he did a few more works, for the same series, and he did not put a stop to the series. And when he shot new ones, he had to scrap some of his earlier selections. “Why it becomes difficult is because you are working with a microscopic view on the series for so long that you never step back and look at the entire thing from a larger perspective,” he addresses, looking at me. So, to smoothen the process, he showed it to some of his close artist friends, whose opinions he trusts, who he knew will get where he is coming from, understand the concept, his way of thinking, and they will be able to contribute. “Because you need a third person’s perspective. And I ran these through some of these people, and then the selection process became even more difficult because they come in with their set of ideas, they look at it a certain way.”
“You saw my iPhonography selection, with a single line (the horizon and nothingness)?” I nod in approval. “I don’t remember the artist, but I remember someone saying that there is nothing in the work. There is just one line that’s all. But I held my conviction on to that one. I said no, I want to show this. And I am glad I did. Because people who came to the show told me that those works are really bold. Also, I did not put it out there because it’s different from what other people are doing. I put it there for a reason. You saw the display, right? You start with the hyperrealistic works, then come to (the impressionistic style) black and white, so you are going from a hyperrealistic style to an impressionistic style, and then you come to minimalism, and when you end at those white works, you are ending at what I call nothingness, you know? Those white works are important to me artistically and philosophically. I wanted to create an image where I was thinking, how much I can take out from an image, how much can I cull out from it, but is still an image and is still engaging. I like the fact when people ask me, is that even a photograph? Yes, that’s a photograph. It’s not something I created on Photoshop, no. So, that process was really difficult.”
Chapter 6: Planning makes perfect
Nothing Arakkal does happen by chance, it’s all a conscious decision—right from how the works are showcased in the gallery, to how he plans and adds creative aspects to his work, everything is a thought out process. For instance, something really interesting about the hype realistic images is that if you look at those prints and you look at the image on a screen there is not much difference, which is a stunning factor. “I should not be complimented for it, but I wanted it that way. Because usually what you see on-screen and what you see in print are two different things. The experience is different. For me to arrive at that hyperrealism was a long drawn process. I have different styles of work, I am not like my father, you know? Who had one solid signature style of work, I, on the other hand, do different kinds of things. You can’t look at one work of mine and say it’s Shibu’s style. And when it comes to hyperrealism I have my own interpretation of it and how it does justice to my work,” he states. This is how he arrived at something he calls ‘Digital recolouring’.
After he has processed an image, colour corrected it, edited it and all those processes are done, he then takes the image onto Photoshop and works on each channel of the colour. For instance, he goes into cyan, and if there is a cyan aspect in that picture, he tweaks it to the exact hue and colour that he wants. So essentially, what he is doing is treating photography the same way a painter treats a painting—adding and tweaking colours accordingly. “This is why you are seeing those colours due to Digital Recolouring. And it’s the choice of paper (Hahnemuhle paper) that gives you this finish. Keeps the colours rich and vibrant and the contrast deep,”
The (exhibition) space also became a big factor, because he looked at so many spaces. At one point he even wanted to do the show in a basement parking of a hotel, but it didn’t happen for security reasons. Luckily, the present gallery (Gallery TIME and SPACE) he is showing at had just finished a refurb, and when he saw the space, he made up his mind. “I wanted a completely neutral space, where you are not really thinking about the space, also, you can’t look at these works in a small space. TIME and SPACE had a large area, and it had a completely neutral colour palette—with white walls and the ceiling was grey. I wanted to take the personal attention away from the space and focus on the work. And that’s what it gave me.”
Chapter 7: Climbing the hill
The series has been, without a shadow of doubt, the hardest series Arakkal has worked on. And none of his other series were easy. But, this thing sucked out every bit of faith he had in him, the only reason this series saw an end was because of faith, and nothing else. He just kept pushing and pushing. While he made sure that his camera did not move during long exposures near the sea, the challenge really was to retain control, ‘like how they say less is more’, and not something where you dump all your emotions. When you look at the works, there is a lot of restraint, but from the inside, he was bubbling. Also, having philosophical concepts and ideas are great, but you have to make them work in terms of a photographic body of work. The idea and the concept can be deep and powerful, but if the imagery fails, it will not leave an impression on the audience.
But, he wanted to see this through. As he says ‘he winged it as he flew.’ “I said to myself, I am just going to fucking reach this end at some point. Whether I can see it or not there is an end to this and I am going to reach there,” he fuels. In this case, he had to complete it by a certain date. Lucky for him the series was done before he started planning for the show. He was also going through a lot of his own personal struggles and all of that jumped him. ‘The thing is, as an artist, you cannot separate the personal and the professional, personal fuels the professional, and vise versa’. The struggle was to climb the next level, and by now he is pretty persuaded that he has. “I was waiting to see if I made it, once I opened the show, and from the kind of responses I got, I am convinced that I have made it to the next level. This makes me happy,” ends Arakkal.
‘The object of art is not to reproduce reality, but to create a reality of the same intensity.’– Alberto Giacometti.
Shibu Arakkal has been an artist more than a photographer. One can justify the above statement because every photograph of Shibu has been artistically conceived and executed. Shibu’s works have many admirers and were a part of the prestigious Florence Biennale as well. This solo show of Shibu, comes after a steady wait of five years during which he conceptualised and created impeccable works of class. His father’s demise earlier last year did leave a mark on him which is why here he is dedicating this show to the legend Yusuf Arakkal. The four-square circle of Shibu’s life and the crisscross of many years of his living, meet to shape an entire, around the sunless chasm of his horizon.
Shibu says, “My crossbreed reality and the resultant artistic work are mind boggling philosophical stories of life, lived out and about and less voyaged. Of dusting the earth and grass off from my falls that made splits in my being. The veins to my spirit. That I cherished naively and live doing so is not a thing of disappointment. That despite my losses I stand tall, is not a matter of indignity but rather that I still embrace life. The show comes after a gap of five years and its worth the wait actually.”
Shibu’s horizons are dry mirages of vivid dreams that course through his sinews. What’s more, what he sees are superimposed projections of dreams and reality two parts that frame a double life, in a fight for faith and the unchanging.
The quintessence of the present series titled “Four” is a photographic interpretation of his emotional voyage through the most recent four many years of his life. Evolving out of a philosophical thought on horizons, this assemblage of work acts as a poetic and visual story of the dualistic idea of his life, multiplied over the four many years of time spent living it.
Realising facts of this very moment as much as questioning the past and the future, the series interprets Shibu’s beliefs, his battles, fights, misfortunes and follows his emotional footprints through settings that have continually tested his existence and his sheer unwillingness to accommodate.
The series, which has developed in the course of recent years has seen the shores of the Pacific sea, the Arabian sea, and also the wild scene of the USA and of that which is native to him, his country, India.
The works from the series are divided groups of semi hyperrealistic mirrored montages, impressionistic single remain solitary photographic works and ultra-minimalist iPhonographic mirrored triptychs.
Shibu’s works have always stunned the viewers for their artistic and aesthetic finesse, this show of Shibu is phenomenal both in terms of magnitude and artistry. The gallery owner Mrs Renu George has collaborated excellently with Shibu to curate a show which is worthy to be called world class.
For his current series titled “Four”, Arakkal motorcycled through the streets of California to find the perfect shots that would document the last four decades of his life. “Riding is something I do very often. I really enjoyed riding on the Pacific Coast highway with sea on both sides,” he says. It was a beautiful ride, he recalls.
Arakkal is one of the few Indians to have won the ‘Lorenzo il Magnifico’ Gold Prize in Digital Art for his work from ‘Constructing Life’ at the Florence Biennale 2013 in Italy. The photo series focuses on the horizon as a philosophical concept.
“Because other than the horizon, everything else changes. It represents the constants of my life. The horizon splits later which is to signify that in life two halves make a whole,” he says. The series aims to show the dualistic nature of his life.
Arakkal says that when he steps out of his house, people see him as a sophisticated and fashion concious person, which is a contrast to how he is around his family and neighbours.
“My home avatar is a completely different persona. I am usually in my torn denims, old tees and flip flop, taking care of my daughter,”he says.
The photo artist says that the gated community he lives in helps him stay close to normalcy. “Everyone here thinks I am a jobless fellow. I love it,” he says.
Arakkal enjoys being a “nobody” and values this normalcy. He believes that normalcy is the easiest thing to lose and the hardest to go back to. “I value the fact that I can go to a bakery, stand there and enjoy a cup or chair or coffee. They usually see me there as whiling away time,” he adds.
Ask him what his Onam plans are and he responds, “I’ll be in Bengaluru opening my show”. His current series ‘Four’, presented by Karle Town Centre will be hosted at the Time and Space Gallery from September 4 to 24. The artists has dedicated this series to seminal contemporary artist Yusuf Arakkal.
“My dad was much like the horizon, that one constant in my life of past four decades. He was my North Star of four decades,” says Arakkal.
His past works have been showcased in private and institutional collections across India, China, Singapore, Australia, Italy and New York. “I started working on this series in 2013, but I have produced three bodies of work since,” he says. His current work includes the shores of Pacific Ocean, the Arabian Ocean, and the landscapes of the United States and India. California was his favourite place to shoot, while San Francisco he says was a “great place to let loose and party”.
“Nothing worth having is easy. Nothing easy is worth having. Make of it what you will.” Arakkal settles into a corner of his living room, amidst the daily domestic bustle of a typical weekday evening, to articulate, almost gingerly, the processes behind his works. This must be said, for Arakkal is rarely given to intellectual banter – “If your work is different, you shouldn’t have to say so. And if you do, then it isn’t different enough. I don’t call myself an intellectual or agree with those who use it for its own sake.”
With three days left before the curtains go up on Four, our conversation is peppered by interruptions as Arakkal handles one crisis after another deftly, the very picture of calm. It’s a real-life manifestation of the somewhat perturbing quiet that seeps in through his work, which raises as many questions as it strives to answer. “It’s not what you photograph, it’s what you do with it -” He nods his affirmation to this remark. They reflect, by his own admission, a deeply sensitive, philosophical nature – he doesn’t use form so much as toy with it, turning to blank skies when he is asked to look for a thunderstorm.
The series, which is made of three sets of four pictures each, began with a single photograph of the sky, the sea and a lone fisherman. The horizon, he noticed ran right through, leading him to wonder, “Can I split it evenly?” The horizon shifts through the course of the photographs – asymmetry is important, a manifestation, perhaps, of what Arakkal calls “a mercurial mind” embedded in a “deeply sensitive” heart.
It also marks his first solo show in five years, although it his third body of work in that span (Lines in the Sand and Pipe Dreams preceded Four) – “I put a lot into every body of work, that’s why it takes so long,” he remarks. That said, Arakkal does not prescribe to what he calls “Bohemian nonsense.” “It’s not about being prolific, work at your own pace, but I’m not the sort to sit around and wait for inspiration to hit you either. My father painted every day of his life, he never waited around for the right moment.”
So what drives him? In 2007, Arakkal embarked on a very special series of photographs that had him meet with a number of Indian artists who were in exile, including M.F. Husain, whom he visited at his house in London and Shakti Burman. To each of these artists he posed one question: What’s the first thing you do after you start your day? The answer was both unanimous and unsurprising – “They paint or sculpt or etch or do what it is they have to do,” Arakkal explains. This was followed by another question: Why do you do this? Do you have to? Do you want to? Or do you need to? Again, they all came back with the same response – ‘We need to’. “You’re mentally and emotionally consumed by these questions – they’re compulsive, they drive you, they don’t let you sleep. Art becomes a physical necessity, you need to get this out of your system and get on with your day. At that point, you hardly stop to say, ‘I will wait for inspiration’!”
It’s an arduous journey but one through which he perseveres – “Anything else is escapism. My dad would always say, ‘If it’s tough, man up’, and I try to. I’ve come to realise that this is my normal. Some things are more difficult than others, it doesn’t mean they aren’t worth fighting for. You have to go through the fire, you need to be burned a little.”
Arakkal is one of the few Indians to have won the prestigious ‘Lorenzo il Magnifico’ gold prize in digital art for his work Constructing Life at the Florence Biennale 2013 in Italy. Arakkal also coined the term ‘iPhonography’ — artistic expression using the iPhone and the photographic works as ‘iPhonographs’.
His creation of photographic art using iPhonography is technologically experimental, even internationally, but still on the cutting edge of image creation and reproduction. He has the heart of a painter and the mind of a photographer; which is evident in his work, leaving the viewer to navigate the complex lines of the seen and the unseen. His works have found homes in private and institutional collections across India, China, Singapore, Australia, Italy and New York.
Arakkal’s daughter Zarah is a driving force in his relentless desire to create a body of photographic art as a legacy. When he is not working, his passions are evangelising the magic of analogue photography and indulging his love for motorcycles — be it riding, or designing an exclusive machine that will showcase his aesthetic mind.
He calls his latest works as ‘iPhonography’ which he feels is the essence of artistic expression and experimentation using the iPhone and his photographic works born out of this expression are what he calls ‘iPhonographs’.
Passionate about his latest body of work, Shibu explains, “My expression of art is technologically experimental, but still on the cutting edge of image creation and reproduction in relation to analogue and archival giclée printing techniques. This unconventional treatment of modern technology to revive the romance of print brings a surreal quality to smartphone photography.
In coining the term ‘iPhonography’, I wished to create a completely new genre of photography, where the focus is not on the functional ability (or lack thereof) of the iPhone camera but to put the onus back on artistic ability, especially while using a basic photographic device. In my iPhonographic practices, I tend not to use too many applications during or post photography.
In editing, too, I prefer to use the iOS native editing application. In rare cases, I use professional photography software to overlay a film feel, creating montages or multi layered photographic works. Hence, it becomes photographic art that is instantly relatable and easier to identify with as opposed to traditional art forms because cameras have become integral to phones and smartphone manufacturers ensure that they are truly cutting edge.
This makes for great challenges in the creation of interpretative and highly artistic photographic works. To then reproduce these digital works physically in the widest range of photographic print forms, is one of the most profound kinds of artistic experiences,” adds Shibu.
One of the photographs that photo-artist Shibu Arakkal showed could be aptly described as ultra minimalistic. It has a horizontal line running across the length of the work, cutting it visually into two halves. The thin hazy line is significant to the imagery which is otherwise just hues of white. “This image breaks rules of photography,” he laughs. He is mainly referring to the Rule of Thirds that students of photography adhere to with great alacrity. While the ‘rule’ suggests placing important compositional elements on the imaginary grid intersections of nine sections, the photograph under scrutiny has the ephemeral horizon dividing the work into two. The ‘artificial horizon’ has been created by merging two pictures of the sky, he explains.
Arakkal’s show, Four, which comes after five years, has 12 works which create realities from within or, what he calls, “personal truths”. In the process, these works tend to break away from the expected norms. He shows another photograph, one that he has used as the invite to the show. It is a panoramic shot of a hilly range with an expansive meadow dotted with tiny purple-pink flowers. Still, it is the stark azure blue sky that holds the attention. “A younger me, who would have been at the start of his artistic journey, would have waited for some clouds,” he shrugs, adding that it was another tenet of photography usually drilled into the students to avoid shooting a bare sky. This work, however, pleases the minimalist in him. The phrase minimalism jars him for it implies a fad. Austere, on the other hand, has a philosophical slant which suggests his approach to the work, he says.
“I have always had profound questions in my head,” he states, “and my father (late artist Yusuf Arakkal) had taught me to question absolutely everything.” Finding himself at the crossroads last year; he turned forty, completed a solo bike ride along the coast of California in search of ‘me-time’, and having lost his father later that year; Arakkal writes in his note: “The four-square circle of my life and the crisscross of four decades of my living, meets to form a whole, around the sunless abyss of my horizon. My half-breed (Hafu) reality and the resultant artistic work are complex philosophical stories of life, lived on the road less travelled. Of dusting the earth and grass off from falls that made cracks in my being.”
Such abstraction in thought has been applied in practice right from the beginning, be it his solo shows like Eiffel O’ Seven (2009) or Passing By (2010). So what has changed? “In the start of my journey, it was about knowing what to put into the image. It takes ages to understand that,” he explains. “Over the years it has been more of what I can take out (from a frame).”
Currently, he is moving away from monochromes, predominantly the colour black although this series has four works in black and white as well. There is a back story that he likes to narrate, of a Vedic Reading which told him how he had subconsciously associated the colour black with himself. “In this series, for the first time I am handling several colours, purple, pink, blue, green…” With confidence he declares that in spite of not having handled too many colours –his series on Bhutan landscapes (Passing By) was predominantly in green – he is better than others who are known to be colourists. His attitude could have stemmed because of several factors. One, he received the gold prize in digital art in Florence Biennale (2013). He is a self-confessed perfectionist, “forever pushing for that last 0.5 per cent towards perfection”. And lastly, his two mentors photographers Sudhir Ramachandran (Arakkal worked as his assistant for a while) and Rafique Syed have written uncharacteristically (for them) raving reviews about his works. Arakkal jokes that he had to actually request Syed not to write such a glowing note which bordered on the line of nepotism. “In today’s time, it is rare enough to have a mentor leave alone having two of them for 20 years.”
The show has three sets of four works each – “I am superstitious about the number three and its multiples” – and each set has a defining theme. The first set of colourful – by his standards – works are hyper-realistic, where the reality has been heightened to create a “fourth dimensional effect in which you can easily imagines yourself”. The next set of works is in black and white. One of the works is a departure from the rest for it has a solitary boatman fishing against a dull, cloudy almost “ominous” sky. Arakkal had come across the sight at Kannur and could immediately identify with the boatman. “I too am fishing,” he says, “but for my truths.”
The last set of works is shot from his iPhone which he calls “ultra-minimalist iPhonographic mirrored triptychs”. The freedom of using the smartphone to click pictures, that too with raw files of 30 MB size, has been exploited by this intrepid traveller. In the series, one gets to see the horizons of landscapes across the Californian coast and parts of India he chose to travel. The Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean and the backwaters of Kerala make appearances that can or cannot be recognised, thanks to his style of capturing the images.
He lets out on his plan of arranging all the pictures – the panoramic ones are six feet in length – in such a manner that the individual horizons will all be at one level. The envisaged perfect symmetry brings obvious delight to the perfectionist. The works will be displayed starting from the hyper-realistic ones and ending with the ultra-minimalistic image. From rich details to austerity. The display may just capture the truth of his oeuvre.
And the image that serves in the background is bright enough to pique your curiosity about what he’ll be showing at the exhibition, which has been five years coming. As shows come, this one, as Arakkal admits, is his most personal yet. For starters, it’s happening during his 40th year. The name of the exhibition, Four, alludes to it. “Am a person who writes down titles for shows as and when inspiration strikes me. While working on this show though, I didn’t have a name for the longest time. So I just sat down one day to think about it. The series for me, as I see it, is all about my emotional journey and my artistic journey over the last four decades. Initially, I wanted to call it 40 but then, I decided to play around with it and decided to call it Four,” explains Arakkal. That he is dedicating the exhibition to his father, artist Yusuf Arakkal, adds an emotional touch to it.
“I am dedicating this show to my dad because his passing away was one of the biggest turning points of my life. He went away content, happy and peaceful, but his death was unexpected. For me, he as my North Star, the person with whom I could talk about life and philosophy and art and everything else. There’s nobody else, except my daughter, with whom I can do that today. Which is why this show is very, very personal. My Artists Note reflects that. I just let go while writing it, its raw, emotional and powerful,” says Arakkal.
“Realising truths of the here and now as much as questioning the past and the future, the series interprets my beliefs, my struggles, my fights, my losses and traces my emotional footprints through contexts that have constantly challenged my existence and my unwillingness to conform…” reads an excerpt of the note. The concept note incidentally will be played in the gallery throughout the month, as a stand-alone video with background sound. Arakkal clearly doesn’t take the concept of a solo show lightly.
Experiments with colour
Coming back to the photos that will be on display, the exhibition features 12 works, or as he’d like to says, three sets of four photos. There’s a set that’s hyper-realistic and rich in colours, there’s a set in black and white and then, there’s a set from his iPhonography series (photos that have been shot on the iPhone. Four, according to Arakkal, reflects his evolution as a photographer over his 23-year-long career. There are interesting experiments. “It is for the first time ever in my career that I have experimented with colours, certainly not the rich vibrant colours that you’ll see here.” Arakkal informs that he’s tried something that he likes to call ‘digital recolouring’. “It means that you add the colours you want to the image, a lot like how an artist adds colours to a drawing,” he explains.
Another common theme that runs through the photographs is the ‘horizon’. A line of the horizon runs through photos that Arakkal has shot in places as varied as California, the Pacific Ocean, Arabian Sea, and Bengaluru’s own Varthur lake. “It’s the philosophical element in this whole affair, but it’s not about me turning philosophical at forty,” quips Arakkal. “For me the horizon also represents the dualistic life I lead. I am an artist, photographer and philosopher, but I am also this regular guy who is comfortable drinking tea by a roadside stall, and who cleans up after his daughter and feeds his dog,” says Arakkal.
With barely a day to go, ‘nervousness’ would be the mildest way to describe his state of mind but there are expectations. “For me, every show of mine that I do is about artistically climbing the next step. To be acknowledged by the right people that I have climbed that next step is what I expect to achieve from Four,” he says.
Over his 22-year-long career thus far, Shibu has carved his own niche in the ever-expanding realm of photographers, coined his own photography technique of iPhone photography called ‘iPhonography’ and is striving to be the best platinum-palladium printer in the country.
Recently, Bangalore experienced his first solo show in five years titled ‘Four’ – dedicated to his late father, who had been the constant guiding force during the four decades of his journey as an artist and search for higher truth.
There is a strong sense of spirituality in your work. Have you inculcated this from a person standpoint?
I’m essentially a philosophical being, which is automatically transmitted into my work. When I look back at my work, I realize that I’ve embraced a lot of design sensibilities from the Zen principles without knowing what they were until recently. In fact, I’ve always been intrigued by Japanese art and culture, historically and artistically as opposed to European art.
I’m also fixed about the idea of honour, which is again a Japanese notion. For me, it’s about having honesty and diligence in my work. I don’t believe in diluting what I’m putting out or doing anything below my moral code. I try and imbibe the same qualities in my 8-year-old daughter.
Growing up, was there a pressure to be creative since you were ‘Yusuf Arakkal’s son’?
Not really. Before I picked up photography, Dad used to crib about me not drawing and painting because he believed I had a natural gift, which I haven’t fully explored to this day. I do sketch for myself, but my passion isn’t there. His only wish was that I pick one thing and stuck to it. It’s easy to quit and drift and say “I’ll do something else”. But you have to stick it out.
So after 22 years of sticking it out, what’s your process?
When I’m taking the picture, I’m not thinking. It’s a conscious practice I’ve built up over the years to shut off the mind. You focus to such an intense point that you instinctively know the right decision every step of the way. But for that level of intuition, you need to put in the hours.
It’s also an emotional process. I look at my finger, which is to press the camera trigger, as an emotional trigger. It’s a Samurai sort of precision like in Kurosawa movies where the Samurai isn’t even looking at the target but knows exactly when to strike. It’s mighty hard to achieve that. And it’s up to the photographer to recognise when that is.
Do you see your photographs as paintings, having grown up around them?
My Dad never formally taught me about art. But he’d ask me for my opinions on his paintings and have simple conversations about them. For example, if I told him I found the shade of turquoise too strong, I’d see later that he muted the tone. When I’d ask him why he took my point seriously, he’d say that it was because there wasn’t a synergy but an overpowering of one colour over another. So with observations like that in mind, I used a rich tonality of colours and merged it with a hyper realistic style for the first time in the ‘Four’ series.
In my Dad’s work, there was always one line, which people assumed was just his signature style. But when I asked him why it was there, he explained that it was to create a foreground and background – to create a depth that previously didn’t exist in the painting! From that point on, I’ve done a series where I’ve studied a line versus the curve. That sort of knowledge really holds you in good stead.
Right. Take me through 2014, when you switched to the iPhone and coined the term iPhonography. What were the changes you underwent then?
When I started using the iPhone in 2014 and discovered the camera on it, I realised that I had a very decent photographic device at hand with no bells and whistles. What excited me was that it tested my artistry and creativity as a photographer. I was so hooked to it that I wanted to find a term. After playing around with the words ‘iPhone’ and ‘photography’, I hit on ‘iPhonography’. I Googled it and saw that a ‘iPhonograph’ was a gramophone-like device to play an Ipod. I said to myself: “What a waste of a term!’ So I started using it and coined it eventually!
Stemming from that, tell me about your shift from analog to digital.
I’ve never let that flame of experimentation/learning be extinguished. I was brought up in the analog school of photography and properly trained by Sudhir Ramchandran and Rafique Sayed.
But I’m thankful that my grounding was in analog photography as digital is much easier to pick up. Analog is much harder, and less forgiving.
Long before the iPhonography days, in the late 90s, I had studied digital media and was experimenting with digital art as it’s known today. I was messing around with the very first version of Photoshop on machines where every click would take ages minutes for every gradient change or applying filters. I cultivated the patience to sit and do that. Nowadays, everything’s flipped the other way round and there’s no restraint or judicious use of Photoshop!
And still, you’re all about the physical form of consuming a photograph, not virtual. Take me through your experiments with printing.
For me, an image that’s created digitally is only real when it’s printed. Until then, it only exists virtually and doesn’t take on the tone, texture, finish, stiffness of the paper, canvas, wood, metal, glass, or whatever medium it’s printed on. I was one of the first people in Bangalore to have my own setup for archival pigment printing, which I’ve done for many years.
But when I started using my iPhone 5C, which was 8 Megapixel, I realized I could print 2 feet x 2 feet of the highest resolution with the minimum viewing distance being 5 inches and zero pixelation! I was blown away. That’s when I got hooked onto platinum-palladium, which is the purest photographic print you can make as the print lasts as long as the paper lasts. I love the idea of taking a photograph on the iPhone and printing it with platinum-palladium. It’s two entirely different worlds clashing and forming a new entity altogether. I haven’t mastered the technique yet, but my plan is to fine-tune my technique over the next year and become the best platinum-palladium printer in India.
Is there an ongoing series/concept you’re working on?
I’m intrigued by the concept of human ego, so let’s see how that shapes up over time. I’ve been meaning to take a break for many, many years. I realise that I’m not in a race with anyone nor is there an expiry date for my photographs. So I’ve consciously decided to do a solo show maybe once in 3 years henceforth.
“We also have come a fair way in wrecking this planet and our ability to appreciate the natural life and a certain natural order to things,” says the photographer, who will be dedicating this show to his father, the late master artist, Yusuf Arakkal. Exceprts from an email interaction
Does life really begin at 40? How optimistic is your world view now – about life, nature, the art world, people and especially, the language of appreciation?
Life has been a continuous nonlinear journey for me, yes, at forty my life has certainly changed phases. I am someone who always believed that the world that we live in always was a chaotic and in many ways, a dog-eat-dog place. The nostalgic idea of the “old days” is something that we talk about to soothe ourselves from the harshness of the real world.
However, I have always been an extremely positive person, don’t see any other way to live life. As such, my world view is that every thing ebbs and flows and one must have a sense of humour and a philosophic take on things. We also have come a fair way in wrecking this planet and our inability to appreciate the natural life and a certain natural order to things.
I believe that the art world is on a slow upward swing, shaking off a lot of “plastic” art and work that has been seriously underwhelming, with the rise of some really potent and unique young artists around the world. It is also good that the art world is also finally waking up to the true meaning and role of curators and for the written word supporting visual art. Bottom line, life is like art, the more you grow, the more you learn.
Would you like to take us through what your emotional journey of four decades, in a few words? What were the hardest emotions, and were there any redemptive, or reformative episodes to speak of?
My life and I thank heavens for it, wasn’t emotionally an easy one, by a long shot. The basic elements of my life itself were extremely complicated pieces that seemed to hold together by a thread, sometimes.
So, to very vividly remember being this extremely timid, painfully shy and soft-spoken person in my early teens to my father having brought me out of that shell and moulded me into someone ballsy enough to face the world, is a credit to him. The method he used, however, wasn’t easy and it therefore I think, would obliterate the idea that might exist that I was brought up with a silver spoon.
The idea of not wanting to finish a degree and to finally get one in Political Science, Economics and Sociology on my father’s insistence and to give up a Post-Baccalaureate at the San Francisco Art Institute after having got it without a pre-requisite BFA or MFA, have been crucial forks in my road less travelled.
I feel that every time I have done a body of work, it has been redemptive and reformative, certainly emotionally. My work has always been the thing that makes sense, the thing that is sacred and the thing that truly expresses my inner most self. Having said that, it is also the thing that has plunged me into darkness, into unimaginable (to most people) emotional turmoil and to then deal with the everything else life has to throw at you, very much makes one the wiser.
So, the reason I have dedicated this exhibition to Dad is because he truly was my North Star for four decades of my life and he passed away in the year when I turned forty.
It’s interesting to note that you studied political science, economics & sociology. How did that help shape your approach? Thereafter, how beneficial was your training with Sudhir Ramchandran and Rafique Sayed?
Although my father didn’t care what degree I got, it surprised him when I took up Political Science, Economics and Sociology, especially given that I wasn’t known to be the brightest student. But I actually took that specific degree up because I was genuinely interested in the subjects. And even with my freelancing photography assignments during college hours, I did quite well in my the academics.
I have been later told that I am somewhat equally a right and left brain person, which doesn’t surprise me. And as such, my approach to my work and art, in general, has been a cumulative cauldron of right and left brain ideas, theories and philosophies. Also being adept at understanding the economics of art and dare I say, the politics of it too.
Training with Sudhir and Rafique was what truly gave me that rock solid foundation as a photographer. They are diametric opposites in their styles and philosophies but they are both old-school and staggeringly brilliant minds. And the idea of receiving a good word that came by with so much hard work is something I value to this day.
How did you come up with the term, IPhonography & IPhonographs? How do you experiment with the results, and how, according to you, does this compare to conventional mediums such as giclée prints?
At some point, when I had been experimenting with iPhone photography for a while, I was eager to find a word for that form of photography. I started playing around with the words photography and iPhone and came by ‘iPhonography’. Then I Googled it. What came up was some gramophone kind of device meant for iPhones and I thought, what a waste of a good term.
I, however, started using the term associating it with my iPhone based work. It is only later that I found out that I couldn’t trademark the term as it contained the word iPhone in it. And the term soon caught on like wildfire, especially on social media.
I started off shooting, editing and post-processing JPEGs shot on my iPhone and was stunned by the size of prints I could do with that resolution of an image. I experimented with my signature mirror images to layered composite images and multiple montages, while I still did the stand-alone, filterless, unedited pure stuff just to prove to myself that I can be artistic without the aid of software or fancy gear.
Today and especially after I started working on RAW images shot on my iPhone and with what the latest version of the iPhone, the doors to my iPhonography world just blew wide open.
I am fascinated by the idea of taking a basic camera of the iPhone (compared to a DSLR) and creating images on it and turning it into photographic art. And to then mesh that with giclee or pigment printing techniques or even traditional methods like Platino-Palladio Type. It is this clash of two worlds that works.
Then again, could you explain what you describe as “semi-hyperrealistic mirrored montages”? Why semi? We think your works are quite hyperrealistic in themselves!
I would tend to agree that one mini ensemble of the works from Four could be correctly called ‘hyperrealistic’. I tend to use the ‘semi’ because I feel like there is still a lot more I can do to make that kind of work of mine truly ‘hyperrealistic’. And yes the ‘mirrored montages’ part does contribute to the hyperrealistic nature of the work itself.
We’re very interested in your approach towards reviving the romance of print. Tell us a little more about this particular interest, your vision, plans, and how you’d like to see things changing.
All art being interpretations of “reality”, a photograph itself to me isn’t real till it is printed. It then not only becomes a physical reality, especially in a digital scenario, it has added elements of tactile texture, a real sense of scale, sheen or lack of it and its physical presence in a space.
About three to five years ago, I believed and vociferously so that film and analogue photography aren’t going to die out and with it also, the traditional processes, particularly that of printing. It turns out that I wasn’t wrong. The market for all things analogue, especially film, is truly alive and well even in India.
I have been very seriously experimenting with the Platino-Palladio Type printing, a nearly two hundred-year-old technique, of which there are hardly any practitioners left in India. I would like to see that keenness to create a beautiful print return and I am also quite sure that it will. A great print doesn’t just take art but craft too and as such, in my opinion, it is as valuable as any painting.
How did your travels influence your artistic and philosophical approach? You seem to be missing your Paris sojourn in this new collection.
My penchant for travelling came about when I was still in college and it was also due to my father that I first travelled Europe at twenty-two. I very quickly realised that all the learning I wanted to do about life and my fascination for history came together so well in this one exercise of travelling, regardless of destination. I often liken myself to a dog, in that it is most natural for them to move forwards and not backwards.
To me that is what travel feels like, philosophically speaking. I think it is the best way of feeling life passing by and a realisation that you must live in the moment. I also enjoy taking myself out of my own comfort zone and certainly out of my current context and seeing how I respond to a different one. That not only adds a much wider context to the work I do but also I think, keeps me real in terms of where my work actually stands. Paris, as much of a muse as it was in my work, is still a distant second to Florence, which I consider my second home.
Tell us a little about how your father helped shape your understanding and personal creative language. Are there any words of advice that you hold close to your heart?
The best thing my father ever did, speaking as an artist, was that he left me to myself and didn’t force anything on me. What happened as a result is that I unconsciously imbibed a whole lot of things about art. From the many many books and films on art, literature, philosophy etc. to being present during conversations between some of the most renowned names in art and culture. I narrate this story every once in a while to illustrate what I learned from my father.
When he bought his first car, a beautiful champagne gold Fiat Millecento, it was my responsibility to clean the car. And not like I had a choice but after I did, I would tell him that I had finished doing so. He would come out, look at the car and say, “Clean it again!”. And I would and then again, tell him that I did. Again, he would come out, look at it and say, “Clean it again!”.
This madness happened four or five times in the beginning. I finally mustered enough courage to ask him why he was making me clean the car so many times, to which he replied, “If you had cleaned the car properly the first time, I wouldn’t have asked you to clean it that many times”. From then on, it was my diligent endeavour to clean the car better than anyone else could and thereby do it just once. I teach my daughter the same lesson of doing things with pride and doing them to your best ability.
The idea of reality and dreams meeting in a work of art, or one’s creative vision, has been the preoccupation of many an artist, thinker, writer and other creative people. Where do you see this horizon extending for yourself?
On a road less travelled while all things change, the horizon philosophically speaking, in an onward journey has been the only constant for me. It has been the vanishing point of hope. The realisation of two equal halves that split everything and for the balance between those two halves to come together to form a meaningful whole.
In a mystical sense, it is the sense of having taken birth with a certain set of qualities and to connect with the physical world while you give shape to and create something that might remain as a legacy. In simple words, just to be remembered. That I think, is the essence of what every artist tries to achieve with their work but seldom does. That horizon is also what I hope will the line that runs through all my work when I am eventually done.
Would you like to, some day, experiment with forms other than photography? Surely the digital media must have you thinking of various new things to do!
I know better than to never say never but I have been so completely in love with photography as an art form and everything that makes it what it is that I think there is a long way to go for that love affair to end. I am also a believer in trying to do one thing in life and taking a life time to learn it well, even if your life is full of many other passions, as it should be.