Ace photographer Rohit Chawla tells us why he is a purist at heart

Rohit Chawla. The name evokes style, gloss, grandeur and everything that you associated with the world of blitz. But he has moved on. Having been there and done that, the ace lensman for some years now is working for his soul. So he takes off to Kutch to shoot the effacing Rabaris or he takes to reinterpreting Raja Ravi Varma and Gustav Klimt. The impeccable styling and gloss is there, courtesy his deep roots in the world of advertising, but backdrops and grandeur are gone. His love for design and form remains and that shines in his works — be it “Wanderlust”, his celebrated work on the Rabari tribe of Kutch that he showed four years ago, or the latest “Goa Style”. The exhibition presented by designer Tarun Tahiliani and Religare Art is on at Religare Art Gallery till March 22. It will travel to different cities in the subsequent months.

The genesis of “Goa style” is in “Wanderlust”

I was tired of people asking me who my favourite is…this and that…I shot the Rabaris in a very fashion idiom. I shot them in the desert. We used to create makeshift studios. I got them to project like models do…and shooting Indian tribesman isn’t such an easy job…So, this was the beginning in Kutch. These were the nomads, constantly on the move. No one picture was done at the same place; wherever we used to find these guys whom we felt could emote and project — because especially when you are doing portraiture it is important that your subjects project. For example we used a very simple technique. When an Indian tribal stands, he/she stands very apologetically. That doesn’t work. We used big strong lights which were so blinding that they couldn’t open their eyes. They would open it for a nanosecond and that’s when we would click.

A sense of ownership

Both “Wanderlust and “Goa Style” are completely unstyled. I found them the way I found them, and I shot them. There were no stylists, no make-up artists. In the ad and fashion world it’s hugely collaborative…at the end of the day it becomes a team work. It depends on so many people. On a given day if the stylist produces great clothes, the make-up artist does a good job. This was my own work wherein I could take ownership.

Simple and graphic sensibilities at work

I just wanted to do simple images with strong graphic sensibilities. I didn’t want any distractions of background. I wanted the people. Doing anything else would have taken away from the purity of the image. I believe in the minimal. I have a very minimalistic style of doing portraits. If you look at all my work there is a strong sense of graphic and design…design is my whole life and aesthetics is a way of living.

They are global nomads

They (the subjects of the current exhibition) are from East Ireland, Sweden, Israel etc…This is an incredibly creative community…they have a hippie lifestyle of course, but they are essentially a creative community. All the clothes you see them wearing are the ones they have created. They are not bought from stores. Nobody has told them how to be. They are just like Rabaris and their natural sense of style. So I capture these nomads who come to Goa every year where they spend four months every season.

One of them came to my house in the morning on a Honda Dio. I had seen him in the market and he came to my house dressed exactly like that. My father-in-law opened the door to find this Conan the Barbarian.

They sit with local tailors in Goa and create most wonderful clothes. They export and they sell.

There was a gorgeous family. Everybody at Benetton would have worked for months but wouldn’t have got this look…They came to my house on a motorcycle looking like they do…How can you be not enamoured?

These people are the influences for global fashion. Tarun (Tarun Tahiliani) is hugely inspired and he is planning to do a whole show on this. He did a collection based on Rabaris. He is one of the few designers I seek for validation…he is one of the few designers who has the eye.

Roots in advertising world

It doesn’t bother me at all. I think it’s a great baggage to have. In fact I find the banality of social documentary completely passé in today’s world where everybody is a photographer. As a photographer my duty is a bit more. A photographer can’t be just happy about documenting something which already exists. This thing about the constructed image is actually…the staged image is the way forward…Advertising is a very ruthless profession…if you are mediocre it will throw you out. On a given day if I am shooting a big star who has been paid crores of rupees I can’t afford to be lax. Some of the best filmmakers and cinematographers today have come from the world of advertising. My background gives me that gloss and technique which helps me in creating this kind of work. I am not stuck in advertising. I have moved away consciously. Advertising is young people’s business. This is my way of rediscovering my soul…

Future projects

I am doing a project on pixiatures where I am recreating Indian miniatures as photographs. One needs to break the mould every year. This migratory thing is very interesting. After this I am going to Bolivia to shoot the indigenous tribes.

As different as it can get

The work, the styling, the clothes are so grunge, so bohemian that this exhibition also needed to be mounted in a subversive way. They are an anti-establishment sect. I have tried to mount it in different materials possible…there’s wallpaper, transparent acrylic, gold foil, steel, vinyl, wood and leather. All these pictures are done on HP printer…They have sponsored the show.

A purist at heart

I am a purist. I still believe in beauty, form and design, unfashionable as it might be. A good image is the one you can live with. Something that jumps at you, screams at you.