As a massive festival celebrating photography goes on in the Capital, Shailaja Tripathi captures the journey of O.P. Sharma, who has been quietly pushing the case of photography

The sameness of things might cause anguish to many but in a few it can just bring out the best. Just like in the case of O.P. Sharma who for the last 33 years has been teaching photography at Triveni Kala Sangam (TKS). Monday, Wednesday and Friday 11 a.m. to 12.30 p.m. and then again 5.30 to 7.30 p.m. — this has been Sharma’s schedule since 1980 when he joined TKS. And with each passing day, he says, he has only come to love and value his ‘work’ more. A ‘photo guru’ as Ram Rahman calls him, Sharma cements the foundation of the discipline in nearly 150 students every year who enrol for his six-month basic photography course spanning six months. Earlier, he had headed the photography department at Modern School for over 35 years before photography became an optional subject in the school.

Not to be lured away by distractions, he immersed himself in teaching and mostly exhibiting his work abroad — till many of us including several of his students, like Vicky Roy, got to see his work after a very, very long time at the United Art Fair.

Ram persuaded the reticent teacher and his wife Chitrangada — also an amazing photographer — to show their work at the UAF, 2013. “As far as exhibiting is concerned there are two types of shows — one is a group show and other is solo show. And then there are hundreds of international exhibitions the world over in different countries. In fact we also have an international photography exhibition. India is one of the first countries to host an international photography exhibition. So I was exhibiting abroad. The present generation has become interested in photography very recently. I have had several one man shows in India and abroad, about 36. My first one man show was organised by Mr. Alkazi (Ebrahim Alkazi) in TKS. See, what happens in the field of arts (is) as long as you are in the eyes or the press covers you, you are known. That’s a very clear fact. If you want to do really good work, you better keep quiet. Also, I used to publish my work in several magazines, which I stopped and that’s another reason that people got to see my work less and less,” says Sharma.

Born and brought up in Agra, he was doing painting and photography both until he came to Delhi in 1958 and started taking photography seriously. He sought guidance from the likes of T. Kasinath and other senior photographers and gradually took up teaching professionally.

For Ram it was important to show the work of someone like O.P. Sharma belonging to the pictorialist school of photography, to give a peek into the history of photography. “I wanted to place their work historically because they have had a role to play in the field of photography and the style he practised was very different from everybody else,” explains Ram, who introduced viewers to his work at UAF through some stunning studio portraits, from the early 1960s to recent times.

There were studio portraits of Pandit Kumar Gandharva, Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan, Faiz Ahmad Faiz, Pandit Jasraj, M.F. Husain, Shammi Kapoor, Svetoslav Roerich, Rajiv Gandhi, most of which were made while he was teaching at Modern School. “I have done more than 300 portraits. Musicians who would come to perform at prestigious music festivals like Shankarlal would come to my studio in Modern School on my request for the shoot. Ustad Bade Ghulam Ali Khan was paralysed but imagine, he still came and spent so much time with me. I remember the session with Rajiv Gandhi. It was supposed to be for just 10 minutes but stretched to one hour because he got so involved. Husain used to have a Padmini Fiat those days, and after the shoot was over, he came to his car to leave but it just wouldn’t start so both of us pushed it till the gate of the school. The briefest session was with Field Marshall Cariappa. He was very tired and gave me just 10 minutes,” recalls Sharma adding that his repertoire includes a wide range of work like wildlife, landscapes and fine art photography.

Sharma has links with Hindi cinema as well, having shot the stills for movies like Chhupa Rustam, Do Boond Paani, Shaalimar and Siddhartha. He has also done some very interesting work with actor Sajjan, when he shot him over a long period of time and it turned into a book “Rasa Bhaava Darshan” — comprising 215 black-and-white pictures that capture the eight rasas and 49 bhavas by him.

“I think the turning point in my life was after I saw the international exhibition of photography held in Lucknow way back in 1950. I was doing painting then and when I saw these prints by the likes of Yousuf Karsh, I made the switch to photography.” And has remained committed to the discipline ever since.

Deeply interested in the subject, its history and its growth, he was concerned that while there are so many days reserved for so many things, there is no day dedicated to photography. And that’s how he came up with World Photography Day which is celebrated on August 19 every year, because it was on August 19, 1839, that the French government announced the invention.

“I wrote letters to various photographers across the world and contacted the two biggest societies, Royal Photographic Society, U.K., and Photographic Society of America, and that’s how it started. The idea is to acknowledge the work done in the field and to introduce the young generation to the contribution of the masters.”

It was the same objective that led him and like-minded photographers to start the International Photographic Council in 1983. “We do monthly meetings, competitions, talks and seminars and we also bring out a journal,” reveals Sharma, who occupies the post of Honorary General Secretary of the Council.

Coming back to his first love, teaching, Sharma says he lays emphasis on learning each and every aspect of photography, and that’s how it is still taught in the course. “A good photograph is when you do everything by your hands. In 1888, the Kodak company was established and George Eastman, the person who started it, gave a slogan, ‘You press the button we do the rest.’ And since then people have been pressing the button without understanding anything, but photography is a very long process…and unless and until you understand each and every part of the photographic process — right from pressing the shutter to producing the final print — you can’t produce a good image, because ultimately you have pressed the shutter, you know what exactly you want to say. Earlier, in 1826 the first photograph was made and 1839 the announcement was made of photography and since then you will find people busy with that kind of work. People like Ansel Adams and Edward Weston made each and every print of their work on their own.”