Whether it was her dramatic fashion work in London in the ’80s or her documentation of Braj, Australian photographer Robyn Beeche has practised photography with the objective of giving back to the world she is part of.
What a fascinating life Robyn Beeche has led! Practising an art only for the love of it. The idea was to create, to serve without any expectations. That was what the Australian photographer was doing, when in London she was shooting for fashion designers, collaborating with hairdressers and make-up artists, and she continued it even after she came to live in Vrindavan to document the living traditions of Brajbhoomi. “Even there I wasn’t doing it for money. Everybody I was working with was so wanting to create something. We would all pool in money to buy a film. Irrespective of what work I am showing…my Indian images or my London work, I always tell photographers that it’s not everything to work for money. You have to work to satisfy your own creative urges. They should go back to old fashioned ways of finding out what they are doing. I always want to inspire people…to tell them to get off photoshop and do something real,” explains Beeche.
Australian director Lesley Branagan captures this essence of Beeche’s life in her documentary “A Life Exposed: Robyn Beeche — A Photographer’s Transformation”, which was recently screened in the Capital at Alliance Francaise auditorium.
Perhaps that’s why the switch from the glitz and glamour of London to the mundane reality of Vrindavan, the rituals and customs which were in practice for centuries, was not difficult for Beeche. In fact, at many levels, the artist finds resonance of her work in London in Braj, and Beeche expresses it in the film. The image which, she realised, was being constructed spending so much time and effort in London, happened naturally here.
In London at a time when the city was thriving with creativity and experimentation, Beeche, inspired by Impressionism and the Bauhaus art movement, was busy making drastic images of painted bodies, and collaborating with the likes of Vivienne Westwood, Leigh Bowery, Zhandra Rhodes, Divine and teaching at London College of Fashion, until she witnessed a massive cultural festival of India mounted there in 1985. “I was on my way back from Australia and Rajeev Sethi invited me to come to Delhi and from there he sent me to Vrindavan,” recalls the photographer who finally decided to live in Vrindavan in 1992. “I had made 13 trips by then. You know by the late ’80s Margaret Thatcher’s rule had really made things difficult. With all those taxes, freelancers were suffering. My studio was right opposite Victoria and Albert Museum. A small but lovely and intimate space. I had to choose between keeping the studio which was getting difficult to maintain and to pursue my work in India. So I decided to sell it,” Beeche adds.
And ever since then, Beeche has been engaged with documenting the traditions of the land. Associated with Sri Radha Raman Temple, Beeche has captured every single ritual and custom practised in the temple and built a formidable archive. In this journey, Beeche says, she was guided first by Sri Purushottam Goswami — her guru — and later his son Srivatsa Goswami.
“Among the temples in India, our archive could probably be the richest because you are allowed to photograph Radha Raman ji. For instance you can’t photograph Banke Bihari ji. So everything to do with Radha Raman ji I have documented seriously since 1986, plus I have worked on a very big project which is called Braj Vikalp. This work has been exhibited at IGNCA in Delhi and NCPA in Mumbai. I have continually documented the traditions, the people who make phool banglas, people who do saanjhi, the river, and now I can see that I can’t get the same pictures anymore…I can’t get the same shots I got earlier.”
To be able to look deeply into the tradition, Beeche realised that she couldn’t remain an outsider and hence embraced Hinduism. “It made good sense that I knew what I was doing. But I was also accepted by people here because they knew I was serious about what I was doing. If I was on a pilgrimage to a religious site, I could go inside the sanctum sanctorum. It made a big difference to have that piece of paper from the Arya Samaj.”
In the initial period, when she was shuttling between India and London, she would go with several questions for her creative friends. She would ask them if they can spend 100 hours on a painting and then destroy it. “Because that’s what would happen to saanjhi. A fresh one would be made painstakingly only to be destroyed after the darshan was over, and the artists would start working on the new one. It was a good example of detachment,” says the photographer who has donated all her work to the temple. Now living off a pension that she receives in Australia, she divides her time between the country of her birth and Vrindavan. “It was always seva. Even when I was shooting pictures in London, I would keep giving it to my friends…I was fed up with people throwing magazines in a bin. I wanted to give them such beautiful images that they would want to keep forever.”