He's moved from writing books to ‘word pictures'. Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi reflects on why he thinks photographs are the best way to tell his story.

The large photograph shows two swings tossed up, their paths seemingly set on a collision course. No, wait. Have they already collided? And having done so, are they moving apart?

Questions that are answered when your eye moves to the text placed below the picture in a gesture that is part-requiem, part-plea, part-explanation:

“One evening, years from now, a new friend may invite you over. You will be tentative and awkward (I never told you this is part of your hangdog charm). Conversation will hit a dry bend, your host will shuffle his hands, your eyes will lift to the photograph on the wall. The old, low-lit nights will come back to you, when one had fallen into the story of the other. You will smile, knowing as I, there will be none other, and you will think: I can always return. And you will.”

Clues for interpretations

The yearning spills from photograph to text, then loops up again, as your eye moves back and forth, using the visual and verbal clues to arrive at interpretations.

Sakshi Gallery's handout calls the nine such exhibits “language photos” with “text stories”. The photographer, author Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, who studied photography in 1999 as part of his graduate studies at the University of Westminster, London, adds another label, “word pictures”.

More verbal clues are contained in a note from Shanghvi, which begins, “I had come to Matheran to think about the nature of loss.”

Matheran (pop. 5,228), some 90 km from Mumbai, is a hill-station where no motor vehicles are allowed; one either walks or gets around by horseback. Most arrive there by a quaint toy train, some trek it up. Shanghvi retreated there to “learn to live with the loss of a friend”, to reflect, and, as he wrote in a recent essay, “gather the ash of longing and offer it back to the air around me, to the trees, the night sky, as if a common prayer.”

Hence, “Postcards from the Forest”, the title of his exhibition, which also includes Toy Train, a selection of small photographs, some of which are better seen with the help of a magnifying glass helpfully supplied by the gallery.

Memories of the past

“Postcards are an absurdly romantic form of obsolete communication,” offers Shanghvi; “and its unwritten cursive implies, Wish you were here.” Exhibiting them, he says, was his “gift for a sulking friend, and the recollection of a lost time.”

So has the friend (who remains unidentified) seen it? “I don't know. I don't want to know.”

Predictable question: Was the text written before or after the photographs? “I lived with Red Swings for eight or nine months before I wrote the text. But in some cases, the words came first.”

Why photographs? I ask a harsh question: Did words fail you in your darkest hour? “My critics would say so!” laughs the writer uproariously. “Words failed me, in general, at all hours!” At least his sense of humour hasn't deserted him.

Did the photography arise, then, out of a new creative urge? “I have no creative urge. I am 34 years old, I'm putting in my papers,” he laughs some more. “I resign.”

Note: Though his first book, The Last Song of Dusk (2004), collected good reviews and awards, the not-too-encouraging response to his second book, The Lost Flamingos of Bombay (2009) saw him announcing somewhat prematurely that it would be his last.  

“Cut me some slack,” he says. “I wrote The Last Song of Dusk when I was 22, my writing was self-conscious; I was hamming it. Then I did not negotiate fame; fame negotiated me. I felt played. Sure, I'd love to write again, but I can't say now if I can.”

So he's not retiring hurt. “If I did write again,” he says, “it'd be clean, direct. Something round, whole, true.” At this point in his life, he says, the photographs seemed the best way to “tell my story authentically, unaffected by words, restrained in revelation.”

Irrevocable changes

Though the demise of a friendship was the trigger for his decision to move from the assaults and anarchy of Mumbai to the quiet of Matheran, Shanghvi's sorrow encompasses much more than the departure of a friend. It is for a way of life in Mumbai that changed irrevocably for him with what seems like a relatively mundane event: the construction of a multi-storey building opposite his home.

The high-rise came up where a home that housed welcoming neighbours once stood, it grew alarmingly large with what he alleges are illegal extensions. It stood there as a symbol of what he and his city had lost. “The building became a metaphor for greed. It became the lens through which I saw all other betrayals,” he says.

Unable to live with its constant reminders, he escaped to Matheran, “to come back into being, to find the shape, the contours of my self, now somewhat chipped but at least known. Life is more abrupt and real in its quiet, a scholarship unto itself.” 

Perhaps that scholarship will ignite the writing urge, I offer optimistically.

“V.S. Naipaul wrote, ‘All action, all creation was a betrayal of feeling and truth',” responds Shanghvi. “So the challenge is: How do you get out of your own way?”

So he wants to be an invisible writer? “No, I want to try for invisible writing.”

Till that happens, there are always the photographs.

Works from Postcards from the Forest and Toy Train will be part of the Mumbai Gallery Weekend from March 30 to April 1, 11.00 a.m. – 6.00 p.m.