One of the nine language photos comprising novelist and artist Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi's forthcoming exhibition – Postcards From The Forest – has two red metallic swings very close to collision. These should have been swinging parallel to each other, sometimes in unison, sometimes to a different beat. But the harmony of their existence is disrupted by some unknown hand.
For Shanghvi, this captured moment becomes a visual story; a stimulus for the layered narrative of emotions that rise and ebb in his mind. “I want to tell my friend about the actual sight of them (the red swings), encountering them in the first place, and now the photograph, and my response to the photograph, an object of memory,” Shanghvi says of this photo. In 2009, Shanghvi moved to Matheran, a tiny forest hill station near Mumbai, when an important relationship ended for him. Postcards From The Forest is a meditation of love and its absence, Shanghvi concedes. “Over and above, the photograph let me experience my friend's absence. As my friend is no longer around, whom does one address now? But the photograph does not occupy this absence, or outline longing; it becomes a testament to both, a great laughing third person, the omnipresent narrator of my private experience,” he adds.
Shanghvi offers a window, a small opening to the viewer of the visible reality and the one within him leaving ample room for the viewer, the outsider, to draw their own conclusion. In addition to these nine language photos, there are 99 little photos titled “The Toy Train”, where Shanghvi captures the vignettes of Matheran unhurried life, “fleeting extracts of spent time, as it might be seen from the local heritage railway”. Very different from the city of Mumbai that Shanghvi captured so tellingly in The Lost Flamingoes of Bombay (2008). Shanghvi's debut novel The Last Song of Dusk (2004) received critical acclaim and won the Betty Trask Award. Few knew then, or even now, that he specialised in photography while studying for Masters in International Journalism at University of Westminster in 1999.
Photography took a backseat while he crafted his novels. “I needed to write the books then to make these photographs now: they were a process of coming into being. Everything, I guess, is process,” he muses.
Two years ago, Sweden's Gallerie Kontrast hosted a show of Shanghvi's photographs, The House Next Door. This was followed by shows in Delhi and Mumbai. Painting pictures with prose to penning prose for pictures is just a matter of expression, he says. “I am interested most by language and its style, so whether the language is verbal or visual is irrelevant; it is how you respond to a story that distinguishes it.”
Or do the serene environs of Matheran make words largely superfluous? Shanghvi replies, “Matheran has let me live with few words, fewer people, in a sumptuous world of imaginative allegiances. Perhaps this is the chief role of ‘art' in our lives, introducing us again to what is exactly necessary.”
The pictures on display give an idea of what is important – the self-conscious seriousness of a clutch of schoolboys, the mist tightly wrapped around a wooded area, a burst of foliage. Says the artist of his muse: “A lot of the photographs were a way to spend time with trees, or people I did not know in order to know them. In the process some memories swam to surface or observations required to be shared. The text boxes elaborate on this for the language photos. The photographs are impersonal, but the narratives make them personal: I am extremely interested in the intersections between these two.” Bottomline: a meditation of love and its absence
Postcards From The Forest; Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi, Sakshi Gallery, Mumbai, February 18 to March 3.