Shanavas Ashrof’s photography exhibition reveals the many stories his camera has captured

For Shanavas Ashrof, being in Varanasi’s Manikarnika Ghat was surreal. Amidst the lassi shops and thronging tourist crowds was the deep smell of death. His photograph at the cremation grounds has a body burnt to ashes, beside one half-consumed and a third laid on the pyre. At the foreground lies one ready for the fire, and at the backdrop a sleeping dog. The picture is one of 60 photographs displayed at Shanavas’ solo exhibition in Durbar Hall Art Gallery—‘Blind Spot’.

“There’s an experience, an emotion, and a stage of my life behind every photograph here,” says Shanavas. He took to the camera first in his profession as a graphic designer, for he believed that photography would better his designing skills. The interest grew into a passion and Shanavas started out as a professional photographer five years ago, alongside his day job as a journalist. Since then he has travelled across the country and abroad, capturing what he calls ‘human-scapes’. “I’ve always been interested in people, in how their profiles and behaviours change from place to place. Even the landscapes I shoot are tied in with the people there,” he says.

At Suria Akhara in Varanasi, for instance, Shanavas has captured the lifestyles of wrestlers in a Hanuman temple. Their disciplined lives, with a monitored diet, without alcohol or tobacco, revolve around the intense training that builds to the final fight. “The disciples mix mud and ghee, smear this on themselves and on their guru at the puja before they embark on the ground,” he says. Pictures of each stage of this narrative accompany Shanavas’ story. The rituals of devotees also featurein Shanavas’ pictures at the agni puja every evening by the banks of the Ganga in Dashashwamedh Ghat, of tantris in Pushkar, of worshippers at Ajmer dargah and at the recent Kumbh Mela.

Another series he has worked on tells of India’s weaving history. “I travelled from Kanchipuram to Benares, and several other places to capture weaver’s lives, just like a journey along the Silk Route of India.” At Benares, he found weavers who spent their days from 4 a.m. to 12 midnight in sorry conditions and poor light. “The saris they weave are so glorified and colourful, but these weavers’ lives have little light or colour.” His photographs spell this contrast.

Outside India, Shanavas’ journeys have mostly been to West Asia. From dervishes dancing, to the camel market in the United Arab Emirates, his pictures capture many textures. “None of the pictures in this exhibition uses a flash,” he says. “They’ve all be taken in natural light and none of them have been cropped.” The key has been to frame an image in his mind before his camera clicks. “Digital photography has led to a culture where we take several pictures because we are not limited as in film. Ideally, once you know what you want, just a couple of photographs to get the exposure and light should be enough,” he says. His method is best revealed in a photograph of a boy jumping into a pond from the edge of the picture’s frame that seems to bend space in curious ways.

Shanavas has also clicked a fair share of his portfolio in South India - from the Buddhist monastery at the Tibetan settlement in Bylakuppe, Karnataka, to scenes at beaches in Fort Kochi and Kozhikode. Some of his most striking images are of aging women in these places. “They display a strength of the mind that few others can manage, and their faces reveal a troubled history of struggle,” he says.

He recalls a woman in Belgaum who stood holding her child in her arms for hours on end not once putting him down, gypsy women in Jaisalmer and women farmers who toiled as hard or more than their men under the sun. This resilience shines strongest in Shanavas’ two pictures of the same woman, framed side by side, one with a toothless grin gleaming wide, and another with her eyes cast down in silence. The exhibition is on till April 18.