Photography: Watching Zishan Akbar Latif’s exhibition was an experience in itself leaving many feeling cathartic
In this deluge of exhibitions, there are a few which can’t escape attention. Mumbai-based photographer Zishan Akbar Latif's first ever show “95 Mani Villa” was one of those. First, I wanted to see it because of professional requirements. Importantly, I wanted to see it for myself.
For last couple of years, I have been toying with the idea of recording my grandmother with the intention of documenting the beautiful traditional songs that have been passed on from one generation to another in this family of Madhya Pradesh. The region’s cuisine, its peculiar customs, that I have got a glimpse of while growing up were other aspects I sought to record through my nani who is in her 70s, now.
The project in my mind was merely anthropological until I saw Zishan’s just concluded exhibition, which inspired me to give it a spin and explore the personal world of both my grandparents. Not just my nani's songs, the sole picture of my grandparents together after they got married in 1951, my grandmother’s colourful hairclips, her bright glass bangles, the paan box they open after every meal, the memories of their dead son and daughter the old couple have clung to, the letters my grandfather writes every single day to the Prime Minister, the President, various political parties and ministries, his poetry and the stories of the various wars he fought in as an army person. I also wish to make my 85-year-old grandfather relive the life in D-20, Delhi Cantt, where I would return to post school every day to play with his hand-made toys in an unimaginably huge garden that he single-handedly maintained...his handcrafted tables, chairs...
95 Mani Villa, brilliantly curated by Amit Mehra, is a similar navigation of memories although with a different approach. It starts with a young photographer setting out to document the last few years of his grandfather Dhanji Anklesaria in 95 Mani Villa in Jhansi. In a pitch dark room, Zishan lets the viewer into his intimate world through the backlit black and white images of his late grandfather.
Shot on film, Zishan captured the last two years of Dhanji’s life trying to understand him better. “It was because of him that my mom had eloped with my father. He reconciled to the fact late. Then he had an estranged relationship with his son, who married a divorcee, a non-parsi, having kids at the age of 53. While he had reconciled with my mother marrying a Muslim, he couldn’t accept his son...I wanted to know him better,” says Zishan.
Frequenting 95 Mani Villa to spend time with his ailing grandfather, Zishan captured his last birthday, his routine, his phone - his only connect to the outside world, his harmonium, his dog, a constant companion and his loneliness. “I wanted to create a surreal space which would enable people to experience and identify with it. It wouldn’t have had the same effect if I had shown just simply displayed prints. And I always wanted to have an AV in the show. The darkness was also intended to prevent the viewer from getting distracted.”
While such personal work could have gone into cliches, Zishan’s work eschews all of them. The subtle, aesthetic shots weave a poignant narrative of inter-personal relationships, memory and familial bonds. “When I started shooting him in 2010, I was shooting to document him, not for a show. But everyone who saw the pictures asked, ‘Where is the grandson?’ There was a distance. By the end of it, everything came together, I as a photographer and I as a grandson.”