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Zooming in on authors

The exhibition, "Faces of Indian Literature" by Olivier Gazal, on at the Alliance Francaise till May 12, captures the country's literary tradition.

MOST SHUTTERBUGS from abroad flaunt pictures of gaunt beggars, majestic temples, fakirs with dirty beards or breathtaking natural phenomena as their idea of the essence of India. But Olivier Gazal, a French photographer, has chosen to capture the spirit of the country through its authors.

Khushwant Singh, Amitav Ghosh, Shashi Deshpande, Gita Hariharan, Bisham Sahni, Ambai, Sunil Gangopadhyay, Sivakami and other eminent authors line the walls of the Alliance Francaise of Madras, displaying Gazal's idea of India. Gazal has explained that India is a country of knowledge and study, starting from the Epics and the Vedas and right up to modern day literature, and that "books are there, everywhere". He says he did not want to depict mysticism or exoticism but wished to capture "those, who in their own country or maybe abroad, represent this huge continent where emotions and spirituality never leave one unaffected."

Gazal's black and white images have managed to capture some of the country's best-read and well-loved authors looking completely at ease. Most of the authors are in their gardens, backyards, sitting rooms or balconies or with their books. He's framed Uttar Pradesh's Quratulain Haider in a cane chair with a clotheshorse in the background, smiling gently as if she were posing for her grandchild's camera. Ajeet Caur sits on a bed in her house fiddling with the cord of the bedside lamp. Prapanchan sits languidly in a chair, with a half-smoked cigarette dangling from his fingers, while Indira Parthasarathy wanders round his garden, staring into space.

Ashokamitran, who looks like a happy grandfather in Gazal's portrait of him, inaugurated the exhibition in Chennai. The author of works such as Thanneer and Appavin Snehidar said that he was rather sick when the photograph was taken and Gazal made him take off his glasses, "which seemed to make me look even sicker." He added that Gazal was an intelligent, young man and a patient photographer.

The Kerala writers, Satchidanandan and M.T. Vasudevan Nair, have been captured against the typical banana leaves and coconut trees backgrounds, representative of their state. Kamala Suraiyya (Madhavikutty) looks like a regal and intimidating Mughal lady in a white headdress, while M. Mukandan looks like a mild-mannered maths professor, who's wondering why you just can't get that trigonometry equation right.

Gazal has also taken photographs of booksellers and bookshops. There's an old Sikh gentleman in a cubby-hole of a store with books piled around him. A roadside bookseller in Kolkata stares at the camera from among his tattered second-hand volumes while stacks of huge books form a Hyderabadi vendor's backrest.

Gazal claims that the authors he has photographed are symbols of the diversity of India and represent not only the country's literary tradition but also the India of today that imposes itself daily and increasingly on the West.

The exhibition, Faces of Indian Literature by Olivier Gazal will be on at the Alliance Francaise of Madras on College Road till May 12.


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