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Snapshots of an artisan

A theatre person, Purnachandra Rao decided to change his career in his mid-life. A peek into the photographer's world

WHEN PURNACHANDRA Rao says, "In photography, I consider myself as an artisan, not a `pure' artiste," it means quite a few things. If you have time, the 53-year-old artiste has the patience to talk about his bohemian life, his theatre, his travels here and abroad, and his recent volume of Telugu poems on man-woman relationship.

Purnachandra Rao is primarily known for his `Community Theatre'. He has worked in urban as well as the remotest parts of the State penning plays and songs, and running theatre-based campaigns on a maddening variety of issues, from land rights to literacy.

After two decades of hectic theatre, he took an indefinite break from it, and for the last two-and-a-half years has been perfecting a mode of photography which he calls as `conceptual'. For a person who had not exposed more than ten rolls of film in his entire life, it has been a bold mid-life change of career.

It began rather innocuously when long-time friend and secretary of M.V. Foundation, Shanta Sinha, asked him to shoot some pictures for them. The assignment opened a new world of opportunity for him. His vast theatre experience came handy in depicting case studies of individual and group transformations effected by the NGO in a small set of about ten photographs. Till date, Rao has produced nearly 20 such first-rate visual reports for leading NGOs, government organisations and departments.

Rao's work is not candid photography by any means. "It is recreated drama in a particular still. I `visualise' the concepts given by the clients, go to the actual locations, and `document' either some actual activity going on there, or utilise the actual people — they are my models, you see — to enact a case or an incident that must have happened quite some time ago. And, in the process, somewhere the magical moment, of perfect expression and composition happens."

What strikes one immediately in Purnachandra Rao's work is the graceful natural body language of his subjects and the dignity and warmth of human expression. They rarely look posed. And thankfully, there is no element of exoticism, the bane of most pictures of tribals and villagers.

Compositionally, he goes for simple arrangements. "Since my subject is social realism, the distinction between foreground and background is crucial. The wide-angle lens allows for a creative distortion of the foreground subject while keeping all the details and the background clear and sharp. I am fascinated by the wide-angle lens and I prefer to shoot in low light early in the morning or late in the evening giving long exposures using a tripod."

"A good photograph can add tremendously to the appeal and richness of one's presentations, publications and websites," he says. Today, he commands a respectable price which allows him to make a living off photography alone.

Rao feels that due to historic reasons, a truly professional approach to photography has not taken root in Andhra and Hyderabad. "I think Hyderabad has seen only two pioneers. One was Raja Trayambak Raj who introduced the concept of `pictorialism' here. Among his direct disciples, I think only Rajan Babu has been successful as a professional photographer. He is definitely a class apart, but you must remember that the bulk of his `professional' output falls under industrial photography rather than pictorialism."

"The problem is that pictorialists view photography as a pure art comparable to painting and consider it as the highest form of photography. For them, printing is superior to `taking'. Even if the negative is ordinary, they toil to create an excellent print through various kinds of manipulative techniques which are the closely guarded preserve of a few people. They follow rigid, constrictive rules like `shoot the face at only one-third of angle', `no eye contact', `never show nostrils'. So you never find the full range of human facial and body expressions in their pictures," he says.

Rao sees himself as a humble follower of the other pioneer, Raja Deen Dayal. "He declared himself a commercial photographer without any pretensions.

Underlying his work is the idea of the photographer as an `artisan': an artiste of higher order who gives his best to his client. By the standards of the pictorialists, his pictures may not be pure art pieces, but they don't cease to be good photographs for that reason!"

"There is a need for greater exposure and interaction among photographers here. The A.P. Photographic Academy has fallen on bad days. Its membership is limited to amateur camera clubs only. I strongly believe it should be opened to individuals and professionals also so that we all can learn from each other," he says.

Conceptual photography apart, Purnachandra Rao has done some stunning portrait work here and in Norway. It's time he holds public exhibitions of his work.


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