There have been many more ‘Idiots' besides Raj Kumar Hirani's ‘3 Idiots' who are engaged in professing the philosophy of “Follow your heart and not others”. Ace lensman Samar Singh Jodha is, unfashionably, one such idiot. Unfashionably, because it's not a short-lived fad that Jodha has picked up — in fact Jodha hasn't even seen the film — after the film turned a whopping success at the box office. He has been silently pushing the case in his own way.
In 2009, Jodha, one of the speakers along with scholars, creative minds and attended by hordes of parents and students, on the significant forum of TED (Technology, Entertainment and Design) held in Shekhavati, spoke about exploring unusual careers and supporting talent. TED is an annual event, held in different cities across the world, bringing world's leading thinkers, philanthropists, scientists and artists on one platform to speak about their passions. “I picked up the camera when I was 13. In the ‘80s, when I decided to be a photographer, a lot of people, especially my father's friends — my father is a Ph.D. in Economics — found it weird. I got a break by going to NID (National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad). My whole process is to do what you believe in. Ninety per cent of the world wakes up on Sunday morning dealing the agony of Monday morning. And this happens when you are in the wrong profession,” asserts Jodha.
As an extension of this idea, the artist also travels to remote parts of the country and the world, namely Southern Africa, carrying 40 cameras, a printer and other paraphernalia, to hold workshops with children not born as privileged as others. But, through these 10-day-long workshops, a self-funded exercise, Jodha doesn't seek to make photographers. It also has roots in his other belief, that of empowering them through it. The workshops are held in churches, community centres, open grounds and make-shift arrangements. The camera, he says, is a luxury item and many are introduced to the device and the technology for the first time. On the first day, he conducts exercises, which help him identify kids, and on the second Jodha hands over the camera to them. From the third day onwards, the children go on a shooting spree. It concludes with every young photographer's work being put up for discussion amongst themselves. The most recent example was a workshop in a ragpickers' colony Jai Hind Camp in Vasant Kunj, in association with NGO Srishti. Jodha has also captured the process in a two-minute film, 37 New Born Photographers.
Amidst all this, where is his own photography, some might ask. Well, that happens but not in isolation anymore. Those days of crazy shoot schedules, exotic locales, deadlines, glamorous subjects — Sushmita Sen and Shyamoli Verma et al — are all over. As he says, you can't do cocaine when you are 40. But you can certainly recall them. “Yes, there was an incident when I had to shoot a model in a swimsuit standing in a tent pitched in a sanctuary. Surrounded by people, it seemed we might be mobbed anytime. We just wrapped it up as quickly as possible,” he says. Working for an international automobile company, Jodha also tells us how he shot the Contessa in the middle of the night at Eagle Studios in Film City, Noida, just as the car's new version was to hit Indian roads.
Now, he works with people, for people. His laudable project on the Tai-Phake people, a dying tribe in Assam, is a case in point. He has spent the last four years documenting the endangered tribe whose culture is severely impacted by rampant coal mining in the region. An education programme for the children, an eco-resort and a monastery were his ways to keep the tribe going. Also part of the project was “Phaneng: A Journey Into Personal Engagement”, a photo-exhibition of the portraits of the members of the community, which was held at Arts.i, a Religare Arts Initiative, in the Capital in 2008. In “Ageless Mind and Spirit – Faces and Voices from the World of India's Elderly”, a photo-exhibition, which also culminated into a coffee-table book, Jodha collaborated with his brother Vijay to document India's senior citizens from different caste, creed and sections. Done at a juncture when societal fabric was in the throes of change, the work was rendered all the more pertinent.
“I am interested in conflict and not in a sense of war. The bigger conflict, according to me, is between modern ideas of consumption and the traditional ways of living. It was a great idea when few people were dependent on it but the model of consumption in a country of more than a billion people raises questions on sustainability and climate change. I am looking at how production and consumption is affecting the traditional ways of life. Sixty-five years post-Independence, in tribal areas people still engage in bartering. What development are we talking about?” points out Jodha.
Travelling about 300 days a year, Jodha utilises his skill probing such issues that bother him. Art, according to him, is a great tool to engage people but in a country like India it has to have a larger relevance.