Tower'd cities please us then,
And the busy hum of men.
John Milton, L'Allegro
It is an all too familiar scene: The city washes its dirty linen and hangs it out to dry. Photographer Mala Mukerjee is drawn to the crisscross of lines, the myriad hues and the shapes on rows of clothesline at a dhobighat in Kolkata. “Even in the chaos, there is beauty,” she says.
This common theme runs through the photographs of Mukerjee from Kolkata, Smita Barooah Sanyal from Singapore and Chandan Dubey from Mumbai in the photo exhibition dedicated to photography as art. For these photographers, the seeming chaos of cities, especially of Asian metros, is a dynamic interplay of construction and deconstruction, of decay and repair, of cessation and growth.
Through their camera lens, these born-and-bred-in-cities artists engage with the chaotic systems and the visual noise around them. They are not judgmental; they just observe and record how chaos manifests itself. “We have no answers,” admits Dubey but hopes that in these works the viewers will recognise patterns that they would have encountered themselves.
Cities across the world have played muse to them. Sanyal's Philadelphia Parking, Dubey's Hong Kong market and Mukerjee's London of the 1990s are visual narratives that jostle for space with tales from cities as different as Jodhpur, Panjim and the ever-buzzing Mumbai. A disparate ensemble of objects propped against a painting of Christ outside Haus Khaz village in New Delhi prompts Mukerjee's Redemption. She senses a need-driven change and a sublime fulfilment of aspirations for city dwellers in this composition.
The chaos is not always overt. In Meshed Apart, Chandan Dubey captures a chair on either side of a metal grill against a wall with peeling red paint. Is it the divide of language, of culture in a city that lives cheek-by-jowl? Elsewhere, in Goa, a dilapidated window becomes a motif for disappearing way of life in the erstwhile Portuguese colony. For Dubey, these are stories of disintegration and entropy. “I am drawn by the colours and the pattern within pattern that decay and chaos create,” she says.
Sanyal, on the other hand, has attempted an abstract representation of the chaos in her work Aftermath. The tattered remains of a kite after the Utraan festival in Ahmedabad becomes a symbol for the destruction and decay that goes hand-in-hand with the evolution of cities. In Entropy series, she depicts a transition from “a whole to disintegration and total disintegration that is an inherent part of a city”.
With their constant hum, Indian cities are always fun to shoot compared to orderly ones like Singapore or as Sanyal puts it, “The former is a Lodi garden replete with its vendors chatty people. The latter is like a Zen garden: you have to shake the tree to get the flowers.”