A life beyond the lens

Portrait of Shireen Modi from the

Portrait of Shireen Modi from the "Portraits of Women artists" series by Prabuddha Das Gupta.  

A DESIGN Friday gathering in Bangalore. The lights dim. Images appear on a screen. Stark, soaring peaks silhouetted against an unforgiving sky, reflections in a mirage-rich pool. Gorges and ravines, rivulets and cloud-kissed promontories. Vistas bare of vegetation roll into eternity, untainted by pretty blooms, swaying foliage. A face, wizened by harsh winds and mountaintop sunrays, meets the gaze head-on. The landscapes unspool without remorse, without gentleness.

In less than 10 minutes, we have wandered into Ladakh — and encountered a beauty beyond bleakness in black-and-white. It's a disturbing, yet spiritual, journey; an almost surreal baring of the natural frontier akin to an interior landscape. All evoked by the lens of Prabuddha Das Gupta.

A change of scene. Early September. The Fluid Space Gallery in the IT-hub city. An exposition of Ganjam Nagappa's exquisite jewellery through black-and-white images. Nuanced natural settings. Platinum leaf motif eardrops state their exclusiveness on the rocks to the rhythm of pounding waves. A pendant by Japanese designer Kazuo Ogawa is set against the tawny, lithe textures of a youth's neck. An opulent diamond necklace radiates fire against a tracery of leaf veins. Ogawa's labradorite and platinum piece-de-resistance casts tantalising beads of light over a comely face. Each a bold, beautiful foray by Prabuddha.

Both experiences emanate from the camera of the visual visionary behind advertising campaigns like "Blue Lagoon", "Raymond's" and "Kamasutra", who works out of New Delhi, Goa and now Bangalore. The four times "Photographer of the Year" choice of the Creative Artists Guild, Mumbai, selected for a Yves Saint Laurent grant to spend a year in Paris in 1990. The distinctive sensibility behind two best-selling books — one the celebration of Women (1996) through nudes and portraits, the other, a haunting evocation of Ladakh (2000). The optical wizard whose sleight of lens veers between commercial assignments and self-commissioned projects.

Who is Prabuddha, besides the winner of the New York-based Mercury Gold and Pinnacle awards? What makes him click between solo shows at Mumbai, New Delhi, London, Paris and Brescia in Italy? Why did he give up an academic career in history to pursue photography via a brief shy at copywriting? Did his creative family influence his choices?

Face-to-face, Prabuddha comes across as a being yet to tap his own latent potential. An individual who prefers near-anonymity to the celebrity life. He's quite content to stretch out on a sofa at a friend's apartment in Bangalore, clearing spaces for his coffee cup amidst a table cluttered with a guitar, glossy magazines, cassettes and, inevitably, a camera. His current foci include a travelling exhibition and book on street children, which Prabuddha opted to curate — not shoot — for New Delhi-based Youthreach. Titled "Waiting, with light", the non-profit project to sensitise us to over 10 million "invisible lives", is slated to reach audiences in the capital, Mumbai, Kolkata and Bangalore in 2003.

"After three years of research, Youthreach decided to give these children a platform to express what their universe is like. Their parallel reality is so close to us physically, but emotionally and intellectually it could be another planet," Prabuddha says with passion, ruffling his salt-and-pepper hair. "We see them being beaten up by the police. Or asleep at a railway station. Or walking into a fruit stall to snatch a banana. But beyond that, there is an abundance of joy, of creative energy, of laughter, of feelings about society, about love and peace, about death and god! They have a free spiritedness we've lost. May be we can gain from this mutual exchange." Pausing, he adds, "After meeting these kids, I've been trying to convince my 12-year-old daughter to come with me, to open up her consciousness."

"Waiting with light" by Achinto.

"Waiting with light" by Achinto.  

What will the kaleidoscopic photo-essays by pan-Indian talent including Pablo Bartholomew, Achinto, Dayaneeta Singh and S. Paul — interspersed with children's drawings, writings, and recorded conversations — achieve? Prabuddha toys with a heavy silver ring before his deep, rather lazy, voice responds, "The idea is to create an awareness of their universe, to try to integrate these children into what should be a single society."

Backtracking, we delve into Prabuddha's decision to opt out of academic life. "History, to me, is full of people and their stories. But the way it was taught at Delhi University!" he reflects. "After five years, I realised I'd lost my passion for it. Through history, perhaps I was trying to understand myself in my current scenario, with respect to the land where I belong."

What sparked his aesthetic essay on women? "The idea of nudes probably came from my father (Prodosh Das Gupta), who was director of the National Gallery of Modern Art," Prabuddha laughs. "It was so hot in Delhi that I'd spend my afternoons in the air-conditioned Amrita Sher-Gil room, surrounded by images of women. My father's bronzes were often of women. So, I suppose the camera naturally turned itself in that direction."

Was there a buzz about Women, the first and only book of its kind in India to date? "When Penguin approached me, I had a body of work that went back about 10 years. My exploration had to do with volume and form, shadow and light," Prabuddha says, respooling to his serpent-spiked Milind Soman-Madhu Sapre visuals for a shoe company that triggered a public debate on obscenity and pornography. "My publishers decided it was the right time for this book."

Was the project trauma-free for Prabuddha? "There was so much heartbreak. There were girls and women willing to make these photographs, which, to me, were all about persons. But when the idea of the book came up, they thought of the social repercussions, their families, their neighbours, which was understandable. For many, it was OK to show the body, but not the face and the body in the same image. I had to hack off some heads, turn the images into formal, sculpturesque forms, which was not my intent. I had to have written consent for every image that went in," he sighs.

"I guess everybody has a curiosity about their own bodies. Or perhaps it's about defying convention." With a note of pathos, he adds, "In effect, the book was edited by the subjects, rather than the author. But it did very well, sold out all 4,000 copies."

Prabuddha at work.

Prabuddha at work.  

What drew him to Ladakh over four years, exposing 80 rolls of film? "I think it's a curious, subconscious need in me. When I was shooting Ladakh, people would ask: `what are you doing? You're supposed to be shooting beautiful women!' Prabuddha laughs. "I've always been a wanderer. While at university, I went from ashram to ashram, before I got busy with life and accomplishment."

The vistas he summons up are vivid: "Ladakh happened when I wasn't in a deeply spiritual state of mind. The impact was almost physical, like a blow in the face. It was beauty of a very elemental kind. My first feeling was almost one of fear. Though I denied it for a long time, it was like an addiction. I wanted to find out: what was scaring me, disturbing me, knocking at my insides? I didn't start photographing Ladakh until about my fourth trip. By the eighth one, I realised I had a body of work."

How did the closet photographer, who earned his living as a copywriter, come into the open? "I've always been a visual person, even while I was dealing with words," Prabuddha confides. "I'd write a campaign, then some fancy name from Mumbai would be flown in with three assistants and a battery of equipment. You'd be impressed, until you saw the images. By 1986, I thought: why not propose to the management that I'll shoot the `Blue Lagoon' jeans campaign? I had only an old Nikomatic. The model was my friend's girlfriend. We got the clothes together. I did the styling. I used an old Volkswagen Beetle car in it, my fantasy car. In all my pictures, I try to bring in something I'm really fond of."

The outcome? "It was possibly the cheapest shoot in the history of advertising," he drawls. "Even with my limited equipment and technical knowledge, I found I could make images that worked at a professional level. It picked up awards."

What enchants Prabuddha about photography? "To me, it's not so much the act of taking the picture as working in the darkroom," he responds. "You put in this blank piece of paper in foul-smelling liquid, and out comes a photograph, just like magic. That's what got me hooked. The dark room, with the red light on, is your own sacred space. But for years, I never really had the confidence to think I had talent enough to make a living by it. My ambition in life is not to make the cover of Vogue magazine.

"I do what I love to do, and do it with joy," Prabuddha says shyly, a hand brushing over his face as he refers to recent forays into writing, a hesitant reaching out towards film. "When somebody asks to see some work, I'm still tentative about, it's almost like stripping naked."

Beyond the extraordinary insights into the ordinary, beyond the preciousness of the momentary, beyond the colours captured in black-and-white, Prabuddha emerges as an individual who stands apart. Especially in his life beyond the lens.

Recommended for you