Prabuddha Dasgupta’s ‘journey’ as a photographer probably begun in the halls and corridors of the National Gallery of Modern Art (NGMA) in New Delhi, when he was a teenager. It reaches a full circle, posthumously, with the retrospective of his work, fittingly called ‘A Journey’, which is currently on display at the same venue till 22 November.
Before you can enter the exhibition proper, you have to pass through a dark chamber, where a brief video clip of Dasgupta speaking about his work plays on loop. But it is not so much what he says, but rather what you read next on the wall adjacent to the main hall that gives you a pause. Appearing next to the introductory note from Rajeev Lochan, the director of NGMA, is a confession from Dasgupta of the story behind his early infatuation with the greats of Indian art, especially the paintings of Amrita Sher-Gil.
Born to well-known sculptors Prodosh and Kamala Dasgupta in 1956, Prabuddha Dasgupta spent the better part of his youth on the premises of the NGMA, where his father held the position of director in the 1970s. During the punishing summer months of Delhi, he would seek out the air-conditioned comfort of the interiors to enjoy his afternoon siesta, often in one of the rooms devoted to Sher-Gil’s paintings. A pubescent boy, he would fall asleep surrounded by the images of beautiful women, “dark-skinned, with haunting eyes and upturned breasts”, as he said in an interview to Outlook in 1996. At home, as well as in the studio of his father, one of the pioneers of the modernist movement in Indian sculpture, there were more encounters with “clay, plaster and bronze, moulded into voluptuous torsos and writhing limbs”. No wonder, when he picked up the camera, after a short and frustrated attempt at pursuing an academic career as a historian, he trained its eye on women and documented the poetics of the female body—stunningly attired, stylised, dishevelled, or rid of all encumbrances.
Dasgupta started out as an advertising professional and a fashion photographer in the 1980s. He worked with major brands, supermodels, did features for glossy magazines and produced work that was, perhaps true to his brief, unfailingly titillating. Even as you admire the cosmetic perfection of the bodies he photographed in this phase, especially the lush settings in which they were placed, you cannot fail to notice the artful transmutations: a stiletto shot from close-up recalls a curvaceous female figure, the shimmer of diamonds on a dusky male neck establishes Dasgupta’s mastery over light and texture. A Louis Vuitton bag and a suitcase are captured against a Mughal minaret and a pair of pigeons; a gently ironic juxtaposition of motifs that redeems a subject that could have easily lapsed into kitsch.
In the age of phone photography, with easy access to many million filters to alter the mood and meaning of every image, it may be easy to gloss over the decorative presence of Dasgupta’s early work. Yet, when you think of the specific circumstances of its production and the technical limitations it had to grapple with, you confront the dexterity and pitch-perfect intuition that must have worked together to produce the dazzling effect. Mostly shot on black-and-white film, Dasgupta’s fashion photography spoke the language of consumerism, though usually in muted accents. On the rare occasion when he opted for colour, he tried to avoid crass spectacles, choosing a palate that could be flamboyant yet restrained.
The lyrical grace Dasgupta achieved in these commercial assignments spoke volumes of his expertise with printing. Till late in life, he avoided digital photography, preferring to work with analogue cameras and black-and-white film and suffer the arduous, unpredictable, process of developing negatives in a dark room. The delayed introduction to Photoshop and silver gelatin prints sharpened his eye, more so his instinct, for the right kind of light needed to simulate a certain effect. In a business that worships perfection over beauty and pose over poise, this ended up being an invaluable skill, an asset that helped push his later work in intriguing directions.
Somewhere along the way, Dasgupta had begun to depart from the perception of the body as an ideal form, towards a more mature meditation on its content: on what makes it compelling and worth looking at even after being looked at by so many eyes, for so many centuries. His gaze was not only informed by nude photography practised by an earlier generation but also by the work of painters and sculptors, in India and beyond, who had made the human body the focus of their attention.
The lens of his camera began to shift more closely to the face, or various parts of the body, shorn of all accoutrements, as opposed to the decked-up excess of the earlier work, setting up a dialogue between fashion photography and classic portraiture. The desirable body, as Dasgupta showed us, was often a terrifyingly asymmetrical body, quite like the ‘voluptuous torsos and writhing limbs’ that artists of his father’s generation had visualised, rather than an object botoxed into perfect shape. (One of his most striking photographs shows the artist Paritosh Sen seated next to one of his own paintings featuring such a woman, a relic from Picasso’s decadent Cubist days, taking a shower).
In Dasgupta’s later work, there is a coexistence of intense interiority and as much gregariousness. He captures women in the throes of ecstasy, faces contorted grotesquely, with almost a voyeur’s intent, giving us glimpses of utterly private moments, as though through a keyhole. When he turns his softly teasing gaze on leaves and flowers, folds and patterns reveal themselves. The eye is caressed by the fleshy depths, startled by the hint of hair, reminded of touches and sensations once felt.
As a counterpoint to the subtle chamber music of these cloistered spaces, there are the soaring, symphonic expanses of the landscape of Ladakh, which Dasgupta photographed not so much with the keenness of a traveller as with the ardour of a spiritualist. The vast open terrains, the sky laden with the most sublime cloud formations and the stoicism of the people who inhabit these lands come alive in this body of work, which is a gesture towards the more fully realised and accomplished photographs made in Goa.
For the last several years of his life, until his sudden death in 2012, Dasgupta lived in Goa, the Indian state perhaps most susceptible to photographic clichés, next only to Varanasi. By accident or intent, he happened to photograph the Portuguese community there, their lives and rituals, all of which are well-worn subjects for documentary photographers. But in spite of its realist underpinnings, the work, seen in a certain sequence, becomes an engagement with the nature of ‘sameness’ and ‘suspended time’ (to quote Dasgupta). In the candid portraits of unsmiling characters, an aura of heaviness lingers, as though of too much nostalgia congealed into inertia. While you linger over each photograph, study every detail and the narrative possibilities inherent in each one, you are also provoked to hold the entire series together in your head, to examine the feelings it leaves in you collectively. The dramatic shot of a hooded figure, draped in a flowing robe like the Grim Reaper and passing through a church, seems to embody the spirit of this cluster.
If Prabuddha Dasgupta tried to break the shackles of the self referential universe of an individual image in the Goa series, he was moving towards a more stridently abstract language in Longing, which perhaps expresses his sensibility at its most mature. The underlying statement behind this body of work is best summed up in Dasgupta’s own words— “Photography, for me, is not about itself. It’s about everything else”—though it is in the words of writer Geoff Dyer that one seems to stumble upon the idea on which the series is anchored. ‘You can be in a state of generalised longing,’ Dyer points out, ‘without knowing quite what it is that you long for.’
Few ways of being are as frightening as this abstract feeling of desire, of a need, without any single focus and yet overwhelmed by the compulsion to embrace and understand everything that fills existence. For the visual artist, it could refer to the anxiety of self-doubt, of wondering if their work could sufficiently convey experiences that their far more august predecessors have already captured so well, if the sameness of life that surrounds us can transcend the trappings of mundane materiality and turn into something rich and strange.
In the spectral faces, the smoky landscapes, the foggy interiors and the interlocking bodies, like shadows melting into each other, there are intimations of truths no words can articulate. Rising above the realm of the verbal, such truths come out of a special visual eloquence every artist strives for, but few get to.