Charles Darwin Research Station, Galapagos Islands, 1978 (Photo: Sambasiva Rao Patchineelam)
When a young Indian scientist took his Minolta camera into the world he was immigrating to, in the 1970s, he never dreamt he was creating art. This is where his son intervened.
A tall, serious man, Brazilian artist Vijai Patchineelam speaks carefully, even reverentially, about his father’s photobook, Samba Shiva: The Photographs of Sambasiva Rao Patchineelam (2017) when we meet in Aldona, one of Goa’s most idyllic villages, at the third edition of international photography festival Goa Photo (December 6-8). Patchineelam, who is completing a PhD in Antwerp exploring the role of artists within art institutions, used a $20,000 grant from the Brazilian cultural non-profit organisation Instituto Moreira Salles to curate his father’s archives; he would be the artist-editor, leaving a light footprint, and his father the author. “It was important not to appropriate my father’s photographs,” he tells me. “I wanted to keep a certain level of distance and treat him like a photographer.”
Sambasiva left Rajahmundry, Andhra Pradesh in 1967, and studied geology in Vishakapatnam before completing his higher studies in Austria and Germany. He went to Salvador to teach at the Federal University of Bahia in 1979, and now, 76 years old, lives in Rio de Janeiro. A friend gifted him the camera in 1972, giving him a means to document both family and professional life, until it was stolen in 1990, a loss Sambasiva mentions in the interview at the end of the book. His insight into his motivation for recording images is simple: ‘You’re looking at something and you’re impressed, that moment moves you.’
Vernacular photography is undertaken by amateur or unknown photographers, who make daily life and common objects their material. In Sambasiva’s images, hopscotching across time and natural and personal histories, friends and family in posed portraits and verdant, virginal-looking landscapes dominate the frame. This was an ordinary man who undertook a few out-of-the-ordinary ventures during his privileged migration. No text or titles frame the narrative, while bilingual texts (Portuguese and English) give it context, at the end, as well as an old postcard. The spine bears just the words ‘Samba Shiva’—a play on Brazilian samba and Indian Shiva, says Patchineelam—and the cover is an image of a lava rock formation; the book—printed large format, on matte paper, often using full bleeds—opens onto the landscape of Patchineelam’s imagination, peopled by the dreams of his father.
“I wanted to play with the format of the photo book. I was asking my father about the passage of time, his job as a scientist. It was a slow process. In 2013, I started scanning the slides, as Rio is very humid; it was at first to preserve the images,” he says, describing how he collaborated with critic Hemant Sareen. “Around 2014, I sent some of the scans to Hemant, we were talking over the Internet, and the idea of the book came about. I see the book as a collaboration between me, my father and Hemant. I was mediating between the institution and the team I built; Hemant, the curator Beatriz Lemos who interviewed my father, and the designers, who were Croatian friends of mine, Nina Bacun and Roberta Bratovic.”
Patchineelam is talking to me at the site of ‘Aldona Through Family Eyes’, a project showing at D’Sa House, one of those wonderful old Goan houses which have been both preserved and lived in. He is one of several artists who have mined the family albums, to varying effect and for different reasons. While Sambasiva’s works are not on display, Patchineelam speaks at length later, about the process of putting a book together, at one of the festival events. He is among peers, many interested in how to gain agency in the way they tell their stories. “Artists need to be part of the decision-making of institutions, very few have access to this,” he says, of his imperative. “They need to take on responsibility.”
IN AN ERA where images are taken easily and for free, it is important to remember that Sambasiva’s lens was a rarity in those days. ‘After independence, the Indian state declared the camera a luxury, and right into the early days of economic liberalisation in the 1990s imposed heavy custom duties on their import,’ Sareen reminds us, describing taxes of up to almost 200 percent, in his accompanying text; the expense was prohibitive, for the average person. Likening Sambasiva’s Rajahmundry to RK Narayan’s Malgudi in its evocation of small-town India, Sareen identifies Patchineelam’s project as ‘an act of invention of a parent, of a narrative, and a language that affirm his own existence’. Thus, the book’s story comes of what John Berger called watching the invisible, awareness of what lies outside the frame.
Was it difficult to revisit the material, I ask Patchineelam. “My father hadn’t seen the material for a while, a lot of the people in the photographs had passed away, sisters and brothers,” he says. “At times, it was unpleasant, sometimes he would say, ‘Ah, let’s stop.’ But then we would continue.” What was the reaction of the family? “People enjoyed it. My aunt in Rajahmundry helped me locate the pictures as my father’s memory is not so good.”
Was Sambasiva aware that he was documenting a moment, I ask. “I don’t think so. If he had had a bigger motive, I suppose he would have documented a little more of his surroundings. There are some photos of the rural areas. The closest you get, at the beginning of the book, is a trip they took from Rajahmundry, through the Godavari, to the Ramakrishna Hermitage. There, you can see a more planned shoot. The other ones are portraits, very composed. He would put textiles behind his subjects, the kids were always on a carpet. He left India when he was quite young, at 24, so this was a way of bringing India to us, of exposing it to us. Because he was living abroad, he had this need to get people to pose, to make portraits, to keep them and show them wherever he was going.”
The images vary, moving from the personal to the professional; Sambasiva studied pollution, and he used his camera to collect samples. “When I opened the selection of images up to his profession, his lab work and research trips, it started talking about a very specific trajectory. There aren’t a lot of Indians in Brazil and he ended up there because of his profession, so it was important to include the research trips to Hawaii and the Galapagos Islands.”
The book moves to Brazil in the end, and includes an image of Patchineelam’s Brazilian mother; it ends in 1981 with an image of his brother. “I wanted to stop there. I didn’t want to end with me, that would be too easy,” he says. “This book is one outcome. In a few years, when it runs out, I would do a totally new book.” For now, Patchineelam—who enjoys the work of Croatian conceptual artist Mladen Stilinović, Japanese photographer and critic Nakahira Takuma, and peers like the Iranian artist Shirin Sabahi—wants to get away from archives. Next year, he will curate CONA foundation, an artist-run space in Mumbai, for six months, with his partner Adrijana Gvozdenovic, and he continues to be interested in conceptual practices of the seventies.
Meanwhile, he continues to send his father’s work out into the world, relatively silent but floating the vessel; though ironically, it is this self-deprecation that catches our attention. For, he also floats the eternal question: do we own our parents’ stories, or do they own us? Can we ever resist becoming a living archive of our parents, in some form? Better to succumb and occupy the family home, as best we can.