Ethnic Northeast India comes alive on Pablo Bartholomew’s lens: Print meets art

India-Art/Photography

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By Madhusree Chatterjee
New Delhi

The camera lenses are transforming in arty Indies.  The notion of still photography in India even till a decade ago was confined to family photo albums and journalistic media footage that gave it archival worth as works of “documentation for posterity”.

But the gradual globalization of the tradition-backed universe of Indian modern and contemporary  art– with its new age trade and aesthetic equations — is pushing photographers to explore new creative frontiers through their lens. Photography is finding growing acceptance- if slow – in the mainstream genre of Indian art as collectibles of aesthetic value worthy of display and dissemination by critics.   

“The problem with photography in finding recognition as art in India lies in the fact that art is still seen as drawing a line. Different people have different perspectives to art and the level of acceptance depends on the audience. But a marked change is that Indian viewers are being able to read art better. They had not been read well earlier,” says leading Indian photographer Pablo Bartholomew, winner of the India’s highest civilian Padmashri award and two World Press Photo awards— one on morphine addicts and another of a dead child at the Bhopal Gas Tragedy which became an iconic symbol of the catastrophic gas leak.

Mapping the level of response to photographs in India in the last three decades,  Bartholomew  says in the 1970s and 1980s, photographs were mostly media appropriations that Indians responded to with “degrees of seriousness— more like subjects of current affairs”. But the1990s brought an opening up of the mental and creative horizons of the camera. Photography became “something beyond the media”. “People looked at photographs in different contexts –as narratives and visual documents of aesthetic value,” Bartholomew expounded. In was in this milieu of greater understanding of photographs in India that the genre spread its canvas of visualization to script photo essays – a series of multiple related images that tells a definite story.

Photo-essays have definite beginnings, middle and end, says Bartholomew  within which “there are key points”. Sometime, they go beyond story-telling to combine media appropriations, standalone images and digital interventions to create new idioms.

Bartholomew’s ongoing photography showcase, “Coded Elegance” (at the India International Centre) — a collection of nearly 70 photographs shot in the ethnic northeastern states of Arunachal Pradesh, Nagaland and Manipur tries to archive the lives of the remote ethnic groups and their unique social mores (their anthropological history) with standalone photographic narrative essays and standalone artistic frames.

The photographs shot over a period of 10 years between 1990s an early 2000 was inspired by one of his assignments in 1983 – when he chanced upon the turbulent and demographically eclectic and yet culturally rich Northeast. A photojournalist for 20 years, Bartholomew was commissioned by Time to document the horror of an ethnic massacre in Nellie at Assam where the ethnic groups had clashed with the settlers from the neighbouring nation of Bangladesh. Bartholomew, in course of covering the mayhem, discovered the richness of the region’s socio-culture and the conflicts in the societies battling diverging ethnicities, land disputes and clashing aspirations.

“It bred in me a curiosity,” Bartholomew said. The quest brought him back to the region – made of seven ethnic states in the country’s northeastern fringe bordering Myanmar, Bangladesh and Nepal (with direct access to China)  — a decade later — to shoot a series of short films.           

A photo-collage of traditional head-hunters and sacred ritual arts of the primitive Naga tribe come out of the primal spaces of another era – when cave rites dictated the passage of living ceremonies. In a series, a village headman (Ang- the spiritual head) in traditional attire and elaborate head-dress (with horns and feathers) shows off a sacred configuration of megaliths symbolizing fertility and rows of human heads culled by the head hunting Thendu Nagas of the Lower Konyak region ( in Mon district) of Nagaland. Each time, a head was taken, the village erected a “stone megalith” to commemorate the trophy.

Head-hunting in Nagaland was banned by the British in 1930, but the American Baptists had made the ritual and several other animist ceremonies a taboo in the late 19th century when they converted the Naga ethnic groups to Christianity. Many villagers hid the skulls hunted by their ancestors at home.

The photographs of the tribes from Nagaland have a “aesthetic” quality to them – rising from the mosaic of staid documentation to colourscopes of ornamented black, white and red — the basic Naga colours — morphing into shapes and histories against backgrounds of inky black and greens and grey. They are stark, horrifying and yet “strikingly” beautiful in their contrasts, portraying the two strains of Naga culture – the grisly aboriginal roots and modern western Christian sensibilities.

“The focus is on dress and rituals of the tribes,” Bartholomew says. The series is dedicated to his (late) associate, Prabuddha Dasgupta, who was one of India’s leading fashion photographer. “The challenge in the region was distance – in the map they seemed close but in real life inaccessible. I had to look at all the 36 Naga tribes,” the lensman replies when asked about the “odds”.

Headhunting is difficult to establish as a link to the region’s tangible cultural history, but “with time, the skull archives revealed themselves to the photographer”.

The Naga Project still remains an incomplete assignment for Bartholomew. “I want to do a book,” he says. The Northeast diaries are “a gesture of appreciation for the hill tribes which his father Richard Bartholomew (a reputed photographer from the brood of the early pioneers and a chronicler) experienced first hand when he trekked to India as refugees from Burma (Myanmar) as boy”.

Pablo Bartholomew uses photographs as serial document evidence of social transformations in India’s culturally-diverse heartlands in artistic frames. He plays with light, shadow, colours, embellishments, icons and compositions like an artist for a visually rivetting effect. In one of his urban visual chronicles, Calcutta Diaries, Bartholomew captures the changing the Calcutta (Kolkata – a metropolis in eastern India with a rich colonial past) landscape where the old buildings are being pulled down to make room for contemporary concrete edifices.

The black and white frames probe the forlorn “colonial addresses in the city” including that of his own grandmother’s – and their forgotten facades. The photographer has a fetish for cities and their demographic evolution. In two other photo-essays, “Outside In: A Tale of Three Cities”, Bartholomew explores the heavy lidded – drug addicted lowlands (underbellies) of Delhi, Kolkata  and Mumbai in the 1970s while in “Chronicles of a Past Life”, Bartholomew immortalizes Bombay of the 1970s – its life, glamour and people- in his frames.

“But the project closest to my heart is the Diaspora Project”, the genial lensman says. Bartholomew has been documenting the “lives and slow integrations into foreign societies” of the Indian diaspora (migrants) around the world in photo-narratives. He has shot extensively in US, UK and Mauritius.

“I am looking for funds to go to Africa to shoot Indians,” the photographer says with a smile. “It is tough to generate resources for such large projects in a developing country like India”.       

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