11 October 2011

It's A Funny Thing: Photography Review

Kapil Das’ photographs capture the whimsy of this world without exoticising it

Among the less prominently displayed photographs in Kapil Das’ first solo exhibition — 154 Neshvilla Road and Other Stories — is a picture of a bathroom. It’s a tightly framed image of an Indian-style squat toilet, above which is perched a rather wonderful contraption: a plastic toilet seat atop four splayed plastic legs. It’s the kind of thing that might have for many of its viewers a familiarity born of growing up in middle-class Indian homes in the 1980s: a cheap and quick alternative to the expensive process of remodelling the bathroom. But in a world where magazine advertisements bombard us with images of Italian-tiled bathrooms with perfectly choreographed water flowing out of sparkling steel faucets, it is also an image that could shock. What saves it from being maudlin or depressing (or worse, faux-grungy — think of Delhi Belly) is the air of long-term domesticity that surrounds the ostensibly temporary commode: the bottle of Domex, the toilet brush, the mug, the empty roll of toilet paper and, most importantly, the magazine rolled up for loo reading, balanced carefully between the tap and the wall.

The first section of Kapil Das’ show is devoted to a cluster of images very like the one I’ve spoken of above (though it is placed at some distance from them). Fittingly tacked to the wall with white drawing pins, these are pictures of Das’ family home in Dehradun. It is a home life of some gravity, involving as it does an ill brother and parents who have had to devote their lives to being caregivers. To turn his camera upon a life that he presumably once shared—and has since left behind—is not an easy thing to do. But Das’ gaze manages to be affectionate without being sentimental, truthful without being ruthless. When he trains his camera on the grimy detritus of the everyday—the wrinkled aluminium foil around the kitchen exhaust, the folded Doon Times on a bedside table, with the marks of many mugs of tea on it, the hand towel wound around the fridge handle—we see the dirt, but we also see the ceaseless care that goes into making the world habitable. We see the heart-shaped cake on the gas stove, the laid-out toe socks, the handknitted sweaters that swaddle every member of the house, including the dog.

Das’ images capture the whimsy of this world without exoticising it. There is the close up of ‘The Engineer’s Diary’, with the curious Hindi subtitle (in cut-out letters from print): ‘Gambheer paagal ladki ka’. There is the arrangement of a set of tea cosies in careful symmetry, their embroidered pink roses faint-hearted before the assault of the flowered tablecloth on which they sit. There is the ‘Original Photograph’ of Sai Baba, propped up beside the Sharadiya Utsav Puja Samiti programme for 2009-10, which, together with the poem tacked on a wall that reads, ‘The Lord to me the kingdom gave, He made prudent, strong and brave, He guided me with right and ruth, Filling my heart with love and truth, No tongue of man can sum his state. Allahu Akbar! God is Great’ gives the impression of a house comfortably pervaded by an embrace-all sense of the religious. Then there is the old box television, doubling up in that ever-so-familiar way as a mantelpiece for a collection of objets’d’art: two separate vases of fake plastic flowers, an Eiffel tower replica, a wooden stork, a golden clock. The TV screen reads: ‘Welcome’. It is a collection of things that might be referred to as kitschy. But if kitsch “is the absolute denial of shit”, as Milan Kundera once described it, then Kapil Das is in no danger of being accused of it. However many cross-stitched pictures and embroidered cushion covers he may photograph, Das’ view of the world is anything but cosy and sanitised. Enshrined in Das’ unsparing vision, kitsch becomes a kind of museum of itself.

The museumising of life is, of course, one of the ways in which the act of photography itself might be understood: a desire to document each moment as one lives it. But our photographer is less interested in the capturing of moments than he is in the slow progression of time—and the attempts we make to freeze it, to halt its process of material transformation. The second part of the exhibition reveals his fascination with embalmed objects, from stuffed animals to deformed babies in jars of formaldehyde. And he makes it clear that he is not the only one to be so fascinated. He shows us the young man capturing a stuffed tiger on his mobile phone (in the glare of a light fixture that seems to emerge from a leopard’s mouth), and the little boy in the Janki Ma Touring Museum with his nose pressed against the glass jar, transfixed by the big-headed baby that lies preserved within. He shows us a woman—the little boy’s mother?—gazing at another baby in another jar with an expression of concern, even as a hand in the foreground lifts it out of the formaldehyde, in defiance of the repeated injunction ‘Chhuna mana hai’ (Touching not allowed). In another image, two boys in fresh holiday shirts seem distractedly to doff their straw hats to a baby in a case.

Other images reveal a preoccupation with objects that seek to approximate life and the living. There is the head of what first seems like a dead pig, though it is so uncannily pink that one wonders if it ever lived at all. Even more surreal is the glass jar filled with ice cream cones, each of them seemingly already filled with tutti frutti ice cream. A whole series of pictures devoted to the Ooty-based Wax World: a collection of lifesize wax likenesses of famous people, a kind of small-time Madame Tussaud’s. Subhas Bose salutes us in uniform, while Tagore looks a little befuddled. A worried looking figure whose hat is the only thing that might identify him as Bhagat Singh fiddles nervously with what looks like a bunch of dynamite sticks. Abdul Kalam Azad seems troubled to be enclosed behind a railing, and even has a policeman who guards his exit. A red-lipsticked Nehru gets to gaze dreamily into the distance, while Gandhi sits cross-legged, presiding grimly over an appeal for funds to help keep Wax World alive. The recognisability of these figures—and the slight ridiculousness of their predicament—imbues the series with a kind of easy, humorous appeal. We let our guard down. But with the last image, Das suddenly returns to the predeliction for the surreal that appears to be his signature style: a lifesize waxen man sits by the side of the road, his scooter seems to have overturned, and he is surrounded by debris. What one notices first is a bottle by his side, filled with what is meant to be alcohol; followed by the disconcertingly glazed look in his eye. Ah, an accident, is one’s first thought, accompanied by the impulse to laugh at the alcohol which is placed, blameworthy and unharmed, by the man’s side: Exhibit A. It is only later that one realises that he does not simply have his hands crossed in his lap; what he has is one hand with which he holds on to the other—the latter chillingly detached at the elbow.

Another set of images here, called Toran Natak Company, is the closest we come to a series of portraits. And yet, even here, things are not straight up. One boy’s face is hidden by a strategically positioned balloon (or is it a bubblegum bubble?), while another holds out a pistol and hides behind a baby-sized doll: a staged kidnapping. Two girls—or maybe the same girl, twice—pose for portraits with their faces screened. The other form of subterfuge that Das seems drawn to is the mask: does it hide what we are, or allow us greater freedom? The man with an ape’s face can glare at the camera as much as he likes without being seen, while the man in the Amitabh get-up convinces us more with his posture than his face.

The images in this show are deceptively simple, but they refuse easy categorisation. They do not pander to our desire for either the artfully composed or the cosily domestic. The exhibition shows us a photographer who refuses the easy way out.

154 Neshvilla Road and Other Stories is showing at Photoink, New Delhi, till 12 November 2011.

Published in Open magazine.

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