Journeys in Jharia, Kashmir and the Tsunami Coast (Tamilnadu)
Grief is not a dark monotone. It takes many shades and shadows. The thirty-six black and white pictures presented here from the conflict-corners of Kashmir, the burning coalfields of Jharia in Jharkand and the Tsunami-hit coastal towns of Tamilnadu, confirm the many hues of pain. The empathetic lens of Sri not only captures this dynamic play of grief, but also its eerie stillness and stubbornness that create furrowed portraits.
Amidst the stygian spread, life creates an illusion in these photographs. It tries to repeatedly suggest that it has an uncanny knack of moving on. The fitful light through the doors and windows; the open blast of the skies and the shimmer of washed coal are its symbols. They try to emphasise that the tragic events are all in the past; they are now history and by the time of this revistation, emotion has undergone a sedimentary process. But that is a misleading consolation here. The scars have struck such deep roots that they are only seeing a fresh bloom now. Sri uses light not as a symbol of hope, but to highlight this festering of the wounds. The pervasive fogginess in the images makes it difficult to envision a future.
Why just the uncertainties of the past and future, the present too is precarious. The bullets that continue to fly in the maize fields, the tide that continues to rise and the fire that lurks in the underground seams of the earth have a debilitating impact. Listen to the stories that each of these people featured here have to say and you’ll realise that neither hope nor the divisions of time exist for them. There is only a vague brooding constant.
To ask you to ‘listen’ when we are speaking of pictures, which you should rather be urged to see, leads to an interesting method of the photographer in making these pictures. “I am not the kind who struts around with my camera in hand. In fact, I don’t really take it out until I have heard the story. A story that is in need of a messenger,” confesses Sri. He tries to engage his future subjects for considerable periods of time; some times for weeks and months, before he pulls out his camera. These engagements need not necessarily be filled with words, with which Sri is anyway uncomfortable, but it could even be a mute companionship finally leading to a communion.
“All my projects are long term projects,” he adds. When the Kashmir pictures were shot Sri rented a house in the Soura area of Srinagar, close to the Juma Masjid and camped there for close to five months. No pictures happened for four-and-a-half months and all that you see collected here fell together in the final leg. Until then, he kept listening. He is a photographer who listens to shoot. A rare quality that distinguishes him from the paparazzi culture, which believes in its right to shoot all that it sees. The camera is often an insensitive, loud and selfish being. It stirs silences, intrudes privacy and violates the sanctity of every grave moment. But in the hands of Sri it endeavours to become an instrument of compassion.
“Don’t call me an artist, as I am not really bothered about the aesthetics that perk up the frame; don’t call me a photojournalist because documentation is not my purpose; in all humility I will be happy if I am allowed to assume the role of a messenger,” requests Sri. Once the picture-narrative has met the eyes of those who matter and has registered on their minds, then, even if the picture is killed or the authorship erased he isn’t really bothered. Grief is anyway archived well and this too shouldn’t join the forgotten piles is perhaps what he means. And to use a stripped down yet un-sexy term like ‘messenger’ to refer to oneself in a world of bombast, suggests a conviction that is firmly rolled up in the gut. It may be still too early for Sri to formulate or articulate a theory of his photographic method, but its rough contours are definitely interesting and honourable.
Can we call his photographic method missionary? Perhaps yes, but stripped of all its colonial and oriental connotations. Sri says: “Tragedy, grief and poverty have long been the domain of Western photographers. They came here with a specific purpose. Spent a lot of time in places like Kashmir, Jharia, Bastar, Lanka and Orissa and contributed to a politics that was unknown or distant to us. Even though pain and tragedy was in our own backyard we did not have the money to go there, or even the intellectual stamina to sustain the rigours of such an assignment. But things have changed. There is a new confidence. I feel I have a better emotional make up to handle these things. I have a greater ability to relate to the stories and therefore I don’t really have to consider them a mere assignment.” Sri, in fact, gave up a stable job in a national weekly to be on these messenger-missions and the ‘emotional make up’ that he speaks about is his only preparation before he lands up at a place. There is no reading of literature or history. To that extent he is anti-intellectual. He prefers not to be cerebral in his photographic exercises. What has guided him so far is his raw energy. But there are hints that this may be changing: “I used to watch a lot of television, a lot of movies and read very little. But now I have begun to read a lot more. Not necessarily connected with what I am shooting. Anything and everything in fact. I have started enjoying the process. I have to wait and see how this would affect the way I compose my images.”
But as of now, since Sri is pretty clear that the stories he hears are more important and need to be foregrounded, most pictures he shoots seldom stand independently. They beg an accompanying narrative. In this series you see that happening especially with the montages. Again, a technique that feigns a panoramic view to contextualise the subject and its surroundings. There is a certain anxiousness in Sri to pass on the whole story, all that he has learnt. This actually makes him clip and join the frames to generate a new movement or motion in the mind. There is an evident struggle to extricate the message out.
There are elements of personal history that motivates Sri to seek stories and be their messenger. They have had a cathartic effect on him. In this exercise of listening over the last three years, he has realised that he has enough courage to deal with the dark experiences of his childhood. Something that has remained buried inside him for close to two decades. “People whom I met spoke everything about their lives to me. They spoke about their humiliations, their sufferings, their hopelessness and pennilessness and also about the rapes of their daughters. Even in their silences they sought my presence. I was a stranger, but yet they poured out their grief. This made me feel that I need not be ashamed to speak of my trials and tribulations; after all they were not my mistakes. What I thought will go with me to the grave, I now have the courage to confront and share. This is a huge transformation within me. I am more at peace with myself.” If some of the frames here carry a slice of serenity despite the apparent graveness of the subject, perhaps Sri can claim it to be his own. He is not afraid to state that until his secrets weighed him down his photography functioned from shallow realms.
Sri is an accidental photographer. He hails from Thrissur in Kerala, but as a 14-year-old shifted base to Chennai. He had earned a sports scholarship there and he used that as an ‘excuse’ to leave home and leave behind the disturbing memories. He was training to be an athlete but an injury when 19 forced him to quit sports. For the next few years he wandered aimlessly, although he had registered himself for a BA in History at the Madras Christian College. History surely was not his calling. When he confessed this to a friend he initiated him to industrial photography. He was nearly bored to death with it. Then he worked as an assistant to a wildlife photographer, where he says he made some progress with his photographic skills. He did not hang on there for long either, he took to fashion photography because livelihood issues had cropped up by then. When he turned 25 a fancy idea struck him: That he should lead a ‘normal’ life. By which he meant he should marry, arrange for a monthly salary and settle down. He did meet a charming Croatian dancer for a partner and landed up with a job in Outlook, the national newsmagazine. But within two years he knew he was a freer spirit and could not stick to a given framework. He quit his job and began to travel with his wife across the world on a self-discovery trip and soon saw himself being led to the threshold of what you see exhibited here.
Sri has been rootless and has decided to be so by choice. “I am a loner and that too is by choice,” he adds. But what is at the root of his creative energies is the effort to grapple with the many shadows of himself. However, be assured, the shadow that speaks in the pictures here is grief and grief alone.
Sugata Srinivasaraju is an award-winning journalist and writer. He is currently Associate Editor with‘Outlook,’ India’s premier
weekly news magazine. He was British Chevening scholar in 2000 and an ILI Fellow of the Aspen Institue in Colorado, USA, in 2008. His most recent book is ‘Keeping Faith with the Mother Tongue - The Anxieties of a Local Culture’