By Ganesh Saili
‘Would you consider teaching photography to our Officer Trainees?’ boomed Santosh Mathew’s baritone. In 1996, as a young deputy director, he was coordinating the foundation course at the Lal Bahadur Shastri National Academy of Administration.
‘Santosh!’ I teased: ‘You sure you want a joker in the pack?’
‘Of course not!’ He assured me: ‘We thought it’d be good for future All India Service officers to have a hobby.’
‘A safety valve on a pressure cooker?’ I joked.
Arrived in a classroom brimming over with officer trainees, my heart pounded away louder than the sound of knuckles on a door. But I needn’t have worried. Gone was the euphoria of clearing one of the toughest exams in the country. While each officer trainee was bright, the one seated next to them, was brighter. I had expected a simmering melting-pot, instead I found a mosaic. Each one retained their identity though coming from varied backgrounds: from river and mountain, greenery and desert, wealth and poverty, sophisticated urban living and unchanged tribal ways. This is where they would merge to form the Steel Frame of India.
Though there was one give-away. Ill-fitting safari suits meant small towns or rural backgrounds, while the bold, brave and brash stuck out like sore thumbs in Wrangler jeans, Reebok shoes, Polo T-shirts and Dolce & Dolce Gabbana shades and ended up looking like out-of-season mangoes on a guava tree.
With the blender of training, packed from dawn to dusk, with jogging, physical training, horse riding and back-to-back classes. Cultural activities sandpapered all differences, Bharat and India finally merged to become one. Sleep denied, our probationers learn to perfect the art of sleeping through it all with their eyes wide open.
Anyway, down the years, I did try to do my tuppence bit by initiating trainees into the magic of making pictures. Some took to photography like ducks to water; others sank without a ripple. My mind’s magic lantern throws up Keshav Chandra, who came back with images of places like Arunachal. Power to you Keshav! Rumours of your new-found affair with water-colours, continue to disturb me.
Rumours had little to do with the light-fingered thief aboard a night train, during Bharat Darshan, nipped in the bud a promising photographer like Himani Pande, by flicking her camera. Poor wretch! Little did he know that for a handful of silver, he would deprive us of pictures of Jharkhand. But what he could not steal was the brilliance of her images now taken on her cell phone.
Nothing was lost when I was asked to judge a photo-exhibition put up in the Officer Trainee lounge, along with the redoubtable Joint Director, Mr Binod Kumar. Nudging him, I almost spilt his coffee. He was not amused. ‘I hate to be the one tripping you, but you’re giving all the prizes to the same person.’ I remarked.
‘How do you know?’ he growled suspiciously. ‘Are you a match-fixer?’
“Look at the vibrant use of form and colours!”
“Not possible!” he muttered, taking the prints off their mounts, as he turned them over, each had the same name: Naween Sona. Since that day, he has gone on to hold solo exhibitions all over the country, capturing moments that would be lost forever or impossible to recreate.
And who can bring back Gauri Katol of the Audit & Accounts from the hereafter? I was convinced this probationer was meant to scale greater heights. It was not to be. And today, looking through old pictures, I find one of her astride a chestnut stallion, with merry abandon, clearing hurdles on Happy Valley’s famous riding field.
There were no stiles to clear for Abhinav Shivam, in the 2016. He was born with an eye for pictures. No matter who wins the toss and no matter which side the coin lands, some stunning pictures of Nagaland are on their way.
Looking back at two decades of lugging my cameras around the Academy, I find the past is another country. Things were done differently. And standing on the cliff’s edge of three score plus ten of our allotted days, one thing I know for sure: humans, not places, make better memories.
Ganesh Saili born and home-grown in the hills belongs to those select few whose words are illustrated by their own pictures. Author of two dozen books; some translated into twenty languages, his work has found recognition world-wide