By: Ganesh Saili
‘Muay (or ‘Wretch’ in Gurmukhi!)’ I heard the stalwart of photography S. Paul admonish his son: ‘If you can’t take a decent picture, at least find a decent face.’
In 1995, I took my charges through the gamut of photography which like almost everything you can think of begins with the Greeks. Kamara was anything with an arched cover, be it a box or a dark room. During the Renaissance, other painters and artists used this pinhole invention, just like the great Leonardo Da Vinci did, to draw sketches from the image falling on the wall.
Centuries later came the camera obscura, reduced in size and with a ground glass at one end so that image was visible. It was a forerunner of the portabilis of the nineteenth century.
My casual flirtation with pictures began in the summer of 1975 with the June issue of Imprint Magazine to be exact. R.V. Pandit, the owner-publisher had announced the release of our first picture book: ‘Even though I say so myself, Ganga: Sacred River of India, with photographs by Raghubir Singh and text by Eric Newby, is the finest pictorial book Indians have ever produced.’ Pompous it was and it had cost oodles of money. Like a perfect idiot I promised myself that someday I would have a coffee table book with my name splashed across the cover. ‘Twas easier said than done! In 1994, Ruskin Bond and I were invited to do Mussoorie and Landour: Days of Wine & Roses. Looking back down the years, lugging my cameras, and standing on the cliff’s edge of three score plus ten today, one thing I know for sure is that people, not places, make memories.
On occasion these cameras drag me off all over the country. One day, while wandering around Orissa’s Sun Temple, I saw a photographer with a cluster of old analogue cameras strung around his neck like a wannabe politician bedecked in marigold garlands.
How on earth did he use them? Where did he find the film? Or for that matter, who still processed them? I thought to myself.
I tried to strike up a conversation but before I could, he dismissed me with a withering glance saying: ‘Mobilewala photographer hai kya?’
Before I could open my mouth, he moved on towing a gaggle of tourists in his wake. ‘Smile!,’ he whispered to his customers – at the last moment whipping out a smart phone from his hip pocket and finishing his task.
That is when the penny dropped – his old cameras were no more than decoys, or props to reel in new customers. My moment of Truth found me feeling like the dinosaurs must have felt when the meteor hit the Earth, obscuring the sun and triggering mass extinction.
Some forty years ago, the mobile dropped like a brick upon us. That bulky phone led on to the magic of our present day smartphone and changed the world of photography. Come to think of it, it’s been a while since I saw someone pout into a mobile, though selfies continue to rule the roost. Advent of the smartphone meant more pictures of reflections, refractions and mirrors have been taken than ever before in the entire history of photography.
Near Landour’s picture perfect Parsonage, during pandemic times, if you went along the deserted road winding past the cottage – home to actor Victor Banerjee and his family – you would have found Christian Kracht, the Swiss author seated on a parapet wall reading T.S. Eliot’s The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock or so it would have seemed, to the towering deodar trees. If you looked closely to peer behind the picket fence you would have discovered an audience of one – Victor – who had isolated himself. And that was the way it was going to be for two long years: visitors were forbidden from climbing the steps to the house whilst our thespian wasn’t going anywhere in a hurry! As for me, I wish he had continued to take pictures of the birds visiting his strawberry patch!
Truth is always stranger than fiction.
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.