I want you to see what I saw. I want to show images that would leave you with a feeling, says Pablo Bartholomew,about his photography exhibition,Coded Elegance,being held at the India International Centre,till October 9. In his 68 images of people and tribes of Manipur,Arunachal Pradesh and Nagaland,one can find codes to the rituals and rites that have governed them for ages and the onset of new ideas. Excerpts from an interview with Bartholomew:
Unlike most anthropological photographs of Northeastern tribal people,Coded Elegance is stylised,almost like a fashion shoot. Was this deliberate?
The show is dedicated to Prabuddha Dasgupta,who died last year and is an attempt at a dialogue with his fashion photography. The idea that tribals were fashionable has always been with me. I have a large body of work on the Northeast,a region I have been visiting for 10 years. While deciding on this exhibition,I selected works that had a specific look. I edited these to showcase a certain fashion statement. Their dress,ornaments,head gear and body tattoos all these were very fashionable.
How challenging was it to take such posed fashion images in the remote areas of the Northeast?
These are largely portraiture and posed images with studio lighting. I had customised a Gypsy (car) so that I could carry studio lighting equipment with me and set up a portable studio when I wanted to. When I had the opportunity,I would ask people to pose and took a well-lit portrait.
Why did you choose the Northeast,a region that has been exoticised but never fully explained?
Most of my important work have resonances in my family,a story or a growing-up memory. I had been told how my father,Richard,trekked through the Northeast during World War II when the Japanese were invading Burma,causing an exodus to India. It was a dangerous march and,surrounded by swamps,bad weather,mosquitoes and dangerous animals. One was grateful for food and shelter that the tribals offered them. My father died in 1985 and some of these triggers started to go off inside me. Since 1989,I have travelled through Arunachal Pradesh,Nagaland and Manipur,the closest part to Burma. This was a part of my attempt to understand the diversity of the people in the hills,whose histories are so different from the Indian mainland.
How is photographing the Northeast different from elsewhere?
In the Northeast,all roads are not road-worthy. Just like the electrical wires dont mean theres electricity. Road travel was more than driving from point A to B. There were surprises and unforeseen events such as landslides and collapsed bridges. In border areas,we had to negotiate with the Indian Army and the underground factions. Sometimes,there was a ritual according to which,if I entered a village,I would have had to stay a month. So,I would have to leave and return. Shaman and Animist rituals depend on the positions of the sun and moon and these things dont translate into English. Ive spent 10 years photographing the region,it is a slow process and one has to keep going back.
Coded Elegance can be viewed at IIC,main gallery,till October 9
between 11 am-7 pm