Padmashree-awardee, Pablo Bartholomew, talks about digging through his photo archive for snapshots of Calcutta, Tangra’s Chinese community, and the time he spent on the set of Satyajit Ray’s Shatranj Ke Khiladi for his exhibition, “The Calcutta Diaries”.
You’ve had a couple of retrospective shows. Where does this urge to look at your earlier work come from?
My exhibitions in 1979-80 showed the best of the work I did then. Only a few from those have made it to this exhibition; most are pictures I have not shown before. It started with wanting to digitise all my negatives but then I started to look at them with the distance that the passage of time gives you. Some people I’ve shot are no more, others have changed. I went back to the archive to see what I have done, and what more I could do.
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Did you realise the anthropological significance of the photographs of the Chinese community at the time you shot them?
Although I did have a sense that things would change — cities, people as well as me, but one is naïve in his 20s. I started work with an anthropological perspective only in ’89. would consciously look for things that I knew would cease to exist soon. My work with the Nagas and their skull huts is one such example.
How was it for you to shoot Satyajit Ray and his crew, given that you were an outsider?
It was tough. I was hired by the producer to click pictures of a tightly-knit crew, and with any kind of linguistic group, there is an element of chauvinism. Luckily for me, I have a Bengali connection — my grandmother was Bengali. Ray was a Renaissance Man, he broke the traditional film hierarchy and made the director the pivot around which the movie revolved. I was fascinated by Ray, but realised that working for someone did not excite me.
With the wisdom of time on your side, would you like to change anything about these photographs?
When you are starting out, you have a fresh eye. Everything is a surprise. There is an instinct, an urge to discover both yourself and the medium. With time, you have a better command on technique, you become more studied. But your work can become controlled and boring. However, I have selected these photographs taking into account what photography is today. The collection of photographs you see is a sophisticated ‘product’.
The show is on at Sakshi Gallery, Colaba, till May 2