Twenty-three years after his father’s passing in 1985, Pablo Bartholomew began drawing parallels between their photographic work. The first marking of this was in 2008 when he “manoeuvred” Amit Judge, the owner of the now-defunct Bodhi Art Gallery in New York, into displaying his work, Outside In, four blocks away from Sepia Gallery that housed his art critic, poet, painter and photographer father, Richard Bartholomew’s series The Critic’s Eye.
A Burmese emigre, Richard Bartholomew arrived in India in 1942 as a teenager, escaping the invading Japanese forces during World War II. Later, while studying literature at Delhi University’s St. Stephen’s College, he met his wife, Rati Batra, a Partition survivor. Much like his immigrant parents, Pablo Bartholomew too recognises himself as an outsider.
“When I was 16 or 17, I started hanging around hippies smoking chillums, doing drugs. It was a quest for identity, of whatever sort,” says Pablo. But it was ultimately his understanding of the medium of photography, distilled from his father, that unfastened new possibilities. “It gave me some distance and objectivity. The drugs drew me in and photography pulled me away,” he says.
Pablo’s attempt to cognate their work has now culminated in the exhibition, “Affinities — Richard and Pablo Bartholomew”, comprising over a hundred black-and-white images by Richard and Pablo Bartholomew, at the Maison Européenne de la Photographie (MEP) in Paris, that will be on display till October 15. Mounted across two rooms in the 18th-century mansion-turned-museum, their photographs, nearly 20 years apart, are displayed in pairs in one room, and as independent narratives that pore on their individual journeys in the other. “I started working on my father’s archive in 2005 and saw many similarities in the way that we photographed. Around 2009, I started to experiment with the pairings of my father’s work and mine, using the spoken work’s format as a visual and verbal narrative,” says Pablo.
Uprooted as the “outsiders” were, their gaze turned inward. Different life paths, that also reflect the unity in their “quest for an identity”, are put in perspective in the first part of the exhibition: a photograph Richard made of his wife, Rati, draping a sari, is placed alongside a picture of a sari-clad woman Pablo photographed dancing at a friend’s house; a picture of Pablo’s brother, Robin, taken by their father shows Robin’s face contorted by a magnifying glass that he holds at eye level — it is coupled with a picture of Richard taken by Pablo through a plastic lens that places the subject in a circle of sorts, bending the peripherals out of shape. They’ve both captured their friends — Richard’s sitting in a trio while Pablo’s laze on a bed, reflecting an innocuous defiance that is said to accompany youth.
“Through a long process of revisitation, deduction, and elimination, I’ve drawn parallels between our work, either through the commonality of aesthetic or theme. The photographs aren’t exactly similar but have subtle visual resonances, aesthetically or thematically, in the way the two documented periods are punctuated,” he says. But is it difficult to examine one’s father’s work objectively? “You have to have objectivity. I have relied upon all my faculties of experience, of knowing what photography is both within India and internationally. If one has to place my father’s work in the 1950s, very few people photographed their families. Not everything is good but what is needs to be shown,” he says.
In part II of the exhibition, there is a cluster or as Pablo calls it, cloud, of 38 photographs, providing infrequent insight into Richard’s documentation of the Tibetan refugees in the 1960s and ’70s, along with images he made as the development officer and curator of the Tibet House in New Delhi — the residence of the Dalai Lama’s personal collection.
“He photographed mainly the Tibetan House collection, when they needed to bring out brochures, catalogues or other books. Or, during their outreach programmes, they would take the collections to other cities or countries. He had a whimsical way of photographing them,” says Pablo. The adjoining walls are dedicated to Pablo’s prints that hold stories of the European hippies who came to India in the 1970s; of cavalier drug abuse in Delhi and Pushkar; and the opium dens of Bombay — a series that won him the World Press Award in 1976.
This is where the exhibition finds its strongest stimulation. The displayed visual repertoire of both father and son delicately accentuates the hardships and indignities endured by the displaced, their relentless efforts of rehabilitation which are rendered all the more challenging by an uncaring political climate and social stigmatisation, while never burdening them with cliches. Most of all, this part of the exhibition dwells on loss — of a home, a sense of self, of a loved one.
“Affinities” isn’t the first of Pablo’s attempts at resurrecting his father’s work. In 2012, he self-published Richard Bartholomew, The Art Critic, which compiles his father’s writings, photographs, and illustrations. “In India, everybody forgets everything. If I have to build his legacy, and, I feel very strongly that he contributed greatly to the worlds of visual art and art criticism, this is the only way to do it. The Art Critic today stands as the de facto reference book of a certain era and it will remain to serve that purpose,” he says.
What draws him repeatedly to his father’s work and propels him to further secure his place in the public domain, nearly 30 years after his death? “Family propaganda,” he jokes. “You revisit because you want to hold on (and) to deal with the memory. This show will probably put a cap on this phase of me working with my father,” he says. An afterthought prompts him — “I say that now, but something else might happen.”