Something that happens a lot to would-be and professional photographers from Delhi are trips to Rajasthan, a desert state with such riot of colour that it is difficult to get a bad frame. For five generations, Sudhir Kasliwal’s family has lived in Jaipur and the 67-year-old photographer has studied his subject over a lifetime. Kasliwal’s ongoing exhibition of photographs should not have been called “Wander.lens”. No traveller could have captured the heart of Rajasthan as he has, or exposed its layers with an archivist’s zeal.
He was at the Bakaya Mata temple in Bhilwara in 1996 when a queer exorcism ritual was being carried out. His photograph is of three women standing in a pool drinking water from mojris. Only one “possessed” woman’s face is not hidden behind the traditional dupatta and the camera picks up her expression as she holds a shoe of water like a blessed cup of poison to her lips.
Another cruel ritual exists only in images. A 1979 photograph, titled Ladu Oonth, shows dozens of Rajasthani men piled on a camel as it snorts in pain and collapses.
“Assessing the strength of the camel, now Rajasthan’s state animal, by climbing on it was a part of the games at the Pushkar fair. It has been banned,” says Kasliwal. He heads a family firm of jewellers that started in the 19th century when one of his ancestors was invited by the ruler of Jaipur to create pieces for the palace. “I was introduced to photography by my father when I was 14. Gradually, from taking photographs of family and friends, I began shooting street, fairs and festival,” he says.
“Wander.lens” is sectioned into portraits, lifestyle and monochromes. Even decorative shots, such as of swollen red turbans perched on wrinkled faces, have layers of meaning — usually signalling a disappeared way of life. “Over the past 15 years, there’s been a rapid change in how people dress, talk or celebrate festivals and various other areas of living. As someone who’s seen the quintessential Rajasthan through the’70s,’80s and ’90s, the homogeneity coming about is a bit disappointing,” says Kasliwal.
Then, there are moments that makes one a believer — when a woman with a pitcher on her head is framed by a door and a peahen flies overhead to create a harmony of form and content. Titled Thirsty Peacock, the image was a gift from serendipity to a photographer who stood at the right place at the right time.