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For most of us, we switch off our mind and put our work intuition on hold when on a vacation. But that is not the case with photographer Bharat Sikka. For him,
a 2013 Kashmir vacation led to an obsession to capture the men in the Valley and their world. And over numerous subsequent visits to Kashmir, he fulfilled this endeavour, leading to “Where the Flowers Still Grow”, a series of photographs that are currently on display at Nature Morte art gallery in Delhi. As things were being set up last week, Sikka, clad in track pants and t-shirt, seemed completely at home in the gallery — maybe because some of his works were already hanging on the walls. “While I was on a holiday in Kashmir, in 2013, I caught hold of Mirza Waheed’s novel The Collaborator, and the seeds were sown ,” says Sikka, 44.
Waheed’s 2011 novel tells the tale of a young Kashmiri man, who ends up working in the Indian Army and has to count the dead bodies of militants who have died in encounters with them. While the inspiration of the works is powerfully political and conflict-centric, the works themselves are not. “This is my own journey into that land, which in the recent past has only made headlines due to its conflicts and political upheavals. I have stayed away from the politics of it all. What you see here are standard portraits — of people and abstract things. But they also reflect my own inner journey, of deconstructing and discovering things on my own. This is my version of Kashmir,” says the Parsons School of Design graduate.
So in one of the photographs, there is a young man, presumably in his early twenties, holding a log of wood and staring stoically into the lens. He is surrounded by the traditional leitmotifs of Kashmir — lush green meadows, a horse leisurely grazing and tall deodar trees forming a picturesque background. In another picture, which is hard to miss, an old man is standing amidst an expanse of dried poplar trees. The poplars provide a camouflage of sorts, and the old man blends in seamlessly. “We usually see the typical landscapes, with beauteous mountains and chinar trees, but the people are missing. I was very surprised that the people were actually very receptive to be being photographed. I would trek for hours, saunter around and people welcomed me into their houses. I ended up spending a large part of the last three years in the Valley,” adds Sikka.
While there are 18 portraits, the show also exhibits a large number of abstract landscapes and daily use objects, ranging from a wooden almirah to a doorway shrouded by a colourful embroidered curtain. Together, they serve as the mise-en-scene for the show. There are no women in the exhibition though. Sikka is quick to clarify that isn’t because they were not comfortable being photographed. “It’s just that I photograph men and this work is a continuation of my larger project titled ‘Indian Men’, where I have photographed Indian men,” adds Sikka, looking at the faces from the Valley.
The exhibition is on at Nature Morte Gallery, Block A, Neeti Bagh, till May 27. Contact: 41740215