Tell me about your memories of your father, not the photographer, Kishor Parekh.
I remember my father as this very cool guy. He had a persona that till date lingers around me everywhere. Even after 33 years of him passing away, sometimes I weep, not just because I miss him, but because of a deep sense of longing. In 1982, we were in Bombay (now Mumbai), and dad was in the Himalayas, working on a project, when we got the numbing news of him passing away. The minute I was told, I impulsively ran to his cupboard, and hugged his clothes and wept, they smelt of him. It hit me then, and I said it out loudly, in a way to him, that I am going to be a photographer.
A lot of his work is lost.
Unfortunately, the archive that I knew existed has been misplaced. That’s a guilt I wake up to every day. That’s why this show is fractional redemption. I am still trying to retrace the archives and his cameras.
His golden years of revolutionising Indian photojournalism were with the Hindustan Times, in the ’60s. He started the concept of the byline, and full-page essays. I think it was also propelled by his academic studies in the US and prevalent contemporary global practices. He quit his job in 1967 but in those few years, his poignant photos had covered the Nehru era, the Bihar famine, and the wars of 1962 and 1965. His last picture of Lal Bahadur Shastri, half an hour before Shastri passed away in Tashkent, was picked up by every agency in the world. His powerful visual aesthetic was driven by ‘being there first, getting it out fast’.
His iconic work, ‘Bangladesh: A Brutal Birth’ is being exhibited in India for the first time, 33 years after he passed away.
I remember we used to live in Hong Kong then; I was five. We would come to the beach on weekends, where dad would occasionally paint. That day he was very uneasy and said, ‘My country is burning and here I am doing this.’ He didn’t let emotions for his four kids and wife weigh him down. At that time he was the editor of three magazines, and none of them were news, so the project was self-assigned and self-funded.
He landed in Bombay, went to a friend in Calcutta and persuaded him to drive him to the border. They reached a spot where no civilians could cross the border. There he spotted an army helicopter leaving for Dhaka carrying an official press troupe, but since he didn’t have the mandatory clearances, the accompanying army Major refused him permission. That’s when he famously said, ‘Shoot me here right now or take me’.
He landed in the warzone, befriended the mukti-bahini (freedom fighters) there, who gave him a jeep for travelling. Once there, he shot for five days — December 16 was the surrender, he stuck around for an extra day or two and that’s when the other pictures happened. He came back to Hong Kong, immediately processed the pictures and contact sheets were made in a few days. My mother said that after returning from Bangladesh, he didn’t come home but went to the studio straightaway. He lost a lot of weight in those days because he couldn’t eat. He said all he could smell was rotten flesh.
Returning quickly with a dummy of the photo book to India, he met officials in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and they ordered 20,000 copies, in English and French. So, in two weeks, everything happened, and by January, the book was out. The family only has two copies, one is here at the exhibit. I don’t know where all the copies are. I presume some of them were destroyed. Obviously, it can be republished now but I want to do full justice, as his son and as a photographer too. In the book, all the captions are written by him, they are very poetic, and in first person — for instance, lines like ‘people wept as silently as the dead’.
Why has it taken you so long to exhibit your father’s work in India?
I don’t know why. My strength and weakness is that if I do something, I have to do it right. Sometimes the time isn’t right, sometimes the venue and sometimes the gallerist and I are not on the same emotional platform. At the Delhi Photo Festival, it’s the right people. When Prashant (Panjiar) called me about exhibiting his work, I just said yes.
How has he influenced your work?
The sanctity of the negatives, black-and-white, working in the dark room – all of that comes from him. In my advertising career also, I would shoot and process my own film and prints. I feel I have reached a point now where I can call my pictures my own.
The exhibition is on till November 8 as part of the Delhi Photo Festival, at IGNCA, Janpath.