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Chanel at Mahabalipuram

Norman Parkinson brought his models to India 50 years ago. For the first time,this iconic fashion photographer’s work,which combines glamour with history,comes to India

Written by Paromita Chakrabarti | New Delhi | Published: October 23, 2011 12:40:26 am

Norman Parkinson brought his models to India 50 years ago. For the first time,this iconic fashion photographer’s work,which combines glamour with history,comes to India

In the rather homogenous world of fashion photography,it is difficult to imagine out-of-the-box spurts. British photographer Norman Parkinson (1913-1990) would have begged to differ. Born in post-World War I Europe,when much of photography and fashion was confined within the walls of the home or the studio,and defined by the likes of Cecil Beaton and Edward Steichen,Parkinson stirred things up when he set up his studio in 1934. He took his subjects outdoors,often overseas,and turned the staid into the exotic. He shot personalities like the Prince of Wales,The Beatles,author Ian Fleming and actor Audrey Hepburn. The frothy irreverence of his works soon got him assignments from leading fashion magazines like the British Vogue and Harper’s Bazaar.

Post World War II,as the focus shifted to the newly-independent colonies,British Vogue commissioned Parkinson for a photo-shoot in India in 1956,with models Anne Gunning and Barbara Mullen. Parkinson shot in what would eventually become sought-after locales — Jaipur,Mahabalipuram,Agra,Delhi,Srinagar and Aurangabad,among others.

The models shared space with pagri-clad locals,dirtied their designer clothes wading through paddy fields,floated in shikaras on the Dal Lake and created a beautiful preface to stunning historical monuments. Now,over five decades after his India trip,Tasveer gallery in India and the Norman Parkinson Archive in London have put together a travelling exhibition with 30 representative works from that trip and from his other noted portrait shoots,including those of 20th century icons such as Audrey Hepburn and Jerry Hall,shot across the globe. This is the first ever exhibition of his work in India.

“He was a great image maker. He was perhaps more interested in using India as a stunning backdrop,rather than making a comment about the country,” says Abhishek Poddar,curator of the show,“Pink is the Navy Blue of India,” which travels from Ahmedabad to Kolkata this month and then to Delhi,Bangalore and Mumbai,next year.

Designer JJ Valaya,a keen photographer himself,and a Parkinson enthusiast,says the charisma of the British photographer comes across in his works. “He cultivated a personality that invited attention,yet he was supposedly a secretive man. Such a dual personality is often the basis of brilliant creative work,” he says.

The name of the exhibition,too,is a tribute to the dichotomy of the man who was the British royalty’s favourite photographer and a purveyor of glamour with a pulse for humour. Diana Vreeland,the then editor of Harper’s Bazaar,who was captivated by Parkinson’s photographs taken in India,once proclaimed,“How clever of you,Mr Parkinson,to know that pink is the navy blue of India.”

A pink mohair coat draped like a sari against a regal Jaipur background,a white organza dress with silver embroidery by Horrockses at Chanel,set in contrast to the Mahabalipuram shore temple,a cotton muslin dress by Atrima in Kashmir — the clothes are as much the protagonist in his works as the model. Together with the backdrop they form a rich tableau,which came to define British fashion and culture.

His work has also contributed to shaping present day advertising. “His frames were graphically precise,without losing the essence of the moment. So the photographs turned out like cinematic frames. His world was fun and alive,and he invited you in,” says Vishesh Verma,a leading fashion photographer.

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