Smells like India: Pablo Bartholomew's sepia moments in the history photography
Art writer PAROMA MAITI examines how Pablo Bartholomew's photographs in his recently conducted show, 'OutsideIn,' at The Harrington Street Art Centre, Kolkata bring back the yesteryears and portray an India that was different from the stereotyped images of the country projected abroad
Modern memory…relies entirely on the materiality of the trace, the immediacy of the recording, the visibility of the image .…The less memory is experienced from the inside the more it exists through its exterior scaffolding and outward signs – hence the obsession with the archive that marks our age, attempting at once the complete conservation of the present as well as the total preservation of the past. – Pierre Nora*
Think Pablo Bartholomew, and the first image that springs up is that of the hollow empty eyes of a dead child staring into nothingness from amid layers of rubble, with the most disturbing eeriness; an image that subsequently came to be emblematic of the Bhopal Gas Tragedy of 1984. For those who identify the man with this image alone, are unlikely to be familiar with his other, more colourful side, captured ironically, sans any colour, in brilliantly stark black-n-whites. Calcuttans were afforded the chance to witness these, thanks to The Harrington Street Arts Centre that played host to this photographic sojourn of the father-son duo of Richard and Pablo Bartholomew spanning the three critical decades of post-colonial India – the 60s, 70s and the 80s.
Even though the core content of these images exude a certain joie de vivre, and justify the epithet 'colourful' to that extent, they all continue to be underlined by a subterranean pathos, one that betrays Pablo's fixation with most things maudlin. This melancholy may not be easily visible in the photos. They may not even have been part of his conscious efforts. Nonetheless, it seeps through just as much to his viewers; viewers distanced from the times these photos were “made” in by at least a couple of decades. This distance in time (and in some cases, even space) is crucial for the transmission of this melancholia I talk about. The photographs themselves were not taken with this in mind. For that matter, no photograph is ever taken with a calculated design to cheat time and/or to predict nostalgia. It is the magic of this art-form that sets it apart from all other forms – this power to invoke nostalgia, a yearning, a longing for times gone by precisely by dint of its tactility emanating out of an innate verifiable, indubitable and credible reality.
Pablo's photographs are that – infallible and unfailing witnesses of a time; a time my generation was not a part of and yet, is in love with, is fascinated with, is in awe of. The retro age. The rebellious age. The age of flower power; that of the hippies. The age of Rock and Roll and solid geometric patterns that dominated everything – from lifestyle décor to fashion. The age of virulent, violent political movements. The age of love – undaunted and cigarette-smelled feminisms flaunted. Perhaps, the most romantic and romanticised era for those who lived through it, as well as those who only got to grow up around 'relics' – both objects and images of the time. Pablo was thus, truly a child of the revolution – one who picked up the fineries of a 'wayward' life pretty early on, thankfully so, for the likes of us! Having grown up with an illustrious photographer of a father in the form of Richard Bartholomew, photography was a way of life for Pablo. He toyed with it, and it became constant companion and loyal witness to his deliciously whimsical life, and that of others, some close to him, others not so much.
It was his fascination for what he calls the 'outer circle' that made him reach out to the underbelly of the capital city – drug addicts, prostitutes, homosexuals, often, as he now ruminates, in pursuit of his own self. The influence of the hugely controversial figure of the photographer/film-maker Larry Clark, for instance, is evident in his body of works during this time, particularly when one encounters this penchant for capturing the dark and disturbing in the confined, even claustrophobic, spaces of the private. While Pablo's works never really explored the grimness of teenage sexuality, drug-addictions etc as morbidly, as consistently as Larry's, his works remain tinged with a profound sense of loss far more subtle and far deeper chiefly because his subjects were people out of his own personal album. For this reason, when one is privy to a nude shot of his girlfriend Pooh, stretched out in uninhibited post-coital indolence or that of a close-up of an intensely intimate, intensely passionate kiss between the two young lovers – Pablo and Pooh – one is gripped at once with a range of emotions. I was automatically led to wonder what happened to them, these lovers… did such love, as free, as fearless, as bold as that, ultimately relapse into the mundane vagaries of everyday domesticity? Would it be a sin to confess that at some level I was relieved to know that their destinies had charted divergent never-to-meet courses; for otherwise, these photographs whose very magic lay in the testimonial role they played in the once-torrid affair, would have failed to perform their ontological role. Or so I believe.
These remarkably candid, spontaneous and unselfconscious shots, however, inevitably directed me to issues of voyeurism made rampant, thanks to electronic and digital media today. Tens of thousands of images/self-images of lovers in the act of making love – and some more – are readily available for easy consumption today. What is it then, that marks out these shots of lovers and love-making circulated for public viewing, and an indulgence to mass-voyeurism, from the images of Pablo's? What, in short, decides the differentia between one image that goes up in a prestigious gallery-space, and another that goes down as scandal? While the 'content' and its inarguable aesthetic quality sounds like the convincing clincher, it is the question of the 'intent' that proves slightly more problematic. Questions like hierarchization of the display space between a gallery and the internet, how-far-is-too-far, the lines between 'indecent pornography' and 'aesthetic art,' deserve to be interrogated at a far broader level (as has been by critics and scholars). But if I were to pass a verdict as 'everyman' and ardent Pablo-fan, I would sum it up simply by saying that the lyrical quality that radiated from his images, created primarily out of a desire to freeze the moment of love forever, would never emerge from images that are directed with self-conscious clarity towards capturing the crudity of the carnal. To this end, I will go so far as to say that Pablo's images are photographic avatars of Egon Schiele's paintings.
Outside this space of the private, Pablo's depictions captured a very different face of India. Considered for long, a haven of sorts for those scouting for the 'exotic,' the poor, the filthy, India was able to finally break out of this stereotyped mould and breathe free and shimmer under the debonair makeover Pablo gave her. This was that side of her that Western viewership was not really used to: A rich India, an affluent India, an India as much into Rock-n-Roll and hashish as its condescending 'other.' Pablo defied the dictates (mostly journalistic) of the time that fed unquestioningly into the demands of the West for images of political events and figures and those of natural calamities. Tired of such boring visuals, Pablo turned to lives that went on at their own pace, urban chic suave metropolitan lives, considered unfit for ideal photographic subject-matter. The result is there for all to see; the creation of an entire corpus of visuals that will continue to serve as points of reference for re-creating that era.
Beyond all such academic, polemical reading and reviewing of Pablo's works, what stayed back with me, and perhaps always will, is the seeping through of dollops of sun-kissed, sepia-smelling memory – intensely personal, and yet somehow attached intrinsically with a collective one; a collective memory of love, of loss, of as Kundera would have it, an unbearable lightness of being. His images are tangible freezes of memory itself; memory that takes root in the concrete, in spaces, gestures, images, and objects. This is what makes his works remarkable – the creation of memory, in place of the far more impersonal and detached history – a memory that may be shared beyond those who physically participated in its crafting. His images thwart 'history's' design to suppress and destroy 'memory'. They keep it alive and foster dreams. Dreams of memory. Dreams of yesteryear, of Philips stereos and turntables, of striped Bombay Dyeing bedspreads, of low furniture lit up in low light, of cosy domesticities huddled in warm loves. Pablo brought yesterday back once more.
Photograph (s): PABLO BARTHOLOMEW
All photographs from the exhibition 'OUTSIDE IN', courtesy the artist.