One of the most arresting sights at this year’s India Art Fair in New Delhi was a grid of black-and-white photographs displayed on the exterior wall of the booth of Photoink gallery, one of the finest galleries showing photographic work in the country. Each one of the images in this arrangement depicted an exquisite specimen of modern architecture, among the many that are strewn across urban centres in India. Seen in this modest scale, these structures had an illusory quality to them: resembling architectural models, these buildings filled the viewer with a deceptive sense of towering over what in reality are massive edifices. The sublime does not merely overwhelm with its immensity but can also mock the imagination with its brevity.
Madan Mahatta, who died this morning at the age of 82, was the photographer responsible for making these images. Belonging to the family that owns Mahatta Studios, one of the oldest and best-known photographic studios in New Delhi’s Connaught Place, he was a pioneer among photographers in modern India. Part of the generation that included Homai Vyarawala, Sunil Janah and Kulwant Roy, all of whom are dead, Mahatta was an exception, in that he formally studied the medium in England when photography was very much an art of trial and error. Although his interests were richly varied, ranging from portraiture to culture, it was for his architectural photography that Mahatta became most famous.
Although revered among fellow photographers for much of his life, Mahatta’s work was presented to the public in a major way by an exhibition curated by artist Ram Rahman at Photoink in 2012. A large part of the show focused on the photographs Mahatta had taken over the years of some of the most spectacular creations dotting the Indian capital made by leading architects such as Charles Correa, Achyut Kanvinde, Joseph Allen Stein (who designed the India International Centre), J.K. Chowdhury (responsible for the making of IIT Delhi) and Habib Rahman (Ram Rahman’s father), among others.
Most of these buildings, built between the 1950s and 1980s, epitomized the triumph of a certain spirit of high modernism peculiar to the Nehruvian era. Stark linearity, sharp angles and geometric elegance characterized these structures that stuck out like curiosities in their otherwise distinctly Indian surroundings. Putting utilitarianism, a classical purity, and a cold precision at the heart of their enterprise, these visionary designers transformed Indian cities into spaces with a distinctive national as well as cosmopolitan character. For this reason, Mahatta’s images are not just simple aesthetic documents but also the archives of an era, repositories of cultural, political and sociological memory. Somewhat shockingly, these images show us the extent to which ideas of urban space in India have moved on from the original vision of the founders of the country.
Mahatta’s great gift was his ability to capture wide angle shots that conveyed the scale of these creations with a chilling exactitude, while also evoking powerful emotions, chiefly of humility and emptiness, in the viewer. This effect is reminiscent of a European tradition of photography, focusing particularly on industrial and urban imagery. The water towers and factories in Germany photographed by Bernd and Hilla Becher, or the aerial imagery of Andreas Gursky, are some of the obvious influences on Mahatta’s stark meditations on form and light. Like these masters of modern photography, Mahatta’s interest was in the poetics of absence—the possibility of evoking the most intense emotions out of compositions that seemed to have been bleached of every feeling.
In an essay on Mahatta’s work that accompanied the 2012 exhibition, Rahman had referred to great architect Le Corbusier’s remark that “architecture is the masterly, correct, and magnificent play of masses brought together in light”, before relating it to the architectural photographer Eric de Mare’s description of photography as “building with light.” Mahatta’s own work was, to a large extent, an elaboration of these two observations.
A fortnightly look at the world of art, from close and afar.