Tarun Das and Aniruddha Mukherjee worked as a team in advertising for many years and now run an ad agency, Oxygen Communications, together. They realized that the affinity they shared at work extended to the photographs they took in their off-hours. “There was a synergy between our works, so we decided to integrate it,” says Mukherjee.
Twilight years:(from left) A sadhu in Vrindavan, by Aniruddha Mukherjee; and two men in Beijing, by Tarun Das.
Some of the similarities in their photos, going on display at the Alliance Française, New Delhi, on 25 June, are obvious right away. With a couple of exceptions, they are all black and white portraits of old men and women, and the mood and tone of the images reinforce the fact that the subjects are in the twilight of their lives. While none of the subjects look obviously unhappy, the absence of any hint of joy seems to define them.
The similarities between the two sets of photos become all the more striking when one considers that all of Das’ portraits were taken in various cities of China over a two-month period in 2004, whereas Mukherjee has taken his pictures in temple towns of north India—such as Vrindavan, Haridwar, Omkareshwar and Varanasi.
“Characters become more interesting when they are slightly mature,” says Das, explaining why his subjects are elderly. “The elements of a portrait become more interesting with age.” Mukherjee says that he likes to visit temple towns and a majority of the pilgrims as well as many permanent residents there tend to be old. “We have the concept of vanaprastha—after a certain age, people move away from being actively social,” he explains. “They wind up their family obligations and visit holy places.”
Mukherjee likes to talk with the people he photographs, and points out that usually the pilgrims tend to be poor. “They come and camp by the Ganga, manage to cook something and head back in a day or two,” he says. And, it seems, they all have a story to tell. Mukherjee says he is often struck by how evolved their ideas are, grounded in the Hindu tradition and epics such as the Mahabharat, the Puranas and stories from the life of Krishna. His regular visits to these temple towns with the camera are a way to get away from the city and connect with what he calls the “rural, agrarian core of India”.
While interacting with his subjects is integral to Mukherjee’s work, Das prefers taking pictures of subjects without their knowledge. Das first travelled to China on work and, fascinated, decided to go there on his own again. His photos have been taken in Lhasa, and in Shanghai, Beijing, Shenzhen and other Chinese cities. There are also photos of Tibetan monks taken in Dharamsala and Mcleodganj in Himachal Pradesh.
“Aniruddha uses a close range lens, so the subject is conscious of being photographed,” he says. “I use a telephoto lens. I see myself as a witness, and getting the right shot as mostly serendipity. I am lucky to be at the right place at the right time.”
Both use conventional film cameras and black and white film. “There is nothing you can correct in film. So there is a certain tension when you are shooting,” says Mukherjee. “And there is excitement when the image develops. You don’t know what you have.” Das points out that the digital format captures more detail and colour photographs “speak more”. “So nothing is left to the imagination,” he says. “There is mystery in black and white about what is left unsaid.”
Faces in the Ground Clouds at Galerie Romain Rolland, Alliance Française de Delhi, New Delhi, from 25-29 June.