The year was 2006. In Mumbai, the F Award for photography were being announced. There were five nominees for the fashion photographer of the year category: Prabuddha Dasgupta, Bharat Sikka, Tarun Khiwal, Tejal Patni and Prasad Nayak. Khiwal won the award but as he went up on stage he said something that became the buzz of the award party afterwards. “This award is dedicated to Prabuddha, because we’re all from Prabuddha’s school of photography,” Khiwal recalls having said, his voice shaking, hours after attending Dasgupta’s cremation this week. “Everyone there was touched by him in some way,” he says.
It was the “Prabuddha School of Photography”: Sikka had assisted him for years; Patni had worked under him; Nayak in turn had assisted Patni. As for Khiwal, “photography itself changed” in the years he spent working with Dasgupta.
“In 1993, I was trying to find my feet in photography and getting hassled at how it all seemed to be about grand equipment and scale; it was Prabuddha who told me to just pick up a small camera and start; ‘don’t use mega equipment,’ he said. That’s what he did anyway,” says Khiwal, who worked under Dasgupta from 1994-96, and kept going back to work with him for short spans for many years thereafter, the latest being 2009. “He made me understand that photography isn’t about fancy equipment, but about being simple, about allowing things to happen, instead of unnecessarily staging, directing or pumping music into the shoot,” says Khiwal.
It was this “allowing things to happen” idiom that got him the master shot for a Suneet Varma fashion shoot: an eyebrowcocked, legs-crossed Feroze Gujral, a photo that won him the Yves Saint Laurent grant for photography to Paris in 1991. Gujral recalls another shoot she did with him around 2000, when Dasgupta didn’t even look into his camera. “The shoots involved having me on the floor. He just sat down, put his camera on his lap and kept clicking, without even looking at the camera. Because for him, he was the eye, not the camera,” she says.
Dasgupta’s art didn’t simply touch those that worked with him, but also young photographers all over the country, who would write to him, share photos with him, and never be disappointed, says his friend Abhishek Poddar, founder of the Tasveer photography gallery in Bangalore. “He was always respectful and encouraging of people’s work, and had the time for younger artists and would always give them ideas on how they could tweak their work. He would give them honest feedback, without being overbearing. Photographers like Vidura Jang Bahadur, Sohrab Hura, Ryan Lobo, Faisal Das, who are our young stars today, were all in touch with him about their work,” says Poddar. In fact, it was this desire to help and promote young photographers that gave birth to Tasveer, a gallery that promotes photographs that aren’t “necessarily commercial, or pretty, but are reportage, and a high quality of work”.
“Tasveer was a germ of an idea in my head but it was given shape and structure by Prabuddha. We started talking about the Indian art scene and felt that there were so many good photographers but nothing was being done about it. I wanted to have a photo gallery and he gave me the real push and said this is something I’ve wanted to do forever, but I can live my dream through you. We decided the premise of Tasveer, got together a selection of names—most of them being people he knew; we pretty much agreed on most things. The agreement was simple, he had the advantage of my infrastructure, I had that of his mentorship,” says Poddar.
Ironically, the man who mentored so many people was self taught. “He belonged to the classic school of photographers, like the French master Henri Cartier- Bresson, who were all about natural light, and didn’t worry about technicalities like light meters and so on. He was simply in pursuit of beauty. For him beauty was about purity, and he could find beauty in anything,” says Gujral.
His pursuit of beauty is revealing in the juxtaposition of former model Madhu Sapre with actor Zohra Sehgal in Women (1996); the sensual blurred images of his Longing series, the stellar landscapes of Ladakh (2000), and the deeply personal portraits of the Catholic community in Goa in Edge of Faith (2009), his last book.“The book was very different from the sort of work he’s associated with. It was about old people, old ways and fading traditions. He was also greatly into socio-realism, and had a wider range than people realized,” says writer and historian William Dalrymple, who worked with Dasgupta on the book. “He was a man of few words, not Samuel Johnson that you felt you had to write down everything he said,” says Dalrymple.
The silence was integral to Dasgupta’s work, says Khiwal, because it was something he used to his advantage. “He was so in sync with the energy of the place. How many photos he could take of that one model, sitting against that window, with light streaming in? He could do it over and over again and still extract something out of it. It’s like he was tapping the silence, and the energy of that place. It is this silence, the stillness, you see in his works, which talks,” he says.