That yawning stretch of white nothingness; picturesque white grains in a close-up; a picture of a makeshift electrical switchboard; women labourers in vibrant reds and magentas. Pictures of an India exotic enough to make the heart of any traveller flipping through Lonely Planet go pitter-patter, but photographer Shuchi Kapoor makes a slightly different point.
The Weight of White, the appropriately named photographic documentation of the lives of the residents of Kutch, highlights the uncommon—and uncommonly cruel—realities of the people who make common salt. The salt flats of Kutch, spread across close to 45,000 sq. km, are one of the largest sources of salt in the country, and arguably the most uninhabitable, topographically.
The idea came when Kapoor began to look at the story beyond the haunting beauty and mystique of the White Rann, at her own “home turf”, as the Ahmedabad-raised, Chennai-based photographer calls it. “Often the beauty of a place can cast a shadow on the real stories hiding in some far nook and corner,” says Kapoor, who recently released The Weight of White on her website Girl in the Galli (www.girlinthegalli.com). What she found was that beyond the glittering handicrafts of Bhuj, the lions of Gir, the striking salt flats, there was the story of people struggling for basic healthcare, education, electricity and transport.
Bare life: Many youngsters such as this young boy have little access to education and have to work at the salt pans with their families. Photo: Shuchi Kapoor
“Children are either packed off to nearby villages to attend school, some stay on with their parents and help make salt,” says Kapoor. The health facilities aren’t much to write home about, with no emergency services. The only mode of transport is salt-laden trucks, electricity is erratic, there are no refrigerators and certainly, no social life (every neighbour is miles away). The hardest, of course, is the work itself. “The production of salt itself is a physically challenging one because it must happen in the maximum heat in the open. You have to be there to understand the adverse effect of the glazing salt on the eyes, coupled with the heat and dust,” says Kapoor.
And so her photos stick truthfully to reportage, never once falling prey to “concoctions” or artistic pretensions. Each issue she talks about is documented in frames.
That there is no “social life” in this sparsely populated place—unthinkable in India—shows in the numerous images capturing the emptiness. One picture shows vast acres of an empty dusty landscape, with no humans. “One has tried to keep the simplicity, the minimalistic environment intact. It is quite challenging to actually shoot in a place that literally has nothing much to show. The nothingness of the place is daunting,” says Kapoor. And to show that was the point.