Photographs by Ashvin Mehta
Photographs by Ashvin Mehta

Ashvin Mehta: An unremembered master

One of India's most important photographers, died recently, unremembered by a society in the grip of collective amnesia

It is characteristic of the reclusive life he led that the passing of Ashvin Mehta over the past weekend has gone almost entirely unnoticed in the English press in India.

To its credit, the Gujarati daily Mumbai Samachar published a short piece and there may be others, but otherwise the man who was one of India’s most important photographers died as if unremembered and unlamented by a society with its obsession with the quotidian, revealing an ahistoric mind emptied by collective amnesia. I found out about his passing only after checking with his close family friends.

Oddly, Mehta would have liked such a departure, not troubling anyone too much. He had left Bombay, as the city was then known, in 1981, partly because he didn’t like the noise, chaos and bright lights. He settled in a cottage in the quiet coastal town of Tithal in Gujarat. There he lived close to nature.

Photo of Ashvin Mehta (inset) by Rajul Mehta
Photo of Ashvin Mehta (inset) by Rajul Mehta

Mehta didn’t describe himself as a photographer. For him, his art was incidental to celebrating life. He did not look at the world around him as if he might miss something to capture and preserve. There were no shots so great to be missed; if they were captured in the mind’s eye, that was satisfaction in itself, and there were always other landscapes waiting to be seen. But when a camera was at hand, he let life roll in on his lens, showing us new facets of the sea that surrounds us, the trees that give us shade, the grass that sways around us, the rocks which mutely watch empires rise and fall.

In one of our conversations a quarter century ago, he told me of his belief in formless divinity: “My nature photography is an attempt at his portrayal, and I succeed to the extent that I am able to capture the elements not merely as objects, but as his limbs."

In that, Mehta revealed a spirituality built on humility—recognizing the infinitesimally small role an individual plays in trying to shape nature.

He chuckled at the audacity of activism, but his lack of activism did not mean he did not care. Stones and rock formations, Himalayan peaks, windswept coasts—all took a new meaning in his photographs. I remember seeing his powerful black-and-white photographs of rock formations in the early 1980s. A Sanskrit invocation greeted visitors: Tani pashanakhandani mandanani tvanehasam, which meant, “those pieces of rocks are the ornaments of time." There was a surreal quality to them; reminding me of what Satyajit Ray had done more than a decade earlier with the rocks near Dubrajpur in his 1962 film, Abhijan (The Expedition).

For Mehta, abstract forms of nature had a life of their own. A bark of a tree, a leaf on a trail, the silhouette of grass, the sheer drop of a valley—all those took a sensuous form, as if they had become animated. In revering nature while shunning temples and idols, Mehta’s work acquired a philosophical outlook. He did with images what the English poet William Wordsworth had done with words in his poem Lines Written A Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey in 1798. Wordsworth described nature whose dwelling is:

The light of setting suns,

And the round ocean, and the living air,

And the blue sky, and the mind of man,

A motion and a spirit, that impels

All thinking things, all objects of all thought,

And rolls through all things.

Therefore am I still

A lover of the meadows and the woods,

And mountains; and of all that we behold

From this green earth; of all the mighty world

Of eye and ear, both what they half-create,

And what perceive; well pleased to recognise

In nature and the language of the sense

The anchor of my purest thoughts, the nurse,

The guide, the guardian of my heart, and soul

Of all my moral being.

Mehta personified such pantheism. In nature, Mehta saw a continuum, an alignment of humanity with eternity: there were enough abstractions and patterns in his photography to make us look for a meaning—mystical or real—but such explanations fell short of what the photographs conveyed. To borrow the title of one of his exhibitions, his photographs were the gifts of solitude he has left for us. They document what was visible but allowed us to contemplate the unseen. In that, to use the invocation for his show, Scattered Aeons, Mehta became an ornament of our time.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London.

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