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Sooni Taraporevala (Sooni Taraporevala)
Sooni Taraporevala
(Sooni Taraporevala)

EYE SPY: Portraits of two people

The Sidis and the Parsis of India are captured in a pair of riveting shows at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi

The National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi is hosting two fascinating shows, by Ketaki Sheth and Sooni Taraporevala respectively, as part of the Delhi Photo Festival 2013.

Sheth’s work, called “A Certain Grace", documents the lives of the Sidis, Indians of African descent, living in India. In her signature style, the photographs are black-and-white, stark, with striking faces staring out of the frames. If the note at the beginning of the show did not clarify the identity and geographical location of these people, they could well have been mistaken for living in any impoverished African country rather than India. So it is the knowledge of the Sidis’ unique situation, of living permanently on the cusp of cultures, that makes Sheth’s work not just intriguing and absorbing but also an invaluable anthropological record.

At the same time, the constant awareness of the singularity of this diminishing group of people (a few thousand Sidis remain in India) in the minds of the maker and the viewer of these images can prove to be counterproductive. As I moved among Sheth’s portraits, I found myself becoming acutely alert to the fact of witnessing something rare, to the extent that I started feeling hesitant about looking at the photographs aesthetically, as objects that demand to be seen in the context of an artist’s practice.

Sheth’s work, especially when she captures her subjects in a natural setting, is piercingly sad and lyrical, but never sufficiently recognizable to not slip into the exotic mode. She writes about the difficulty of trying, first, to gain access to the Sidis, and then, to make them appear relaxed and candid before the camera. Although a number of her subjects are anything but self-consciousness, some of them appear distant and unyielding. There are bursts of warmth and generosity in Sheth’s series interrupted by compositions that seem to stare back at the viewer blankly, with nothing but their still surfaces to offer.

In contrast, Taraporevala’s work brims over with life, maybe because she is much more at ease photographing a community—the Parsis—she has grown up in. There is humour, irony and affection in the way her camera takes in people and places, often revisiting the same subject after a long interval, and teasing the viewer with narrative possibilities. The title of the show, Through A Lens, By A Mirror The Parsis 1977 – 2013, positions Taraporevala not just as an insider who is merely interested in seeing her life reflected in a mirror but rather also an outsider who wants to survey the familiar contours of her existence through the unsparing, and sometimes unkind, eye of the camera.

Clearly, this is work that has grown over the years, through long intimacy with the subjects; its flamboyant charm has been enhanced by familiarity. In spite of some stock images of eccentric-looking elderly ladies and gentlemen, or of people celebrating Navroze, Taraporevala’s work stands out for its affinity with not just documentary photography but with the kind of portraiture that negotiates a more slippery terrain—that of fiction.

Standing before her diptyches—especially of the one depicting a corner shop-owner at two stages of his life, separated by several years—I found myself noticing the minute changes that have taken place in the contents on the shelves. Some brands have disappeared, new ones have been added. The owner, though equally handsome in youth and middle age, stands behind the counter in exactly the same way he did a more than a decade ago. There is a fleeting comfort in his poise, a shallow promise of constancy, before the eye is drawn to his receding hairline and wrinkled skin, and other unmistakable signs of mortal fragility.

A Certain Grace The Sidi: Indians Of African Descent by Ketaki Sheth and Through A Lens, By A Mirror The Parsis 1977 – 2013 by Sooni Taraporevala are on at the National Gallery of Modern Art, New Delhi, till 3 November, 11 am to 5 pm, except Mondays and national holidays.

A fortnightly look at the world of art from close and afar.

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