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A man stands shielding his face with a board as a dog turns back to look at him from a few feet away. Both of them are framed by rocky and desolate terrain. The air of solitude and enigma that surrounds this composition is intrinsic to artist Bharat Sikka’s ongoing series, The Sapper, currently showing on Nature Morte gallery’s online viewing room. The VR platform, a timely intervention to cope with the closures forced by the pandemic, adds to the mystique of the work, allowing the viewer to zoom in or look from afar. Distance and proximity illuminate the meaning of this body of images—as a measure of the closeness and gulf between parent and adult child, past and present, fiction and fact.

For Sikka , the series began with a simple urge—to rediscover, as an adult, his father, who had worked all his life as a sapper (an employee entrusted with engineering duties) with the Indian Army. Posted to far-flung regions, he was away for much of Sikka’s childhood and growing years. The boy never had a real sense of his largely absent parent—who he was and what he did—and this gap in understanding lends a soft romantic quality to the adult Sikka’s vision of the project. “The Sapper was more about my father and the state of his mind," Sikka says on email, “but in the process, I did feel nostalgic about certain things and places, which took me back in time." Our parents are other people but also those who make us who we are—there’s no escaping this double bind.

An image from ‘The Sapper’ series by Bharat Sikka.
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An image from ‘The Sapper’ series by Bharat Sikka. (Courtesy Nature Morte)


The series is far from an exercise in portraiture alone, though portraits vividly define its narrative arc—the one of Sikka’s father dancing by himself, with his eyes closed, is a classic. But gradually his corporeal presence gets rarefied, encapsulated in mementos. An archival photograph of a bungalow is spliced into two by a wooden frame. A close-up of the palm of a hand is juxtaposed alongside a glove resting on a thorny shrub. A glass filled with a drink empties out sip by sip, through nine panels, until nothing remains. The trappings of documentary photography become charged by a performative impulse. Seen together, these visual languages form a poetic synergy—one quirky, the other bound by convention.

Although The Sapper is mediated through Sikka’s adult eyes, there are vestiges of childlike awe and wonder in the images—as well as a strain of elegy. The frailty of the body, the ebbing away of life force and the sense of an ineffable solitude haunt the work. Sikka has spoken of the American painter Edward Hopper as one of his early influences. A chronicler of urban loneliness, Hopper created poetry out of empty streets, rooms and bars, usually featuring a single brooding figure. Sikka’s focus on his father has a similar thrust. Contrary to the public’s perception of army life as being gregarious, filled with camaraderie and hot-blooded masculine energy, we see an ex-army man, isolated and standing apart.

“It’s ironic that my father was never happy in the army. He was much too expansive for such a life," Sikka says. “But because he spent so much time in the job, it became a part of him." The collaboration between father and son alerts the viewer to the dynamics between the profession and the person, but ultimately “he is the protagonist and this is his story", Sikka says. “We discussed many ideas, had many conversations—about feelings, memory and perception—which are interpreted in the photographs."

The sense of a scripted story is palpable in The Sapper, even though Sikka doesn’t make it easy for the viewer to parse the visual montage. Instead of staying with the direct appeal of portraiture, he likes to add layers. “I work on images," he says, “photography is just the tool or the raw material." Much of his work is planned and executed with precision, instead of being left to chance and candid shots.

“I often think about how I am going to photograph, I make notes, draw sketches, make mood boards, research and, most of all, think about what I want to say, before I venture into taking the actual photograph, and then the impulse and the unintentional happen," Sikka adds. “This is where the lines of the performative and documentary get merged."

Although photography is already used as a scaffolding for ideas, the pandemic, which has forced people to stay home and restricted travel, may deepen its language and uses further. “I use photographs like writing material, and good handwriting does not mean good writing," as Sikka says. “Similarly, beautiful-looking images don’t mean good photography or art, it’s the feeling, what you are saying and how you are saying it, that matters."

The Sapper is on display till 5 August. Visit www.viewingroom.naturemorte.com/bharatsikka

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