Photo: Rohit Chawla
Photo: Rohit Chawla

Goa’s Gypsy Pilgrims

A new photo exhibition by Rohit Chawla inverts the Western stereotypical gaze of the Orient by focusing on the ‘exotic nomads’ who descend on Goa every winter

The images currently on display at The Project Cafe, Assagao, pulsate with a raw, edgy sensuality. One, for instance, features a man with dreadlocks intertwined with feathers. Another one features a mother-daughter duo, with the former dressed in a vibrant flamenco-style, two-layered skirt. With their hair adorned with flowers, both mother and daughter look directly into the camera—their gaze confident and almost fierce. Another set of images features a young boy and a heavily tattooed couple, with loops dangling from their ears. Each portrait makes a distinctive fashion statement offering a peek into the subject’s personality.

These “unstyled" and “unchoreographed" images form part of photographer Rohit Chawla’s continuing series Goa Style, which he has been working on since 2013. It etches quite a portrait of the “global nomads", as he calls them, who descend on Goa every winter. In fact, he attributes the mystique created around the sunshine state to these flower children and hippies, who started visiting Goa in the 1970s. “At a time when I was growing up with a very insular and conventional mindset of sorts, they made an uncensored, liberated and bold statement—something that continues to date," says Chawla, who is showing these photographs in Goa for the first time. These will also be part of a book being published by Mapin.

Rohit Chawla
Rohit Chawla

The series seems in sync with the style of photography practised by Richard Avedon, who is known for iconic natural images of personalities like Audrey Hepburn, The Beatles and Marilyn Monroe. “(Rohit) unveils moments that capture his muses in their deportment of fierce, unaffected pride. Like Avedon, he is interested in how portraiture captures the personality and soul of its subject," writes Priyanka Mathew, former regional director, Sotheby’s India, in response to the series. Chawla feels this is only natural, given that he loves the Avedon school of photography and feels fortunate to have assisted him briefly on one of his trips to the Kumbh Mela in the early 1990s. “It’s not about shooting ‘hippies’. Rather, it’s about finding characters, whose fashion quotient is original and organic. There were no obligatory stylists and makeup artists for these photos—and this holds true for most of my portraits," he says.

Chawla likes the textures that the portraits bring out, especially of the weathered skin, unaccustomed to photography studios and completely bereft of make-up at times.

He finds his subjects in the most unexpected of places—from parties and coffee shops to supermarkets and streets. For instance, Chawla came across a couple on a motorcycle, with their child, on the street where he lives. The series also features an image of a man sporting a Conan the Barbarian look. Chawla met him at a café and asked him to come home for a shoot. “Imagine him landing up early one morning on a Vespa dressed in the same clothes, and my father-in-law opening the door equally nonchalantly," he says.

He takes these “nomads" out of the everyday tableau of life and photographs them against a simple white wall at his home in Assagao, Goa. The starkness highlights their unique style. Was it challenging to get strangers to pose for him? He maintains that the people who wear these clothes are very comfortable in their skin. “They are very inward-looking people and completely at ease with themselves," Chawla says.

This is not the first time that one has seen him work with austere backgrounds. For his series Wanderlust, which started in 2004, he would travel to Gujarat, set up a white background and then shoot members of the Rabari nomadic tribe, creating the same minimalism.

Projects such as Goa Style have their roots in a sense of fatigue with foreign photographers making a beeline to India in search of the “exotic", and doing endless shoots of the Naga sadhus. According to Chawla, he has tried inverting the stereotypical Western gaze of the Orient on its head in this series by deliberately shifting the gaze to the “exotic nomads" coming to live in Goa. He feels this also stems from the fact that he comes from the world of advertising where every-thing is, “at best, a beautiful lie". “I got tired of doing shoots where a stylist and an army of 20 people would create a synthetic reality bereft of any soul," he says. “However, in the Goa Style series, there are no lights, no props, no over-the-top sets. There are just those elusive 5 minutes, the subjects and me, some silence and maybe a beautiful truth."

Photo: Rohit Chawla
Photo: Rohit Chawla
Photo: Rohit Chawla
Photo: Rohit Chawla
Photo: Rohit Chawla
Photo: Rohit Chawla
Photo: Rohit Chawla
Photo: Rohit Chawla
Photo: Rohit Chawla
Photo: Rohit Chawla
Photo: Rohit Chawla
Photo: Rohit Chawla
Photo: Rohit Chawla
Photo: Rohit Chawla


Goa Style is on view at The Project Cafe, Goa, till 1 February.

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