Chennai Photo Biennale (CPB) is remarkably only in its second edition but it has managed to scale up and focus on the important stuff which is often difficult with a team that’s not seasoned. And that's the beauty of this festival. A young team of photo enthusiasts and photographers, led by CPB Director Varun Gupta, came together because of their love of photography and their city, Chennai. Despite the continuous bombardment of images on our social media and smartphones, this Biennale urges you to unlearn whatever you know, you presume and understand about photography.
It not just celebrates contemporary photography but also helps you rediscover the glorious architecture of the erstwhile Madras Presidency that left behind an array of forgotten buildings in Chennai, most of them 200 years old. There is no better way to dip into the arts as well as heritage than to visit the ongoing Chennai Photo Biennale.
The Senate House right opposite the heavily visited Marina Beach is a quaint, often missed structure standing within the campus of University of Madras. Built in 1873, it is a prime example of the Indo-Saracenic style with a harmonious blend of Byzantine architecture but it opens its doors on very select occasions. So select that it is almost forgotten. Shuchi Kapoor, Founding Member, CPB, who was instrumental in getting permission for venues, says it took her one year to convince the authorities for a public show of this scale. It is within the walls of this vintage venue, with its stained glass arches and parquet floor that we see images of life today.
You are greeted by celebrated artist Atul Bhalla’s 20 feet long photo panels of extreme close-ups of glimpses of fishermen life. A maze of images of fishing nets, boats, houses and of course, fish. Nothing particularly original from a seasoned photographer but essentially made impressive by the size of the installation.
Walk down towards the end of this hall, and Anshika Varma, curator of the project called Offset Pitara, talks about the lesser addressed cause of ‘photo books’. India’s publishing industry of coffee table and photo books is relatively new. Perhaps just two decades old. So let’s understand this concept better. Put on your rubber gloves to approach these photo books. “It requires a certain understanding of photography because to understand one image you need to understand what goes before and what goes after, what is the font that someone has played with, what is the size of the book etc. Like you have this book at the exhibition by Adil Hasan ‘When Abba Was Ill’. It’s a small book, the images are smaller with in it, there’s a lot of breathing space around. The minute you hold the book, it almost asks you for a certain nature of intimacy. These are nuances that we don’t really end up understanding because we’re never really given space to sit with a photo book,” explains Varma.
Political photo journalist essays are often seen as a powerful tool to give you a peak into the lives of people, of protests, of atrocities, of unmet demands, discrimination and state excesses. However, here you will witness photography becoming a crusader for saving the printed word. The 200-year-old Madras Literary Society (MLS) is currently witnessing a reluctant revival as a lending library. The lesser known sister of the grand Connemara Public Library. But for the Biennale, the MLS works well as a venue in showcasing the tragic circumstances under which books are rotting, withering away to the digital era and the shelves are emptying out.
Canadian artist Angela Grauerholz says, “It’s actually the ideal place for me because I am really interested in books and book making. I was told that since we can’t use the heritage walls for hanging our pictures, we decided to showcase my work in a specially bounded large book. I made books of two bodies of my work.”
Each book is a size of about 3 X 2 feet. The first book bears images from her own personal library which accidentally burnt down, evoking the loss of books which once gave her happiness but now survive only as remnants ready to dissolve into ash if she attempted to open them again. The second book has images of empty shelves, almost reminiscent of empty coffins, signifying the death of libraries.
The lens has always helped in capturing details missed by the naked eye. Vijay Jodha chooses to use this power of the camera in better understanding the plight of farmers and why they commit suicide. What are they always crying about? Why are they always protesting? Can they really be that sad? Most of these questioned answered in the portraits of their grieving family. “When you go out to shoot celebrities, you make sure to shoot their details. Their skin tone, the texture of their clothes. But when you shoot ordinary lives, farmers, riot victims, we put them in a bunch. We don't bother about their details. So when I was doing this project the idea was to restore that individuality," explains Jodha.
There is also an element of adding layers to existing images. Manit Sriwanichpoom from Thailand revisits old images to reinterpret violence by the state. He has used images of how Thai forces had brutalized their own people who were fighting for democracy. This brutality is further highlighted by Manit placing a performance actor in the scene, shown smiling and mocking the hurt, wearing a bright pink happy looking tuxedo. He calls it ‘Horror in Pink’. The irony leaves you devastated.
“My series is reflecting how the ruling authority tries to hide information from the public. So if they can control the narrative it means that they control the power. That is why most governments don’t want the real truth to be exposed to the people. And when the people don’t know about the real situation they can be easily manipulated," say Manit. This work was made by him in 2001 but he strongly feels this stands relevant even today, wherever democracy is being silenced.
But not everything is as grim at the biennale. Photography as crusader can be light-hearted too. Former traffic cop turned artist who goes by the name Cop Shiva finds inspiration in a performance artist's consistent act of dressing up as the legendary actor-politician MGR. "This actor Vidyasagar, lived like MGR everyday for almost 47 years. So for me he is a common man who lived an extraordinary life. People think he is crazy but his dedication is amazing. We pay money to go to the theatre but here is a man who is performing for free every single day."
In exactly the same manner, the ongoing CPB offers you creative imagery at display from 50 artists from 13 countries, absolutely free. A life changing experience to open your eyes to the world.
Sahar Zaman is an independent arts journalist, political newscaster and curator. More on her work at www.saharzaman.com