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Airavat: An elephant's eyes

To celebrate the grandeur of our national treasure - the Asian Elephant - an exhibition by Bandeep Singh was organised at IGNCA. Singh has been doing photography and design for more than two decades

Airavat: An elephants eyes

Dr Alka Pande is more than a curator, more than a critic, more than the spine and force behind Delhi's most popular exhibition space The Visual Arts Gallery at IHC. At the newly curated epic exhibition of Gaj Mahotsav at the IGNCA, she goes beyond convention to present a quartet of photographs by the giant Bandeep Singh who has been doing photography and design for more than two decades.

Singh's quartet of four elephant images are called 'Airavat' and he gives MP an exclusive. "These are a part of a larger body of work I am working on. I am working on a personal project photographing captive wild animals in a manner we photograph people. These are portraits done with studio lighting and are shot on locations where the animals are held captive," says Singh.

"The dominant imagery about wildlife consists romanticised photographs of wild animals shot in idyllic surroundings. While this creates majestic images and shows wildlife in its natural grandeur, however a surfeit of such imagery over time subconsciously creates and perpetuates the myth that all is well and that nature abounds with wildlife. On the other hand, news images of poaching and animal deaths due to human negligence are so gruesome and graphics that we deliberately explain them away from our minds. We choose to see them as tragic images that are sad but 'don't concern us'. Nothing sticks and punctures our consciousness," he adds.

For Singh, the core idea behind this work is to break the pattern of imagery that surrounds wildlife. This is to show animals with the tools and the visual language we showcase humans and in the process disrupt the blindness of routine of idyllic images. Singh also clarifies that this is not to be critical of wildlife imagery or news imagery but to open another door to see the predicament of animals.

"There is a whole range of human issues that need to be addressed before we even arrive at doing something for the animals," states Singh.

Explaining the technique of freezing the frame on these magnificent creatures Singh elucidates. "When I was shooting the elephants on the bank of Yamuna, I had placed a couple of strobe lights around the animal. The moment the lights flashed they not just lit up the elephants but all the mosquitoes and insects in the air around them. While processing the images, I saw these lit insects as stars around the elephant. The white dots of skin pigmentation on the elephant lit up as constellations."

"I worked with this metaphor – a cosmic elephant – Airavat. The technique I used was to process the white areas of the image separately to heighten the white. The black of the elephant was subdued to merge with the dark. Both were then combined to print the final images."

Singh's quartet of works helps us to understand that elephants need to be sanctified and venerated rather than abused and used as beasts of burden like they are done in places like Rajasthan and even the temples in Kerala where they are chained for years if not months while being used for trials and relics.

While the WWF is looking at important progressives in the care and habitation of wildlife India's elephants have a top priority in terms of the cruelty they have borne in the hands of humanity. In more ways than one, these portraits reminded me of Sebastian Salgado who said "But I tell you, for me, each photographer brings his own light from when he was a kid – in this fraction of a second when you freeze reality, you also freeze all this background. You materialize who you are."

Singh's images probe questions of kindness and cruelty as a double-edged sword and we recall Salgado's famous lessons to photographers.

"This is why if you give the same camera to two different people and ask them to shoot the same scene, something different will always emerge. Personality seeps into the mechanism. Magical thinking maybe, but true."

Uma Nair

Uma Nair

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