BORN TO BLUSH UNSEEN
The New Yorker's story on Arundhati Roy's new book is accompanied by a stunning portrait of the author Roy. Standing against a backdrop of nature's tranquil trees and bushes Roy seems framed against a narrative of elegiac melancholia, a bohemian empress wearing her aura of metaphoric evolution with a rare grace and consummate femininity. The credit line reads: Bharat Sikka. The other photographs in the story focus on books in her home and give us an idea of the epicurean eye that Sikka has when he commences an assignment. He also understands the impact of still lifes and hunts for pockets of literature in Roy's home that brims over with books.
Three weeks ago Sikka finished an epic show of photographs taken over 4 years in Kashmir entitled 'Where the Flowers Still Grow' at Nature Morte in Delhi.
Nature Morte's Peter Nagy writes in his curatorial note, "The central core of 'Where the Flowers Still Grow' is comprised of portraits, predominantly young men shot alone within the colossal grandeur of an unspoiled Nature, which seems to know nothing of national borders and political rivalries."
Portraits of Pathos
Peter's words become the edifice of an exploration. The mood is a mingling of bravura and gravitas. There are portraits of somber looking men juxtaposed against pristine places where the hills come alive with the voice of history in the silence of the stones and boulders that dot the landscape. Astride on their hillside horses or just standing, there is a pathos in their gaze as Sikka's frames encapsulate moments that mirror their own memories in the face of the past present scenarios. In an age of Photoshop curiosities Sikka's honesty becomes his trump card.
Although Sikka's purpose as a photographer and the subjects of his suite are serious, he mixes the naturality of their habitat with an effective elegance. In the single image of the youth standing amidst the pebbles with the little brook running, Sikka proves he has the power to invest a dense narrative, the untouched beauty of Kashmir's rural idyll with the highest seriousness. His eagle eye of experience is the armour of a superlatively sensitive mind staving off political oppression. Nature is an instrument of survival in these works, it is the chief weapon in a poetic arsenal of photography which serves as a caretaker for the individual identity, a bulwark against the mental slavery of the vagaries of terrorism and the state.
Apertures of light
Sikka's images offer a few perspectives of doors and windows – the darkness is subliminal. The proximity of shooting from inner realms to outer skylight presents grades of wooden ruins as well as darker fragments of decadence laced with utilitarian agedness. His insight into the latitude of light's refractive indices is a summary of his learning.
One image of a cloth draped on a window suggests seductive allusions in the hour of silence. In a subtle way Sikka contends that the lens of erosion reduces the glare of contemporary experience, placing it in a perspective that enables the hand behind the shutter to view spaces and places without losing their history and sense of solitary angst. The images of the doorways stark and surreal also point out how the difference in the inner and outer fragments liberate the still frames from the confines of particular historical events. At the same time the use of the eroded elements fleshes out the thin bones of death and destruction, making it soft and elegant, not obvious and heavy-handed.
Still lifes in a corner
The most stirring images are the singular still lifes - that seem to be sodden with tales of solitude and sorrow. The axe, the vessel, the bundled shawl and the wooden plank strike a surreal signature against the stone wall – it echoes the importance of the livelihood of humanity rather than utopian ideologies.
Sikka discovers in his images, traces of others and feels menaced by historical determinism, he has at the same time an acute awareness of the life of isolation . In his image of a single facet of a log cabin with different tonalities of wooden beams he stirs within us a feeling of great solidarity and compassion for the inhabitants.
This image of the log cabin is an invitation akin to a stream of consciousness that brings up detritus like an empty tin can thrown away after utility. Sikka through his images defines the elusive ethos of ordinariness, and builds upon its essence of ephemeral morality while not addressing condemnation.
Questions and ethics
Questions surge as we look at these sensitive portrayals, are we consistently applying ethics not only to action but to the possible, viable action of everyday life, taking human failings into account. These pictures are probing and humane in their approach, and they are embracing even as they remind us of a greater sense of contradictions. Sikka has an in depth capaciousness for abstract thought, he rejects dogmatism, in his observations and speaks not for himself but for humanity at large. He is representative; his images speak for many generations, he makes no historical and moral judgements.
Drawing from an aesthetic, philosophical position, Sikka unravels as a persona who shares his thoughts and probes the paradoxes of life, while he understands struggles. The show is Sikka's response to Mirza Waheed's elegiac novel 'The Collaborator', and it recalls that ageless Joan Baez song: Where have all the flowers gone, long time passing/where have all the flowers gone, long time ago… It also brings into light the words from Agha Shahid Ali's 'I See Kashmir From New Delhi At Midnight', "Don't tell my father I have died,' he says, and I follow him through blood on the road and hundreds of pairs of shoes the mourners left behind, as they ran from the funeral, victims of the firing. From windows we hear grieving mothers and snow begins to fall on us, like ash…"
What we are ultimately left with is Sikka's empathetic response to his visits to Kashmir, the residual evidence of trauma, mute witnesses where flowers were born to blush unseen, in a paradise that seems lost.
IMAGES-NATURE MORTE DELHI