From the outside, looking in

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Worlds apart Man asleep in front of political graffiti, Calcutta, c. 1978
Worlds apart Man asleep in front of political graffiti, Calcutta, c. 1978

A PHOTO archive translated into its own language could read a bit like a double exposure. The photograph is a repository of memory, the mirror of a moment, an archive in itself — just the looking makes it the thing. For his exhibition, The Calcutta Diaries, Pablo Bartholomew continues an endeavour to “map the complete body of work, to sift through it and understand what was done” and it’s the spirit of autobiographic excavation that gives the work its outline, separates it from a blur of indulgence and nostalgia.

Entering the dragon Danny and friend in front of a Bruce Lee poster, Tangra, Calcutta, c. 1978
Entering the dragon Danny and friend in front of a Bruce Lee poster, Tangra, Calcutta, c. 1978

The four distinct strands on display — the slow evisceration of the Hakka Chinese community in Tangra and Dhapa, pictures of Bartholomew’s grandmother, the skein that knit him to Calcutta, of his ambits on the streets, of Satyajit Ray on the sets of Shatranj Ke Khilari — are only loosely bound by time and space, but knotted in that perpetual hankering after identity and belonging. Bartholomew says he’s always been propelled by fundamental questions, “Who am I? What am I? Where am I?” The show concludes a trilogy that began with Outside In, A Tale of 3 Cities and Bombay: Chronicles of a Past Life; all are forays into penumbral places, where shadowed selves can be reclaimed. He has always felt an outsider. Born of a Burmese father and Bengali/Punjabi mother, his ethnicity and name marked him, his upbringing perhaps more so. The household he was raised in was aesthetically evolved, at a remove from the “little village that Delhi was then”. His father Richard Bartholomew’s criticism was integral to progressing India’s modern art movement. His own recent work, street photography in Leicester of the migrant Indian community there, could be a rephrasing of his three basic questions.

His prolific photojournalism, which he terms ‘fast photography’, is an outcome of a significa nt emotional investment

My first run-in with his photography was fittingly, via an archival undertaking. To commemorate an anniversary of a magazine, I pored through grainy, crepuscular images of pages already degraded by the elements, the grim entail of an ill-conceived and ultimately abandoned ‘then and now’ project. Yet Pablo’s portentously, somewhat Paulo Coelho-ishly titled work, Time is the Mercy of Eternity, recompensed for all the eye strain and unfruitful labour. The pictures of a Dutch morphine addict were so glamorous, so ingenuous, her rituals with syringe and spoon so deeply religious, I was smacked out of my complacence about drugs and their decadence. “I’ve always been attracted to people and places on the edge,” he says. The 1975 photo essay didn’t manufacture age and wisdom with filters. It focussed instead on a novel idea that margins aren’t inhabited solely by misfits; they could be stepped into by choice. Given the darkness of his subject, it was a curiously refreshing take.

Old-world charm Pablo Bartholomew’s grandmother in her front yard, Calcutta, c. 1978
Old-world charm Pablo Bartholomew’s grandmother in her front yard, Calcutta, c. 1978

Pablo won the World Press Photo award for that essay, and suddenly he was appropriated by the principal of the high school he’d been thrown out of, as a luminous example of “making it on your own,” he says. Even as he resists the slots, boxes and pigeonholes, that whole series of once innocuous words now serried as an assault on the creative temperament, he quite willingly accepts the label of loner, professing a “great liberation in being a one-man band”. Though awards can efface a photographer’s invisibility, he determinedly donned his dark focus hood and retreated behind his trusty lens. It’s been his recourse, a perpetual return of sorts, “more automatic than systematic.”

Pablo Bartholomew’s photographs are forays into penumbral places where shadowed selves can be reclaimed

Pablo isn’t fussed about automatic getting conflated with unthinking. What he terms “fast photography”, his prolific and feted photojournalism that also paid the bills, is still an outcome of a significant emotional investment. He has withdrawn from it since the global media slowdown, which doesn’t any longer, he opines, offer enough sustenance to create the iconic image. He takes solace now in sewing up ‘short stories’, some of which were drafted long ago in Calcutta, and others which he continues to craft.

At the Art Heritage Gallery, Kolkata, from 21 December 2012

Aditi Saxton is Features Editor, Tehelka.
aditi@tehelka.com

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