If photographers today wish to cover an age-old festival popular in a remote village, all they need to do is google for details. Date, place, time, schedule, it’s all listed on the well-designed website. Camera bag and lens in order, they set off to reach the place swarming with photographers from across the region, country and beyond. And so, to think of a time not so long ago when a passionate photographer wanted to cover a festival, and so packed his bags and reached destination after a long winding journey, but realised the festival is over, sounds unbelievable and indeed ancient. “But it has happened with me. I went to photograph a festival and learnt that it was over…that’s because we did not have the internet to turn to around 20 years ago or surf the latest update on an event. Life’s changed so much since then,” exclaims Vivek Desai, avid photographer and managing trustee at Navjivan Trust.
The 49-year-old has had the good fate of experiencing photography when camera rolls were as precious as hard drives and compact discs now are. “I started my career in Kutch in 1992. I love the socio-cultural fabric of the place and the changes it undergoes from time to time. From houses and people to lifestyle and embroidery, everything’s got an interesting history. Back then, one would often hear of people visiting Rajasthan, a tourist’s delight. Why not Kutch, I would wonder,” says Vivek, continuing, “I remember going on the camel to remote areas. There were challenges, too, but I would somehow make it. I’d take lifts from foreign tourists and get off at remote places, then take photographs, stay with the tribals, eat and converse with them. After a few days, I would return home in a tractor or bus. There’s much I learnt of their emotions and life in my various trips to that land.” One thing that bothers him is photographers cribbing about the changes that Kutch and its festivals, dresses and jewellery have had lately. “Why not delve in to their emotions instead…on life there, on how they feel, their work or livelihood. Everything around us is changing, be it in dress or lifestyle, how then are we to imagine they would stay stuck in a different era?” he avers.
Aware of the number and kind of awards remote places and people fetch a photographer, Vivek offers a poignant case in point. “At times a beggar could get you a gold medal in a world photography competition. You win accolades but what about the beggar? Does he not deserve a few minutes, perhaps some chat or some snack with you? My idea would be to understand and touch the lives of people I photograph. I don’t just consider a good photo opportunity, I look beyond – the life before and after of those I capture. The big picture and story behind the captured moment interests me.”
People, nature, festivals, sadhus, Kutch, Benaras, these elements and subjects have been recurrent in Vivek’s theme bag. And, his photography projects are individual stories of learning by themselves. Before I ask for an example, he shares, “I had stayed with Naga sadhus for about 10 days in 2007. And guess what, they have as many as 250 sects within!” Vivek also specifies his inclination in capturing things that are on verge of extinction, which is what gave rise to his latest work, a book – Moving Entertainment. “It is a book on circus, magicians, etc…I truly believe photography should have human interest for generations to come. And, most importantly, pictures must capture beyond what is already visible, they must create to tell a story. Why photograph the Taj Mahal, for example? It is Shahjahan’s creation and is already very beautiful. If you must, then look beyond what is already seen, the angles, section views, etc,” says Vivek, who has just completed 25 years in photography this year. “Although since last five years I have been dividing my time between photography and managing the trust’s activities. When I had come here, there was only a printing press,” he says of “the only Gandhian trust that does not accept any donation from outside”. “The trust runs on income generated through books and rent from banks and government organisations running from the premises. But there have been interesting additions to this place in the last couple of years. We wanted art lovers to come, connect and interact with this space and that is how Satya Art Gallery came in to being. And because the food isn’t normally available at art gallery spaces, we started Karma Cafe where organic food is the focus,” shares the artiste-connoisseur who recently added a khadi store to the premise, Swatva, keeping Gandhi’s gram swaraj in mind.
Having studied Journalism from Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan in Mumbai followed by a Masters from Gujarat Vidyapith, Vivek worked as a reporter for a few newspapers in his early 20s. “I was always inclined to photography but didn’t think of it as a career. Back then, in my generation, I was perhaps the only photographer who was clear about not doing wedding photography; instead, I somehow wanted to contribute to society which I subsequently did,” he says. From press reporting and working on photography projects for NGOs to creating photo essays for airline agencies, government organisations and travel magazines, Vivek has had his hands full.
A word of caution for the young: “Do not copy anybody. Everyone wants to be a street photographer but be careful to select a subject. You cannot be fully involved unless you do that.” And then, haven’t we often heard – pictures are for posterity.
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