Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Photographing the Neighbor and the Neighborhood: Alternative Art of Manoj Bharti Gupta

(Photography artist Manoj Bharti Gupta at his interactive studio in Kirti Nagar)

India Art Fair is a day away and many art galleries in Delhi are opening new shows in the hope of increased footfall and discerning eyeballs. Few have the balls this time to show extremely unconventional works in their galleries and perhaps this is one last time they could anticipate a new life for the Indian contemporary art in the market especially in a time when some of the major Indian galleries have decided to keep off from the eight edition of the India Art Fair (2016) for making gold in art fairs including Dhaka and Dubai. Far away from the madding and maddening crowds of the plush art openings, there at Kirti Nagar in West Delhi, at a park in an inconspicuous middle class housing colony namely Mansarovar Garden, B Block, an exhibition of photography titled ‘Padosi’ has just opened in the august presence of the people from the neighborhood. I travelled twenty two kilometers to reach there because I like the photography artist, Manoj Bharti Gupta who has initiated this neighborhood project and also has been taking photographs of lonely women in the metro stations.

(Padosi exhibition)

Kirti Nagar is famous for a different kind of art; the furniture art and the interior furnishing shops. Huge shops resembling malls sell expensive furniture and decorative items but none in the area seems to have cared to visit an art gallery in Delhi. Manoj Bharti Gupta says that just behind the glitter and glamour of these furniture shops there lies a long stretch of slums where young carpenter boys play cricket during the recess that they eke out from their working hours. “They make wonderful furniture for dirt cheap prices but none buys from them,” Manoj Bharti says pointing out his bookshelf in which he has tastefully kept his art book and literature collection. “This came for Rs.6000/- and the same is sold for Rs.25000/- in the showrooms in the same locality,” he smiles. It is from these ground realities that Manoj Bharti decided to initiate a project like ‘Padosi’ in his own colony.

 (viewers of Padosi exhibition)

Looking at these works hung from the makeshift frames made of bamboo poles and the sharp white light flooding on the photographic images, one would think how alternative could an alternative art practice be. Can it be stretched to this level so that the project gets no attention from those galleries and community development art projects but is attended by those people who have become reluctant as well as willing participants in this project? Manoj Bharti is a photography artist who has a different view on things and whose first solo exhibition was the shadows of a shining India. Images culled from the working class who make the shining India and eventually discarded by the same India became the key subject for his first solo exhibition. In his second group show too he worked on the similar lines and this time turning his lens towards the workers who make the sprawling sub city of Gurgaon. In him there is a social activist but he asserts that being a Banya (the merchant community in India), he knows where his money is.

 (one of the exhibits in Padosi show)

‘Padosi’ means neighbor in Hindi. Manoj Bharti started working on this project that captures the varying moods of the people in his own neighborhood after an interesting confrontation with a six year old little girl from the same block. When Manoj and his family shifted to this colony couple of years back, on a day he met this girl in the park and he said ‘hello’.  But the girl immediately turned away from there saying that ‘I do not talk to strangers’.  This was an eye opener for Manoj. He says that Delhi has become such a paranoia ridden city that the kids no longer believe anybody. Their childhood has been taken away from them. “I cannot question the warning of their parents because they too are scared by the atrocities happening to the children in the city,” says Manoj. But he wanted to develop trust amongst people in the same colony through photography. He started photographing people without intruding into their privacy. As usual people took offence in the beginning but soon they grew friendly. Manoj kept on documenting the people and children and now he is the official visual chronicler of the colony. The large turnout of the people who perhaps never visited an art show before is a standing evidence to his popularity and the growing mutual trust of the people within the colony.

 (this is how the show looks)

To satisfy my curiosity, I asked a few kids whether they would like to become photographers and definitely they want to become one like ‘Manoj Bhaiyya’ (Brother Manoj). I overheard people talking about the meaning of the images that Manoj has deliberately created by making some of the pictures grainy and out of focus. The people, some of them the subjects of those photographs wonder why they look like ‘that’ in those photographs. I could sense the growing curiosity in order to find meaning in the day to day images. They may not be talking this deeply about the images if those were in fact from their own mobile phones. But here is an artist, who is also a social activist and has been doing this project, which for many a mad and useless pursuit for a Baniya boy, for a long time and if that is the case there must be some meaning. Soon comes a lady only to complaint that her daughter’s face is not visible in the picture. Manoj explains that his effort was to capture her drawing on her picture book from behind so that he could get her physical and mental focus on her act. But the mother does not seem to be satisfied.

(inside his interactive studio/archives)

Manoj Bharti has planned to keep the show on for coming four days with the same hope that some interested people would take the pain to travel all the way to see his works exhibited in an unconventional space. He hopes that people would see the truth of his act. Even if they do not really give much attention to his activities, Manoj is not worried. He has bigger plans. He has just rented out a small apartment in the same locality which he for the last two months has been using as an interactive space for photography. He has brought a lot of books that include the books of Prabuddha Dasgupta, Banksy, R.K.Laxman, H.D.Phadnis (Marathi cartoonist) and some interesting foreign designers; all collected from the second hand bookshops in Daryaganj. He invites his friends and his sisters friend there in the apartment and they start bringing interesting stories of their own.

 (display in the interactive space)

For Manoj Bharti, this apartment is an archives and a personal museum. He has brought out his personal archives in this space and interestingly this archives is not full of visuals rather they are all paper cuttings from Hindi newspapers. He points out that most of those paper cuttings which are meticulously catalogued, are mostly economic and political articles. Why so? Manoj has an interesting story to share. In one of his school vacations his teacher gave him an assignment to collect newspaper articles of his liking. He started doing it and even after leaving school for more than a decade he is still collecting those articles. Besides, he has developed personal connections with those writers as many of his exhibits are accompanied by these articles. He invites these authors for his exhibitions and they are happy to see how his visuals have taken inspiration from the points that they have argued in their articles. As the interactive space became active, Manoj slowly found out a few interesting people who had not stopped some kind of archiving that they had started in their school years. One of them is an insect collector who became fascinated with the insect life after she was asked to bring a couple of insects to the class as a part of some assignment. Another is a person who writes down the names of each person he has seen for some reason in his life. He has not stopped it yet. “It is a pleasure to bring them into my working scheme,” says Manoj. AT the same time he reiterates that his work is also like a home work which is never finished.

 (another view of the interactive space)

Manoj Bharti Gupta has another interesting contribution in his sister’s life and as she is also now groomed as a photographer by her brother. Komal Bharti Gupta is a close associate of her brother and is a keen learner. The story goes like this: Komal did not have good numbers to get into a college. She was slightly depressed. Manoj gave her the camera and asked her to click whatever she wanted. But that year she was lucky and she could join the famous Jesus and Mary College. She finished her graduation and also had her solo show of photographs in the college hall. Now she pursues her post graduate studies and helps Manoj in organizing his works and activities. If Manoj is an avid photographer of women in Metro, Komal registers the images of women in Delhi’s buses, which she hopes would grow into a very important visual document.

(JohnyML with Manoj Bharti Gupta)

Amongst the new crop of photography artists in Delhi, namely Vicky Roy and Vinit Gupta, Manoj Bharti Gupta also has made his niche in the emerging scene. A protégé of Dinesh Khanna and Aditya Arya, ace photographers, Manoj has deeper social interest than a party hopping ‘fine’ artist. With a political background (his father has fought local elections three times), Manoj has extensively documented certain political movements including the birth and growth of the Aam Aadmi Party purely using still camera. He was a video editor with Door Darshan (for Nalini Singh’s Aankhon Dekhein program) but never did he feel the urge to document these political movements in video. “I am a still photographer and I want to be a still photographer,” says Manoj. Is he ready to release his works on the political movement? “No,” says the artist. “I do not feel the urgency to release any of those images now. I want them to grow with time and become the document of a time than just registration of the passing moments.” People come around Manoj and wish him all the best. Some are really happy about his works and some are worried why their faces are in shadow. Padosi could be risky at times, but for the time being, Manoj seems to have struck the right chords with the people in his neighborhood. 

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