There is something similar between Manisha Gera Baswani and Shobha Deepak Singh. Both of them are artists in their own genre of arts (Manish, a painter and Shobha, a singer-dancer-theatre artist). They are learned and elegant socialites. Both of them dress elegantly (while Shobha sticks to range of whites, Manish prefers black). And, more than the pursuits of their respective genre of their chosen art forms, they wield still camera. The similarities are aplenty. Manisha hovers around the artists whom she photographs without registering her presence, slowly mingling with the surroundings and keeping her ego under check for the desired effect. Shobha also does the same. As the director of Delhi’s Sriram Bhartiya Kala Kendra, she too moves amongst the dancers, theatre personalities and singers like an apparition with her analog camera (a heavy one, as most of us have noticed, hanging from her frail neck) and clicks their various moods.
Similarities between these two women in Delhi’s cultural scene end there. While Manish has to heave her equipment all over and travel great distances to capture the many moods of her subjects, artists at work, Shobha Deepak Singh has this very special privilege to have her subjects either at her home or at the establishment that she heads. Nowhere in the world you would see another woman photographer whose subjects come to her (not really to be photographed by her) and let her register the golden moments during their performances. Hans Namuth used to hang around with Jackson Pollock and Nemai Ghosh with Satyajit Ray. Had it been their subjects’ importance, despite the great frames that these photographers would do otherwise, they would have gone unnoticed. Shobha Deepak Singh will remain as a photography artist, a very sensitive and privileged one and will walk into the history of photography in India by virtue of the virtuosity of her subjects; the great musicians, dancers and theatre personalities that the North of India has produced in the 20th century.
(Manisha Gera Baswani)
Position of privilege cannot be held as a negative marker in anybody’s career. Access permitted is not justice denied (for many other photographers similarly inspired). Shobha Deepak Singh was born to a family that supported various forms of arts including music and dance. In childhood, she could see great masters coming and performing at her home. She was put to practice music. She learnt music under many masters and it was Mallikarjun Mansur who changed the musical course of her life. According to her it was a musical revelation as well as revolution. She not only practiced music but also learnt classical dance and also got trained in theatre forms under ace theatre director and art connoisseur, Ebrahim Alkazi. In the meanwhile she picked up a passion for photography and perhaps photography became her primary art practice and ground was fertile for nurturing her interest in photography. In Sriram Bhartiya Kala Kendra she could get any one she fancied to click.
The latest exhibition of Shobha Deepak Singh is currently on at the Visual Arts Gallery, India Habitat Centre, New Delhi. Titled ‘Musicscapes’, this exhibition is an extended event of her new book with the same title, published by Roli Books, Delhi. As the title shows, the exhibition as well as the book contain Shobha Deepak Singh’s selected clicks on the famous Hindustani musicians. Divided into different phases of a day and night (like Ushus, Madhyaahna, Aparaahna, Poorvaanha, Saayahna and so on), the selection of the black and white photographs explain not only the mood of the performing musicians but also that of the photographer herself. Transported into a different sphere of existence and ecstasy, the musicians at times even do not know whether hundreds of people are sitting before them or not. They even do not feel that someone is clicking their photographs. Being a privileged photographer (as the director of the Sriram Centre) Shobha could move behind the musicians in concert without being shouted at or hooted out (often the fate of the photographers who show too much of enthusiasm). As she herself has said in her writing, she likes to capture the play of the light on the faces of these musicians. And the photographs show that she is successful in doing so.
(Gangubai Hangal by Shobha Deepak Singh)
Strangely enough (or my lack of understanding?), Shobha Deepak Singh says that ‘she is a child of the digital photography’, a statement I see repeated in her other book titled ‘Theatrescapes’, in an article written by Amal Allana. The catch is that Shobha Singh could adapt to the changing parameters of photographic equipment and technology quite naturally despite her training in analog photography. But if that is a claim, then I should say that India’s top photographers (most of them) have undertaken that transition so gracefully that they never felt to make such claims. May be that Shobha Singh’s is a humble statement, which I am misreading, while I remember how Raghu Rai, late Prabuddha Dasgupta, Pablo Bartholomew, Dayanita Singh and so on have gone through this transition and have discussed the pluses and minuses in their own terms. Musicscapes brings out the old school photographs of Shobha Singh though her digital format works have been already published in two other books, Theatrescapes and Dancescapes.
Shobha Deepak Singh is supremely sensitive when she clicks the pictures of the female musicians. That statement need not necessarily be read as something that she is sensitive ‘only’ when she clicks the pictures of the female musicians. She is at her best when she trains her camera at a tremendously charismatic singer like Kishori Amonkar. The many moods of Amonkar make the viewer bend in awe and reverence. One feels the tenderness of Kaushiki Chakraborty as Shobha Singh makes this young singer an icon of boldness. We do not have many photographs presented here of Anushka Shankar but the one, which is partly hazy is a very powerful one. So are the daring postures of Gangubai Hangal, Girija Devi and Veena Sahasrabuddha.
(A montage of Shobha Deepak Singh's works)
There is a range of photographs of the male musicians; from Kumar Gandharva to Ayaan Ali Bangash. From Mallikarjun Mansoor to Bhuvanesh Komkali. From Bismilla Khan to Rahul Sharma. From Bhimsen Joshi to Mukul Shivaputra. We have Ravi Shankar and Zakir Husain. But in my view, they are great portraits but such great portraits could be taken by any other gifted photographer. There is some sensibility difference one could feel when we look at the female portraitures. Also the same sensitivity comes to fore when she focuses on those musicians who have gone beyond gender; the classic example is Mallikarjun Mansur.
The exhibition, unfortunately does not have any hand out or brochure. The irony is that a photographer who does not take the permission from the singers to take their photographer denies the viewers the same opportunity to have some clicks with her works displayed in the gallery. There is something absolutely undemocratic about the exhibition thought it is happening in an open for all gallery like the Visual Arts Gallery. My suggestion is this: if the artist and the organizers feel that the show is really important for them, and they really feel that the works should go beyond the coffee table books, the images taken by Shobha Deepak Singh should become the part of our cultural memory. To generate such memorial traces, the viewer should be treated with respect. He/she should be given a small brochure that he/she could carry home, read about the artist and if need be fall in love with the works. The attitude; here is the show, if you want to see, see it or get out, that attitude will keep the works behind the glass cases, eternally stuffed in museums; as good as dead objects.