Month: July 2012

Looking Beyond the Frame: An interview with Pankaj Mistry

This piece appeared in the Asian Age on July 30

“Silence is more profound that sound,” says Mumbai-based photographer Pankaj Mistry, 49, on the sidelines of his show in New Delhi. Having seen his photographs at the show, his remark comes as a reiteration as Mistry’s latest works, shot Sufi shrines, are manifestations of that reality: Silence — emanating from corridors, walls, sidewalks, windows, crevices, tombs, domes, et al — seemed to you to be more fascinating and

profound than sound.

As a photographer, Mistry has the eye of a mystic, attuned to the vagaries of light, both
inner and outer. His frames are acts of worship, with light, like a deity, caught in a deep
communion with his subjects; in his hands, images become portals to meditation.

In his latest solo show, titled “Sound of Solitude”, that opened, courtesy Art Heritage, at Triveni Kala Sangam on July 27 and continues till August 22, Mistry explores traces of light at the Gol Gumbaz shrine in Bijapur (Karnataka). Deeply meditative and suffused with an inherent sense of tranquillity, these images aspire to make the intangible

tangible, the mundane mystical and the everyday sacred.

Photographs are but moments frozen in time. And Mistry is an accomplished chronicler of moments. But there is something transcendental about his captured moments; they are not mere frozen moments, but powerful pastiches of things that urge you to look beyond. It is as if there is another layer of image that lies beneath each of his image that Mistry wants you to see, a layer that eludes all forms of conception and visualisation.

His photographs — an interplay of light and technique, perception and presentation —  are stunning, arresting snapshots frozen in time and, often, sacred space. In these photographs, Mistry comes across as both an enquirer and an analyst, an artist and an engineer. The composition and texture of his frames are so overwhelmingly seeped in the honesty of a particular moment that the experience of absorbing them is immensely ennobling. And uplifting. The light both touches the surfaces of Mistry’s subjects and eludes them. But this elusion could hold the key to the door of some kind of an inner enquiry.

Mistry lives by Pablo Picasso’s credo: “I don’t seek, I find.” He doesn’t seek to shoot a particular image. His images are his findings. Mistry says: “If you like doing something, you form your own language of doing it.” Mistry likes photography. And, over the last two and a half decades of industrial, advertising, corporate, travel and product photography, he has found his own language.
A language that, like any other verbal language, has communication as its core: Evoking viewers’ feeling is the overriding impulse and, even, objective. “This is what I can do better. This is what I know better. I’m not cut for anything else,” Mistry says, talking

about his art that seems to forever searching newer forms of aesthetics.

Also part of the show is a seven-minute AV, uncut and unedited, of sounds and shadows lurking in the whispering dome of Bijapur, the second biggest dome in the world after the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome.

As you enter the basement gallery of the Triveni Kala Sangam, the echoes of sounds made by people thronging the dome seem to be coming from the tombs, domes and crevices hung on the wall. The shouts, whisperings, murmurs and songs (someone sings Babul ki duyaien leti jaa..,) form a delightful welter of sound.

Amidst this welter, Mistry stays calm and serene, holding forth on his art and craft. He talks about his father, a photographer, who trained him since his childhood. At 14, he started working for the corporates. He travelled, he shot, training his eye to “look at the moment” well. But, many years later, in 2007, drained and “burnt out” by the demands of commercial photography, he ventured into art photography.

In the last five years, he has explored the “extensions of going in a dimension”, doing a
show on Muslim butchers titled “Draft of Shadows”. As an art photographer, Mistry refuses to be hamstrung by norms, declaring, “I’ll not follow any norms”, vowing to break away from all perceived notions of form or frame.

“But to break away from a frame, you’ve to know a frame first,” he says.

Mistry, like all good artists, makes a virtue of “looking beyond”. But this is something that comes from within. “It’s a part of my upbringing. It’s a part of who I am,” he says. Art is his language of communication. Somewhere between seeing an image and recording it lies an entire evolution of aesthetics.

Artists, Mistry says, should try to rise beyond the frame. “There’s something beyond that takes you to a level where you feel you’re complete. Let there be no parameter. Go beyond your own self,” says Mistry. The ultimate aim, he smiles and says, is to be the
Buddha. That aim is definitely profound. Images, for Mistry then, are forms of meditation.

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"A Mohammedan"

This piece appeared in the book For The People, By The People: Muslim Voices, Human Lives: An Anthology, edited by Sabah Hadi. The book is available on Amazon. You can buy it here
Not too long ago, while house-hunting in New Delhi, I happened upon a whole set of people who were educated and rich and seemed seemingly less conservative. They were polite, courteous, affable and charming till they came to know who I was. “Nawaid? A Mohammedan?” a middle-aged aunty, a doctor by profession, who had misheard my name as Navneet, tried to clarify. “Yes. A Mohammedan.”I sighed. That aunty was not the only one. I had had such conversations numerous times before. 
It was only a matter of a few minutes when she shut the door on me and I walked into the daylight, hoping to meet someone who wouldn’t discriminate against me because of my religious identity. I am a Muslim, but I don’t sport a beard. I wish to put it on record that I revel in this identity of mine. It might sound a bit overweening and religiously conceited, but I feel Islam immensely informs and enriches the whole of who I am. 
While I often seem to relegate my other identities — national (an Indian), regional (a north Indian), ethnic (Urdu-speaking Sunni, if I can at all call it ethnic) or professional (a journalist) — to secondary importance and, at times, even colossal insignificance, my identity as a Muslim subsumes all my other identities and affects all my other aspects of living.
Even as Islam continues to be demonized world over (by people who can’t tell Islam from Muslim and who revile an entire religion, failing to differentiate between faith and its followers) for the conduct of a handful of so-called Muslims, it’s comforting and reassuring to know that Islam continues to be the guiding lamp in my life, governing the various ways I conduct my life. Everyday.
Over the years, reading the Holy Quran and excerpts from Hadith, I have crystallized Islam’s basic tenets and have deduced this phrase to define it: An ultimate way of life. Today, at some deep, subliminal level, Islam governs the daily choices I make. Islam instills in me a sense of good and bad, right and wrong. Among the many virtues of Islam, it’s the levels of tolerance that gives it a rare distinction. It’s a pity that people today talk of Islam and hatred in the same breath. If only they knew what Islam really is all about!
“You don’t look like a Muslim,” I’ve heard this far too many times to bother about what it means any more. Each time an acquaintance or a stranger brings up my being a Muslim, it is more often than not, mired in a warped, preconceived notion that reeks of rank stereotyping and, even, ignorance.
If I’m a Muslim, I must eat biryanis every day. If I’m a Muslim, I must know what all places in Delhi (where I have been living for the last eight years) you can get beef from. If I’m a Muslim, I must listen to qawwalis, frequent all the dargahs that dot the city. If I’m a Muslim, I must grow a beard, wear a skullcap. If I’m a Muslim, I could have four spouses, any or all of whom I can divorce at will:Talaaq, talaaq, talaaq.
If I’m a Muslim, I must be pro-Pakistan, pro-Kashmir, pro-Palestine. If I’m a Muslim, I must have a soft spot (read affinity) for every Muslim, even though he’s a Mujahideen or a terrorist. If I’m a Muslim, I must believe in the supremacy of the Khan trio in Bollywood. If I’m a Muslim, I must think of every non-Muslim as a kafir (non-believer) and not make efforts to mingle with him/her.
In short, if you’re a Muslim, you can only be that and nothing else. Everything else takes a backstage. If you are a Muslim, people often refuse to consider that, just like a person of any other religion, you’re a human being first. Why couldn’t they just let you and your religion be? This is a question I’m still trying to find answers to.
Today, while I constantly worry about my place in the world, I also have my gaze fixed on the hereafter. I worry for both lives. As a Muslim, I’m acutely aware that every single good deed counts. I am also acutely aware of the impermanence of things. I see this world as a transient place, its people as mortal souls destined to decay, who will all be brought to life on the Day of Judgment, and ushered into heaven or condemned to hell based on their good or evil deeds.
Today, I am a Muslim not because I was born into a Muslim family. I am a Muslim because I chose to be one. It’s an identity that, I must confess, I have thrust upon myself with unrestrained joy and overwhelming pride.
But, damn, I don’t look like a Muslim. That brings me to a question: How exactly should a Muslim look like?