In Conversation With Some Of The Most Intriguing Personalities Behind Goa's Sensorium Festival - Homegrown

In Conversation With Some Of The Most Intriguing Personalities Behind Goa's Sensorium Festival

Sensorium, in its inaugural edition, found a fitting home in the postcard-like venue of the Sunaparanta-Goa Centre for the Arts, located in Panjim. The behind-the-scenes glimpse Homegrown sneaked in had already caught our fancy and left us intrigued, having promised to explore the intersection between photography and art, literature and music – but no matter how many ideas a project is kicked off with, it is the little finishing touches, a striking clarity regarding the theme and the execution, ultimately, which really makes it work.
It is defeating to wrestle with verbose descriptions to encompass the experience of a festival like this, one that actually manages to live up to such a lofty promise. Over the weekend, I was privileged to be able to interact with some of the personalities behind the various shows, and gain some insight into the inner workings of the process behind creating these – the most exquisitely executed of which was the cohesive effort of the festival itself; the ultimate tribute to the idea of art, in all its multi-faceted glory.With a line up including Sohrab Hura’s ‘Life is Elsewhere’, Dayanita Singh's 'Offset' (an exhibition of 8 photographs that offer a subtle look into her reading list), Anusha Yadav’s ‘Indian Memory Project’, Italian photographer Fausto Giaccone’s evocative tribute to Gabriel Garcia Marquez's fictitious village of ‘Macondo’ from the iconic One Hundred Years of Solitude and Farrokh Chothia’s jazz greats (with an introduction by Salman Rushdie) – definitely a departure from average gig experience in Mumbai – we decided to talk to the man behind the festival, the esteemed Prashant Panjiar,  co-founder of the Nazar Foundation and the Delhi Photo Festival to probe into the original process – brainstorming for a festival like this.
“In March this year, Siddharth Shanghvi approached me asking about doing a festival for the Sunaparanta – something that Raj Salgaoncar had asked me before in the past as well,” Prashant told us. “They didn’t go into specifics, but many of the ideas which are now a part of Sensorium were something I had been pondering upon for a long time. How do you look at photography with its relation to other things? I didn’t want it to be just a photography fest, but something more seminal. It was not just about an image – but about how it is made, and how it translates or reflects a thought. Why limit it to an annual photography show then, I thought – why not turn it into a festival with different forms of art?”
Once the Sunaparanta had been decided as the venue for a festival like this, Prashant explained he didn’t particularly canvas wide for shows, as the theme was so specific. Instead of approaching artists at random, he drew upon his own vast experience and knowledge base, looking at people he had worked with in the past.
“There have been a lot of modifications along the way,” Prashant reflected. “For example, with Sooni Taraporevala - being a photographer who is also a screenplay writer – I first suggested we take a classic film such as Pather Panchali or Fellini’s 8 ½ and then break it down to stills, which she could then explain in her own way. But we had trouble getting the film for these older movies, so the same idea got adapted to Salaam Bombay, for which Sooni had done the screenplay herself. This turned out to be a much better show than I could’ve imagined, as it is all her.”
Screenplays tapped out in typewriter fonts adorned the walls of one of the rooms in the Sunaparanta, while stills from the film were arranged next to it, a confluence of words and visuals that ranged from cheeky to disquieting – but constantly engaging in an admirable feat of storytelling.In the library tucked away in a corner was a room where 18 handmade photo books lay scattered, a show that most visitors found themselves spending an excessive amount of time poring over.
“Regina Anzenberger is a dear friend, and is represented by the same agency as Fausto Giaccone and I are. I knew she’d been doing the Vienna Photo Book Festival and had witnessed how she had evolved over the years. Recently, we’ve all also been talking about looking at a photo book as an art object – and how it becomes one in current times, as opposed to the photobook of previous times – the coffee table book," Prashant went on. "The latter is about the visuals inside, but not particularly about how it’s put through in the presentation of these. The photo book becomes a very important vehicle for the photographer or storyteller today, for showing the work in a physical form, especially now that digitization is taking over so quickly.
 “Self-publishing is a great idea, as I’ve seen with Regina and also with Sohrab Hura for the Delhi Photo Festival.  I was really happy to have had Regina’s handmade books as a part of Sensorium, I’m really proud of that show. We’ve always done one show that’s about books and publishing.”
With so much digitization infiltrating our lives, we just had to ask about his take on the future of print.
“I’m not a soothsayer, not even a visionary. But I think the form of the print will remain – what will probably happen is that it’ll become exclusive; I don’t know whether it’ll be as accessible. Only big magazines will have access to a really important body of work, for example, something that is already happening today with space in print becoming increasingly exclusive.”
“Web opens up publishing to a huge audience, but it’s not really a sustainable model – that is why it’s great that the photo book, and self-publishing, has come along. I do believe that smaller publishing will survive, but I’m not sure about mass media.”
“When it comes to Sohrab Hura’s series 'Life is Elsewhere',” Prashant Panjiar elaborated. “He has developed a whole unique style that is very personal. All 144 pages of it is being exhibited here, and the narrative of the book is in the form of a diary. The book should be out next month, and it was the form the book took that really interested me as a curator, and that’s how it found a space in Sensorium.” Another exhibition that piqued Prashant Panjiar’s interest was 'Flesh', an installation by Gopika Chowfla that explored a personal calamity in her life.
“All of us shy away initially from putting out a work that is something so personal as opposed to something that is confident and clever,” Gopika related to us. “It’s always a little scary. Sharing is very liberating, once you’ve done it – there’s a bond with whoever you have shared that with. That’s how it becomes meaningful work. Sometimes, just the mention of cancer will have people becoming too careful to carry the conversation further; I want people to respond to my art. I am a visual communicator by profession - I try to find things that’ll mean something to someone.”
Her installation combines photography, video and audio to bring together an experience that has had a disconcerting effect on some viewers, but is, all the same, hauntingly powerful and conveys the artist’s exploration of her fears, and a sense of profound loss.
“During the process of ‘treatment’ I became acutely aware of my body - how it was responding to the onslaught of surgery and cytotoxic chemicals,” she said. “I found that rather than distracting myself from what was going on inside me, confronting it made me feel more creative and more in control. I thought a lot about loss. When something you take for granted suddenly disappears. I transposed this sense of loss on to things not connected to me or my health. I did a series of paintings of missing people, photographs I cut out of the newspapers. It was my way of trying to bring back something that was lost. And then as time moved on and my medical episode moved into the past I started looking at it differently - and without fear. I think there is an inner voice that remains quite constant and immutable – it’s the forms of expressions that change with different experiences and circumstances.”
Photographs of intersections of fruit and animal flesh juxtaposed with various objects gaze out at you from square cut-outs inside the room in which the installation is housed, as though asking what you are doing there looking at them.
“It’s almost like human flesh, you look at some of it, and feel like it’s something private you shouldn’t be looking at. I wanted to create that, and since it was so personal to me – I wanted only one person to look in at one time, making it an individual experience for them as well, with personal engagement. As for the room, I wanted it to be a womb-like situation. The audio is an extremely primal call - the song of the humpback whale; there’s something so physical about it, and I was quite certain I didn’t want any man-made sounds. It’s quite haunting, and there’s a bodily reaction to it. I didn’t want anything to be intellectualised, there’s no politics or deconstruction here – you just feel this.”While she acceded that some people have found it disturbing, Gopika confessed that she found it soothing, and almost mesmerising, especially once it came together with its full impact. She has been working on this project for two years.
“It’s about how you put it together,” Prashant Panjiar commented on 'Flesh'. “This is a great example of doing so creatively; it’s not a clinical exhibition.”
As you float away from this exhibition, and upstairs, towards Fausto Giaccone’s Macondo, it is likely that you will be brimming with respect for someone who has not only gone through such a journey, but has the courage to share it with the world in the most honest way she knows.
Fausto Giaccone embarked upon journeys of his own, after reading Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude.
“The first time I read it, I was astonished. I’d say that it saved my life; I read it while I was on mandatory military duty in Rome doing a lot of administrative work, and was very unhappy and bored. It helped me discover the real value of reading, and this book was a surprise because it had a story so complex, with so many emotions. At the same time, I couldn’t locate the time and space in which the story was set and I was being bothered by questions like – was it fantasy? Was it all really invented?”
Shot in Colombia, Fausto made three trips to the country to produce the book, and explored the land of the writer he was so inspired by, with his own visual interpretation, paying tribute in a deeply moving way.
“The first photograph in the series is actually from a place called Aracataca, a village in Colombia; this is where Marquez was born. Since I wanted to find a visual language for my story, I knew I had to start with the realistic things. I knew that one of the most important phases of Gabo’s life was the period he spent in Rome during the ‘50’s, heavily influenced by Italian neo-realism. Fantasy and magic are the realms we explore through his works, and this is how he is able to tell the story, but it stems from a very realistic place. I actually went to a square documented here in the essay, that a part of Chronicles of a Death Foretold was set in; it was all real.”In the exhibition, the photographs are interspersed with quotes from the book.
“The quotes sometimes just clicked with the photographs, and for some, I looked for inspiration from the book," Fausto told us. "This is also the work of Prashant, who read the book and chose some quotes for the exhibition, as well. It was different with every picture. I was very curious to see if these places in the novel exist. The village of Macondo fit 80% with this village where he was born, and the similarities were uncanny. I worked on this for three years, over the course of three trips.”
 So if there was one thing that he could say to the man who had not only changed, but also saved his life, what would it be?
‘My life has really been much happier since I came to know your words,” Fausto crinkles with smiling eyes, as his works nudge literature and photography to engage in an intimate embrace behind him.
There really isn’t a festival like this one that has taken place in the country, and Farrokh Chothia, who adds the sweet strains of jazz to the exhibition, echoes our sentiments when he says, “I don’t know what to compare it with, but I really like the idea of Sensorium. I think whoever thought of the idea of combining music or the arts with photography is a genius. That’s a great way of pulling in whole groups of other worlds – it is just exponentially opening up to all kinds of other things. You are not just looking at photography but also looking at how it interacts with other aspects.”
Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi commented on Farrokh Chothia’s work, “You must go and study it on his website, he has done the most beautiful study of form in a way that very few Indians have been able to do. His nudes, his fashion work are just exquisite – he’s the one who has shot the cover of my second book. I’m very glad that Farrokh, who has never shown, has agreed to be a part of Sensorium, so we’re very grateful for that. This is a body of work that has never been shown before.’
So how did Farrokh’s long-standing affair with jazz begin?
“My introduction to Jazz as music was when somebody gave me an album by Miles Davis called Kind Of Blue, which is, as I found out later on, everyone’s introduction to Jazz. It is a great album in every way and it has introduced more people to [this genre] than any other single album,” he said“I was already prepared for the “idea of Jazz” because I was listening to Indian classical [music]. So when I heard Kind Of Blue, the Indian classical aspect had already made me understand what was going on." 
Shot between 1989 and 2005, all the photographs exhibited have been created in Holland when he and his friend Bharat used to go for jazz festivals, with Farrokh initially picking up the camera and photographing jazz musicians because it gave him ‘a chance to be close to these legends, as well as as get into their concerts free of charge'. Now there’s something we can all relate to.
“To be five feet away from Miles Davis, and to be able to capture their magic from such a close proximity, is quite an experience,” Farrokh recalled fondly. “In those days, they let you shoot throughout the concert – so you can catch just the right moment. It’s not a portrait session, but I feel like I’ve got something special – not because I’m great, but because I had the time and access.”
In the words of Salman Rushdie, who wrote the introduction to the series, “Don’t look at these pictures in silence. They ask for music to be played.”
With captures of legends the likes of Miles Davis and B.B. King to Elvin Jones, all the images were shot on Triex film, ‘the greatest black and white film ever made as it has great grain’.
“If you look at the photographs, you’ll realise that this isn’t someone’s passion for photography per se – but their passion for music, for jazz, that has touched their soul,” Farrokh explained intently. “My friends and I were jazz lovers, we’d play old records for hours and make sure we listened to it all.”“How Dayanita Singh’s body of work was born out of reading, Farrokh’s was born out of listening to music. So you’re looking at a scholarship of ten to twenty years of listening to music – and then responding to it with your camera. That is the genius we need to take back from Farrokh’s series,” Siddharth Shanghvi added.
A lot has changed since then, though. How do you keep any singularity in today's day and age of information explosion with the takeover of social media?
“If you feel passionate about a particular subject or idea, and if that passion is genuine – not for any other reason than itself – it will automatically reflect in the work. That’s how singularity in today’s day and age of information explosion and social media can be achieved. Tackling the onslaught of visual imagery today can be daunting; Cartier-Bresson said that anyone with a camera is a photographer. That was twenty years ago. Of course, I don’t know what he would have said now, since this was before digital. Some of the photos are online are good, a lot of them are photos of cats.”
The entire series has been shot out of ‘the pit’, the area right in front of the stage, that Farrokh recalls was generally filled with 40-50 photographers, all of them vying for the same two or three angles in the chaos.
“There are patterns in everything,” Farrokh said. “Jazz is basically the head, the opening, and then a set of solos by each the artists. Some of these are people I have photographed aren’t even playing, when I captured the moment. If you’re into the music – you’ve heard the songs, and you love them – and you know when it’s going to peak, it’s very intuitive.”
While he confesses that he has very little idea about music photography, or its challenges, in India today, he feels that to a certain extent, access is still an issue unless you’re in the inner circles, or know the organisers.“These are only 20% of the people we saw,” Farrokh adds, gesturing to the photographs distractedly. He mentions that it is the tunes of The Beatles, Frank Zappa, The Rolling Stones, Led Zep and Jethro Tull that he grew up listening to, and have also really stuck with him.
Old habits die hard, and sometimes it's the seemingly innocuous habits of younger years that pave the path to things greater than one could foresee. Jesus Clavero-Rodriguez's curation of his photo-poetry exhibition, similarly, first crossed paths with poetry as 'a small kid, recited by heart by my father in his baritone voice'.
He commented on the intersection of poetry and photography, "Poetry creates images with the words and photography writes poems or stories with the images. Even more, we can find some parallelism between colours and adjectives, framing and stanza.."
The poetry of Octavio Paz, writer and Nobel Laureate, written when he was Ambassador of México in India (1962-68) has been interpreted by three photographers - Adil Hasan, Subrata Biswas and Sudeep Sen in a freefall of creative elbow space.
‘Octavio was deeply influenced by India in his writing and thoughts, and wrote several poems, many of which contrasted Mexico to India as well,” Jesus said."Although the poems of this project were related to India (and particularly on Delhi), I had no idea of what could happen, and that was really exciting! You never know if a photographer with a different background and culture can get the different layers of a poem written by a foreigner. They not only got it, I think they felt as Paz probably did. Adil Hasan decided to work on both poems at the same time (“The mausoleum of Amir Kushru” and “In the Lodi gardens”), and the result shown, in very subtle way, [using] the adjectives used in the poem. On the other hand, Subrata Biswas has gone deep into the literal sense of the poem and on the impressions felt by the poet, reflected on “The Balcony” and “The Mausoleum of Humayun”. Sudeep is a poet and his approach is also different, more conceptual. It is amazing how people from such distant countries and different cultures can understand and reflect the sense of [foreign] poet. Perhaps, this is the hidden link that exists between poetry and photography."
Freewheeling through the arts, Sensorium promises to only be a personal and introspective experience for the viewer, opening up avenues of the mind that we possibly weren't event aware we were privy to.
The event, which is open for viewing to all for free, goes on from December 6, 2014 to February 5, 2015.
Stay tuned for Homegrown's exclusive interviews with Sohrab Hura & Anusha Yadav (of The Indian Memory Project) out soon.
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