A photography exhibition by the awardees of the 5th Neel Dongre Grants is going on at India International Centre (IIC) in New Delhi. In the gallery, located on the 2nd floor of IIC you see an immersive show. A number of photographs on the theme “Framing the Living Traditions” is displayed in an interesting way. The show aims to document the arts and crafts which are an important part of our history and tradition. 

A chair is placed in between a large-format camera and twin-lens reflex. Behind the chair one will see a cloth as a backdrop displaying backwaters. This scene is similar to the setting of a analogue studio in the past. Around it one sees photographs documenting the analogue period of photography in Kurukshetra, India. Vikas Gupta, a visual artist has photographed the last generation of analogue photographers.

Titled An Aura of Analogue Age, Gupta’s project has been in the works for a year now. “My work is still going on and I will be creating more photographs on the subject. Many photographers have shut down their studios. They were comfortable with analogue photography and now they are not sure about their future.”

Aditya Arya, the curator talks about his thoughts which led him to decide this theme. He says, “We think about things which are very topical and which would be also doable for emerging photographers. You have to mentor them, which is a long-drawn process and takes about 8-9 months. The idea is to help people produce a more meaningful body of work.”

Launched in 2012, this collaborative photography project is organised under the aegis of Neel Dongre Awards and India Photo Archive Foundation, a public charitable trust engaged in preserving photographic archives. It is run by photographer Aditya Arya who is the curator for this show.

The Neel Dongre Award was constituted in the memory of Neel Dongre who was one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the country. Dongre took a keen interest in mentoring young people and helping them realise their dreams by guiding them from time to time. This award is aimed at recognising young and emerging photographers who demonstrate talent and the passion to communicate with visuals.

Mrigank Kulshreshtha spent six months documenting the handloom culture linked to the production of Assam silk sarees, especially Muga and Eri sarees.  His project is titled Fading Whir of the Looms. Kulshreshtha has learnt photography from Jamia Millia Islamia and has been using the camera since his childhood — something he learnt from his father, who also devoted a large part of his career to photography.

Swan Song of the Badlas by Taha Ahmad.

“To depict the entire timeline of producing Assam sarees, I visited 11 districts and 24 villages in the state. None of the workers are aware about how much they should be getting paid for their craft. This is due to the fact that many middlemen are involved, taking huge shares by charging abruptly,” says Kulshreshtha. He, with his friends, is also hosting design workshops for the artisans to help them learn contemporary styles. “No matter how beautiful are the colours they use, their designs are hardly bought outside their state.  I am trying to make them learn latest trends which will increase their sales.”

In the show one will see large gourds hanging on one side. These gourds are especially cultivated in the region to create Tanpuras. Here delhi-based photographer Ankit Agarwal has documented the art of making tanpuras in Miraj, Maharashtra. He says, “I started this project more than a year ago even before this theme was announced. I have always been interested in crafts and researching on music since a long time back. I am also learning the dhrupad from Ustad Wasifuddin Dagar. All this collectively led me to work on this project titled The Craft of Tanpura Making.”

Parthiv Shah, who played a prominent role in the selection of the works included in this show, thinks it is a big platform for photographers. “Imagine that you have come out with a remarkable book while you are still in a college,” says Shah. “Forty people applied for this grant here. There were a few criteria, like the inquisitiveness of photographers towards the project and a well-composed proposal, which were considered for the grant.”

Bharat Tiwari is an interior designer by profession and had served as the official photo editor for the Jaipur Literature Festival earlier this year. His project, titled Silk Routes Via Chanderi, documents the life of people associated with manufacturing silk products in Chanderi, Madhya Pradesh. He says, “It might happen that soon, the power loom might overpower the traditional crafts. It looks like these craftsmen will soon lose their businesses, if steps are not taken to protect them. It took four months for me to complete this project.”

Taha Ahmad is from Lucknow and at  22 years of age, he is the youngest of the photographers selected for the grant. Currently, Taha is pursuing his master’s in fine arts from Jamia Milllia Islamia, and is being mentored by the Delhi-based photographer Sandeep Biswas. His project is about a dying craft from Lucknow called “Mukaish Badla”.

Some of his black-and-white photographs in the show are veiled by cloths on which designs using this particular craft are composed. He says, “This craft started at the time of nawabs as an art to beautify chickenkari. Later on it became as an independent style and flourished as an independent craft for the royals. In this craft, the metallic wires of gold and silver are inserted into the fabrics then twisted to make a design; the term ‘Badla’ refer to the artisans who perform this art. Nowadays real gold and silver are not used. In fact, the wires are polished with gold and silver polish.”

His project is titled Swan Song of the Badlas. He says, “20-25 years from now, these old badlas will die out, eventually making the craft extinct and the art barren. The reason behind this is the exploitation of these artisans as they have no awareness of the society and the world plus they are not literate, making the kaarkhandars violating their human rights. They get around Rs 100-150 for working 8-10 hours while the kaarkhandars and the big showroom owners plus the textile designers sell the same apparels for Rs 1-2 lakhs. There are only two kaarkhanas left in Lucknow. One is in Saadatganj and the other in Hussainabad.”

“While I was growing up I saw these arts and crafts vanishing due to modernisation, development and governmental apathy. So when this theme came out I was sure that it is a great chance for me to work upon my city and thus I started my research, which led me to create this body of work.”

This exhibition is on view till 2 May


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