LITTLE KNOWN JOURNEYS
The two biographies bring to light the pioneering contributions of a candid photographer and a fiery artist.
In a situation where there are hardly any publications on contemporary Indian art, Seagull Books have played an important role in commissioning and bringing out serious and consistently well- designed art books over the years. These two illustrated monographs on the Bengal couple, photographer Shambhu Shaha and artist Karuna Shaha, bring to the notice of the art world two different, perhaps neglected, kinds of journeys.
While for various reasons 19th century Indian photography has excited extensive interest and research, the history of modern photography remains largely undocumented. Shambhu Shaha was in some ways the pioneer, one of the first Indians to graduate from using a large format camera to a small one, and to specialize in candid photography.
In an interview he says that he was so shy that he preferred to take photographs unnoticed, and later read in a journal that Cartier-Bresson took 'candid' photographs. That was exactly what he was doing, except that his technique was different. 'Cartier-Bresson used to keep his camera wrapped around his leg with black tape; I used a gadget that I attached to the lens. This was a sort of mirror that enabled you to see and shoot your subject, looking away from it at an angle of 90 degrees.
Since his biographer, daughter Chandrima Shaha is a scientist and photographer herself; the essay is full of interesting information about the rough and ready inventiveness of the period. In another anecdote he talks about the enlarger he had to make because to buy one was too expensive in the 1930s. This consisted of a contraption made from the sliding copier of a camera; an aluminum cooking pot with a hole, with its inside painted black and a camera lens placed in it. It was with this makeshift enlarger that he produced some of his most famous photographs.
Shaha learnt photography in the 1920s from the Nationalist revolutionary Hemchandra Kanungo, a colourful man who had just returned from exile in the Andamans and set up a studio in Shaha's hometown Midnapore. Kanungo took on students like a traditional guru, on the condition that they will later never turn away anyone who wants to learn from them. Shaha went through a rigorous academic training in drawing and painting before learning photography. Kanungo believed in holistic education, so besides concepts of light and shade, perspective and composition, they learnt ‘woodcraft, leather craft, bookbinding, printing, cooking, and English literature'. Shaha drew and painted all his life and felt that this early training helped him compose and print his pictures more sensitively.
Women's Studies has opened up to scholarly research a whole world previously ignored; in a sense, valourising local struggles as vs. the grand narratives. Karuna Shaha developed a reputation in 1960s Calcutta as 'the lady who painted nudes'. Tapati Guha Thakurtha sees her as a pioneer who, while not featuring in the mainstream or avant-garde circuits, represents the struggles of the first generation of working women artists in the country.
Karuna Shaha was the first woman student to be admitted into the Calcutta Art School in the 1940s. In the cloistered atmosphere of the art school a Matron was employed to chaperon the girls to and fro from the classes. In contrast, at home she faced the hard reality of having to support her family by teaching music and playback singing for films. As a young woman, she is fiery and tempestuous, doing relief work among the Burmese refugees and actively participating in the Quit India Movement. At this time she commits the legendary act of tearing down the Union Jack from the art school gates, for which she is expelled and sent to jail for two years. These years according the writer are strangely shrouded in the artist's memory, as if unimportant to her progress as an artist. Released in the 1940s, she tours with the IPTA, performing plays and meeting the stalwarts of the Left movement. It is at this time that she meets Shambhu Shaha who is part of the same left avant-garde.
After an initial string of awards and successes Karuna Shaha sinks into middle class life, feeling increasingly isolated and professionally marginalized as a woman artist. In writing about her crisis, Tapati Guha Thakurta accepts the same parameters that Karuna Shaha worked in - the narrow Calcutta art milieu and the painter’s own fascination with academic painting. Throughout her life, the artist never seems to question her training in Western academicism or reveal any interest in any contemporary debates or art movements.
It is interesting that in her three years in Florence in the early 60s, she does not look outside of the Academy to progressive currents and new ideas, but remains fascinated by the same nineteenth century modes that she had studied in Calcutta. In contrast, her contemporaries Nasreen Mohammadi and Meera Mukherjee, both highly individualistic and solitary artists, used their study in Europe to create strong contexts for their work - [International abstraction in the case of Mohammadi, and an interest in indigenous forms in the case of Mukherjee] - which sustained them throughout their creative lives. It is this failure to connect, and a certain orthodoxy of the imagination that seems to curtail Karuna Shaha's art and keep it firmly at the provincial level.