I walked into a gallery and saw my own face on a wall

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Nidheesh Tyagi

This is true. Last summer, I was part of a project of my friends, neighbours and gifted photographer couple Anita and Imran, who were basically stuck like all of us during the Covid lockdown. And then, the idea of Shared Solitude emerged to capture people in those moments. But not like regular portraits. Back to that in a minute.

Shalini, Zeus, Nidheesh, Os, Lama, Lola Kutty

We talked about our first portraits. Mine was sometime in 1972, in a nearby mining town in now-Chhattisgarh (then Madhya Pradesh), called Dalli Rajhara. We used to live in a village called Doundi Awari, where my parents were government servants. My father had borrowed a jeep from a friend for the occasion, and my brother and I wore new shirts, made from the same (than) cloth. In the picture, our eyes was kohled and wide; we were asked to look at the camera by a middle-aged person with a practiced smile and instructions. It was a task to get brother to keep one of his hands from slipping, and by the time he was able to get into the right pose, the unease and boredom on his face became visible.

Writer in 1972 in a village studio at mining town Dalli Rajhara, Chhattisgarh

It was quite an event, which involved some bandobast and line-ups. Some days later, the pictures arrived and became part of our family album. Portraits are almost always ceremonious. Doing the serious work of portraits in the times of selfies and pouts as acts of self love, and the obsession of TikTok and quick WhatsAppable videos, is special in its own way. Things have to wait. Lights have to be right. And the moment is both — in its own spontaneous spirit and a bit of the arranged. There is always a slightly ceremonious approach to getting a portrait done, whether for a photographer or an artist, whether in Dalli Rajhara or South Delhi. A birth, graduation (in all the family albums, pics of our parents in rented/borrowed university robes holding a graduation degree in hand and a weird headgear, which I am not Googling to flaunt my GK), weddings, accomplishments and marking similar milestones.

Shared Solitude: The Portraiture Project

Zaara, Prema, Anita, Saroj, Azah and Imran

But who talks of portraits now? Faces are wonderful pieces of art as distinct features, skin, texture, proportion and aesthetic. Photography has changed into trigger-happy reverse cameras on mobiles, with no need of patience and diligence. 

It is tedious, slow-motion, long-form stuff that only some people have the patience and persistence for. Anita Khemka and Imran Kokiloo come from that species. The idea was to capture human faces and forms in their own element, with things that they hold close, important and integral to them. So we took our bicycle, a defunct typewriter, paintings, dogs, books to that basketball ground amongst trees. It has a bit of that feeling we used to have with boxes and holdalls on railway platforms in strange cities changing trains. A space as in transit and temporarily occupied, which may not be there in the next hour or day. As life is in these times. 

Junaid Shafi with his cat Cookie

Now when I look at the collective works of the portraits, it conveys the drama of the times we are living in through the lockdown. The photographers take their own picture, where one is in the frame (Anita) and the other in the mirror (Imran). The props make people more interesting as one sits alone with loads of framed Tintin covers. Another has a wheelchair for someone not in the picture. There are memorabilias.

Another subject has a picture next to them of someone who is not there. There is presence and absence finding a mention in each other. There is some unsaid story in each frame, face and prop. And it makes you curious about the drama that might be unfolding, from the way the coordinates in the space are arranged. Each face is slightly lost, in spite of putting a brave front, on this side of life and living and togetherness — but also waiting for this lockdown to pass, to let the world come out of this dark, long boring tunnel. It is like a lift full of strangers, where everyone is fixing her/his gaze at a different empty space, while Kenny G’s saxophone is playing through the speakers.

Vasantha, Manjeera and the wheelchair

This is what Anita and Imran say in their statement, “This project thus set out to excavate memory, the joyous and painful, and confronts the universal dilemma of ownership, possession and letting go.” This show is happening now at PhotoInk as part of Delhi Contemporary Art Week with Galleryske.

I had spent long time gazing at works of Lucian Freud once at the National Portrait Gallery, London, and picked a book where an arts writer Martin Gayford and Freud portray each other — one in a painting and the other in words. Man with a blue scarf is a wonderful insight into the mind of an artist over a long period of time.

Cover of the book Man With A Blue Scarf by Martin Gayford

Lucian Freud was a man of heavy detailing and intricate works, taking months to finish a piece. Not only horses and good-looking figures, he would go on to paint faces and nudes of people, some of them were obese, some were common and ordinary. But he would make them look authentic and beautiful by his detailing, thinking and engaging with his subjects.

Self Portrait of Lucian Freud Credit: National Portrait Gallery, London

‘I’ve always wanted to create drama in my pictures, which is why I paint people. It’s people who have brought drama to pictures from the beginning. The simplest human gestures tell stories.’ – Lucian Freud

Seasons had changed, yet we were still in a dark Covid runnel. On a sunny winter afternoon, Imran came with Anita to my 3rd floor little office roof with his handmade camera and portable dark room and chemical factory, and did something called wet-plate collodion process; and when done on a glass plate it is called an Ambrotype. I was suppose to sit still for about a minute without flapping my eyelashes and the picture got processed in that duration on a glass plate. He later shared prints of these files on paper using salt printing or albumen printing techniques. This is what I found on Wiki:

‘The collodion process was invented in 1851 by Frederick Scott Archer and theorized a year earlier by Gustave Le Gray. During the subsequent decades, many photographers and experimenters refined or varied the process. By the end of the 1860s, it had almost entirely replaced the first announced photographic process, the daguerreotype. During the 1880s, the collodion process was largely replaced by gelatin dry plates — glass plates with a photographic emulsion of silver halides suspended in gelatin. The dry gelatin emulsion was not only more convenient, but it could also be made much more sensitive, greatly reducing exposure times.’

Here is what Imran Kokiloo did to me. And it is very layered. He let the photo happen, where he was just the connector of many dots.

Nidheesh Tyagi. Portrait done by Imran Kokiloo