Near Where the Sun Rises

by October 9, 2018 0 comments

A look at the North-east through the lens of Shyamal Datta.

Whenever possible, Sebastian Salgado the colossus for travel photography,  lives for a while with the people he photographs. “I tell a little bit of my life to them, and they tell a little of theirs to me. The picture itself is just the tip of the iceberg,” says he. Here in India there is one photographer who lives by that credo, and it is Shyamal Datta.

Once in a blue moon you espie an exhibition that stops you in your tracks and wakes you up. An exhibition that takes you away from the maddening crowd and forces you to meditate on a lifestyle,  a race that calls out for scrutiny through images that make you ask questions and draw more than a thousand sighs and tug at your heartstrings.

Photographer  Datta insists that he is not a modernist, knows nothing about technicalities in taking photographs, but his sojourn of the North East at the Indian International Centre in Delhi unconsciously synthesises  complex visual and articulate traditions in stupendous images that open the way to modernism.


Limpid landscapes speak to us about India’s most bountiful and beautiful scenic settings — the mountains at Arunachal and Sikkim are as engaging as the clouds that gather on the horizon. Capturing the surreal quality of the seraphic lacing of light seems to come naturally to Shyamal.

“I get up early just before dawn to catch the light,” says Shyamal who has traversed these rugged mountains and brooks for 10 years. “Yes, at that moment in time the light has a power that one cannot imagine. Sometimes it has a haunting quality, but the clarity of the conscious moment that is untouched. It is a combination of what is  real ,what is strange, as well profound because the camera acts as a signifier of freezing the frame on many instances of rare existence, so we look at lifestyles of vanishing tribes and it becomes an avenue of documentation.”

Full of Sienna tones in a blush orange is the sunset with a Naga maiden standing on a ledge and looking at a valley beyond. “This image is a recreation of a popular folk tale of Mizoram,” says Shyamal. It is the story of Lianchhiari, a princess, and Chawngfianga, a commoner,  from Dungtlang village.The tale ends in a tragedy in the very spot where the Mizo girl stands in the image. The image has been shot at the Dungtlang village, Champhai district, Mizoram.

Images of truth

When you look at the interior images of the houses and the rustic rhythms of the tribal folk you are drawn in their maw. The images are imbued with a profound sense of foreboding;  timelessness and are grainy which are sometimes inscrutable as they represent the tangled and twisted histories of hardship set against a monotone sky. This is the subject of tribes who are still primordial and  primeval in the harder instincts of livelihood. The Angami Naga elder from Kohima in Nagaland, in all his finery looks like a weathered sage as he sits in his home. “He had a regal carriage about him and the way he sat and looked at me, I grabbed that ray of sunlight as it crept into his home. He is one of the last remaining Angami Naga tribal elders and he proudly displays his dress and ornaments,” adds Shyamal.

The murmuring brooks and the vegetation, bamboo and straw baskets stand like sentinels in the fading twilight, whether they clean the rice or light the hearth, here are images of old, with voices sad and prophetic, content to live in their essence of simplicity and humility.

Rugged Portraits

Weathered silhouettes come to the fore when you look at the single portraits of the tribes. Their solitary feeling reflects both their locations and their timeworn essence beneath the glow of their own livelihoods. Women and men become iconic in portraits that emphasise the passage of time and evoke the age of these elders.

When asked to describe his journey from dawn to dusk walking in the pathways of these unique tribes and recording their vanishing ways, Shyamal states, “When you photograph races like these, you’re faced with the power of humanity, you’re faced with something very mysterious and very mystical, whether it’s looking at the dawn or watching a hearth being lit in a bamboo and straw home, or sometimes watching a sunset. There’s  something very powerful about man and nature that’s endlessly mysterious and a reminder of our mortality, of more existential things.”

Visual analogues in wildlife

Perhaps because it is so attuned to the contours of the here and now, his work remains refreshingly unconcerned with making claims for its own art historical importance. The artist’s attention to process and materials, along with his poetic commitment to the diminutive and the subtle, make questions of cultural positioning feel almost beside the point. The passage of time is tangible when you look at the egrets as well as the mother and baby rhinos at Kaziranga. Wildlife as a subject seems a natural selection of sorts for Shyamal. The resultant works — small and subtle — feel almost incidental, byproducts of zoological investigations in being and doing to capture masterpieces. The natural forests and habitat lend them a fragile beauty, similar to the beauty of a sunflower  seed head in the moment before a gust of wind or a child’s breath disperses its seeds.

This sense of fragility achieves ravishing articulation — the egrets with their plumes are simply gorgeous to experience: mesmeric, meditative and enveloping. Its elongated feathers notes make apparent that time’s passage is not just the subject matter of much of  Shyamal’s visual work but also its material substance in naturality.

Ultimately these North Eastern photographs are quiet portraits of venerable beings. By seeking them out and preserving them in photographs, they become reminders of the vastly different chronologies of life taking place all around us, and how it’s all part of the ecology/human habitation  of our planet.

A decade of documentation

Shyamal Datta has won awards and has been featured often in the best magazines in the world, the latest feature in the New York Times Literary Review is just one among many feathers.The money that he gets from the many magazines he gives back to the communities, its his act of karma.

He sums up his journey over a decade in the documentation of the lives of the people in the North East, “Over the last 10 years, one of the most significant impact that my work and the concomitant travels along with it, has been the realisation that the camera and its paraphernalia can be as good as it can be. But the entire gamut of creativity from a holistic perspective emerges out from darkness when the artist bonds with the subject — soul to soul. From a stage of photographing “pretty pictures” to portraits, I gradually began to understand the tribal community of my region, their lifestyle, their stories, history and traditions and so forth. I reached a phase when my camera began to take backstage and my empathy with these brave and beautiful people took centre-stage. How little we understood them or misunderstood them and how condescending we were to them. Their grace and dignity overwhelmed me. Their beauty mesmerised me and their kindness often brought tears to me. It was then that digital optics came back to centre-stage.”

Photo: Shyamal Datta

Writer: Uma Nair

Source: The Pioneer

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