The Price Of Surreal Estate

Culled from almost a decade of work, celebrated photographer  Prashant Panjiar’s new show asks where our development is leading us. Follow him down the rabbit hole
In the midst of India’s development boom, it’s often easy to be confused whether the scene in front of you is being constructed or demolished – or both. That strange in-betweenness is something Prashant Panjiar brings home in his new exhibit of photographs, Pan India: A Shared Habitat. The celebrated photojournalist has cut a wide swathe across the country, journeying from familiar scenes in our major cities to the remotest parts of Ladakh or Dhubri in Assam or Gokarna in Karnataka. The show centres on how Indians now live, and, given their inevitable sharing of space, how they now have to live.

The images are all in panoramic format, which Panjiar began experimenting with in 2000 with a borrowed camera. After six years, he took stock of his wide formats and realised they could be organised around a theme of living habitats, and began work on the project. “These concerns — around the new Indian growth and construction and how people live — evolved as they preyed on my mind,” he says. His earlier project, titled Kings & Commoners, came similarly with an emerging theme rather than something programmed.

Coming from a Left-wing political science background, Panjiar photographed peasant movements and other social issues at university. Largely self-taught, he joined photojournalism in 1984 with The Pioneer newspaper and made the jump to magazine format with India Today in 1986. A decade later he helped launch Outlook magazine as Associate Editor, and became a fulltime freelancer in 2001. He served on the jury of the World Press Photo Awards in 2002, and continues to help select and mentor younger peers for the National Foundation of India’s fellowships.

Divided into sections, Pan India presents an array of cityscapes, rural vistas, construction sites and various habitat hardware like bridges, roads, garbage dumps, brick kilns, technology parks, mechanic shops and parking lots. Often the lens includes various lines like electrical wires, poles and clotheslines, the ubiquitous crosshatch of urbanisation. Says Panjiar, “Most photographers take these out, but I enjoy them – they’re unconscious things but they build up a picture.”

His concerns lie with exploring the underbelly of India’s fabled development story. He laments, “Indians are too easily seduced by success, we congratulate ourselves too easily. One gold medal at the Olympics and everyone goes crazy. It’s the same with development. It becomes exclusive – if it’s good for me, then nothing else matters.” He’s careful to acknowledge the necessity and upgraded lifestyles of development, even as he sets about trying to remind the middle and upper richer classes about the unprivileged ones. “But if you point this out, you’re called unpatriotic, which is part of the self-congratulation,” he continues. “We’re asked not to malign India’s image – no one says that the people doing this are the unpatriots. This was all at the back of my mind. The pictures are supposed to be reflective – photography doesn’t have the power to be corrective. I’m not an activist.”

The show also reflects his preoccupation with the theme of migration. In the nine years of shooting these pictures, he often wondered about the construction workers who travelled great distances looking for work. The cover image of the exhibit’s catalogue depicts the home of a construction worker in front of Gurgaon’s rising skyscrapers, with a spare clothesline marking the boundary between the two habitats. “They’re getting better livelihoods, but their own homes are demolished to make way for these new ones,” says Panjiar. Road widenings and rampant, unplanned constructions that break up civic spaces evoke an animated response from him, and he says that civic concerns are most urgent in second and third-tier cities rather than the metros. “I keep coming back to Kanpur, which made me see what’s happening to such smaller cities. I went there for a story when it was declared the seventh most polluted city in the world for air pollution. That was a shocking eye-opener. In places like Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore, at least you hear a voice of concern, there are enough pressure groups and activist citizens to argue things. Kanpur has nothing! People can do whatever they want. They can rape the river and nobody will do anything to them. Local groups don’t have a voice, and that’s where the habitat disasters will happen. Delhi and Bombay will sort themselves out.

“More than the ill effects on the habitat, which is measurable, for me the bigger unrecognised concern has been that our living space is a shared rather than an exclusive one. The exhibit’s pictures keep returning to that sharing. You can hate the fact that there’s a slum outside your home. But it’s there, baby, and you can’t wish it away,” he says. Anupam Yog of Mirabilis Advisory, which is helping to organise the upcoming Habitat Summit in Delhi, praises Panjiar’s work as a “bridge builder. We need such work to help guide the trajectory of Indian urbanisation. Cities are places for people to live in, which people often forget in pursuit of hard infrastructure. Building gated communities, we’ve let our public spaces become unliveable.”

Panjiar is excited by the photography scene in the Indian documentary and artistic tradition, but is uncertain about journalism catching up yet. The photojournalism he sees is still rooted in providing clear messages with foregone conclusions. In contrast, “most good documentary photography is no longer trying to draw conclusions, leaving things ambiguous and open-ended. It tries to get under your skin by being disturbing in a non-event way,” he says. He cites Sohrab Hura in Delhi and Dhiraj Singh in Mumbai as two young peers who’ve taken up the gauntlet. This remains a challenge for both the people behind and in front of the lens, and the editor who selects the final catch. The problem with Indian journalism begins with a photographer going in with a clear objective of what the potential photo is about. Adds Panjiar, “A story about farmer suicides in Vidarbha isn’t about suicides — you need to think of it in terms of its emotions — is it a story about absence, or loss, or emptiness? Once you break it down, then the images will become about that. Surya Singh once did a fabulous photo-essay about farmer suicides where every picture was actually about absence. The pictures showed the presence of the person no longer there, which made your hair stand up. That needs to happen more in photojournalism.”

THE WIDE format’s effect of making objects flatter and closer seems to have freed him from his profession’s need for excitability, and in Pan India Panjiar cleaves firmly to a quieter approach. Photographer and friend Sanjeev Saith, who curated the show, claims that “Prashant is a photographer not in a hurry,” while photographer Swapan Parekh describes him as someone who’s “never gone after the splash, he’s always gone after the ripples. The tight and bright picture is not necessarily the best one.” Says Panjiar, “Over the years, my work’s become much more non-dramatic. I’ve not done in-your-face photography. I stop and step back and let the action finish to shoot the after-effect instead. It’s more introspective with my wondering what’s happening in front of me. Most of the show’s images are not complex, they’re simple.” This de-emphasis of drama in his art has been an unexpected evolution, given Panjiar’s journalistic grounding. Some criticise his usage of the wide format, complaining that India’s sheer multiplicity demands that a frame capture unique moments, and don’t subscribe to his idea of keeping an image easy and relaxed even while inhaling more space into it. Modern photography seems divided between those who yet seek that transcendent moment in a picture and those who struggle to somehow capture the ordinary. Panjiar belongs to the latter; there’s little in Pan India that puts the viewer off-kilter, and the strongest impression is of how life continues anyway even as the scenery collapses around us. But if habitats start seeming incidental, how do you emphasise the importance of a private living space?

Saith provided the idea of adding a section with families inside their habitat; Panjiar agreed and took his camera inside homes to add a portfolio of gorgeous black-andwhite portraits. “Sanjeev felt we needed this to complete the project and give it a sense of privacy,” explains Panjiar, while Saith comments that “the suggestion was to take the thought forward and try to bring it full circle.” A living room in Mumbai’s Kharegat Parsi colony teems with paintings and pictures. The nagadkhana (drum-house) of a Pune temple also serves as the drummer’s family living room, where he plays his instrument through an open window. A class X student sits blankly, looking away from his new bride in ghunghat in their village home. A ‘family’ of five young men from the same management school stand together in the Gurgaon flat they all share.

These and other family portraits are the show’s strongest element, providing an urgency of concern for living spaces that is sometimes missing from the other pictures of external landscapes. Even if deliberate, the static nature of these other images does tend to dull the viewer’s eye quickly. Panjiar is aware that without the shock of the new, they run the danger of becoming part of the oftencrabby narrative of anti-development, trapped in a cycle of fatigue and resentment. The subject of a man in a shack or of a corpulent highrise against dulcet lawns may not be much different from what photographers were shooting a few decades ago, but Panjiar tries to leap this ravine with panoramic views and cross-country amplitude. “The difference in his photos,” according to Saith, “is that Prashant lost his ego a long time ago. He approaches the subject with empathy, not aggression. All the elements in a picture have a relationship amongst themselves. You come away moved rather than just impressed. You realise the point of the show only after seeing all of it.”

Panjiar’s own hopes of our ongoing development lie on a smaller scale, and involves the private pride a homemaker feels in whatever space he or she has been able to carve out. He says, “With all of modernity happening to us, if we can maintain some semblance of our individual identities, communit y, family, and therefore ownership – that will keep India still very special. I’d hate all the houses in India to become like Belvedere Park in Gurgaon – even in Belvedere Park, you want people to have their puja room in their home, someone to have a kantha painting on the wall, someone to have seating on the floor. These things do continue.”

An aeroplane swoops overhead as he’s mid-sentence, its tearing zchoom worryingly large above us on the first floor. This has happened a few times during our conversation. Panjiar’s home seems to be on the airport’s flight route, and this is how he and his family live – how we all have to live now.

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