Capturing luminous moments
Here is a private suite of images which photographer Ashvin Mehta has maintained over time while travelling on assignments. It records a series of occasions when, by a fortuitous coming together of light, gestures and object, Mehta invites the viewer to share in a heightened and lyrical sense of possibility. A review by GEETA DOCTOR.
HAPPENINGS/A JOURNAL OF LUMINOUS MOMENTS
A rolling meadow ... in Wales, Britain...
HE'S done the Himalayas. Ashvin Mehta's Encounters with Eternity, as his journeys to the Himalayas were sub-titled, launched him on the timeless track of the photographer as pilgrim.
It was, as he explained it then, a celebration, not just of the grandeur many picture books on the Himalayas have done that but of the smaller moments of communion that Mehta felt as he recorded the fullness of life, in all its rich colours and variety, etching its own patterns against the backdrop of time.
He's also done the Indian Coasts. Mehta's camera has meticulously scoured and documented the remnants of those many argosies that have arrived unheralded on Indian shores to carry away the loot of its once unparalleled tropical wealth and home-spun splendour. Here too, the visual essays that he provided were part travelogue and part Mehta's own search for transcendence. Or for underlining that moment, when all activity ceases and the place becomes defined as ageless and timeless, so that the viewer is again an ancient fisherman repairing his nets, or that first Portuguese sailor, or Dutch, or French or English merchant walking across the sand to take control of a stretch of blue-green water, earth and sky. Or in his series of meditations on islands, Mehta was able to render them as rings of pure shape and colour as perfect as a slice of polished agate. After having done the elements and found, as he himself hints in his first book, the hidden "limbs of the Formless" can there be anything left for Mehta to contemplate?
The answer is that there is the everyday and the ordinary that litters our known world that can also provide a sudden flash of recognition in the minds of an alert seeker. Mehta calls them "Happenings" and in his own brusque manner has appended a number of explanatory notes to each moment, with small quotations from his favourite poets or philosophers. As he explains in an afterword, when he exhibited some of these photographs, those who were in the same profession, felt that the explanations were an intrusion, while those who approached the work with a spiritual bent of mind were puzzled, in his words, "as to the relevance of the captions to the pictures".
... and low tide and the inverted trunks of coconut trees ... in Karaikal.
Ranjit Hoskote, poet and writer who has written the elegant introduction to both the man and his work, calls the images in the book "a tribute to the epiphany". To those who may find the term somewhat exotic, if not obscure, the easiest way to explain it is to say that it's a celebration of the "Wow!" effect. Or as Richard Bach might say, in the bird speak of Jonathan Livingston Seagull, "If we are alert, with minds and eyes open, we will see meaning in the commonplace; we will see very real purposes in situation which we might otherwise shrug off and call `chance'." The formal dictionary meaning of "epiphany" is of course much more grand. It could indicate, the dictionary tells us, "an appearance, or revelatory manifestation of God, or of a divine being, or a god" or that "its soul, its whatness leaps at us from the vestments of its appearance."(Webster) It's perhaps a good thing to keep these precepts in mind while going through the collection. For, it must be admitted, to the less ecstatically inclined viewer, there are moments when the sight of a what looks like a yellow plastic bin standing alone in a deserted stretch of Wales, provokes not wonder but mirth. It's what a follower of Roland Barthes might call the "hello!" effect, when an object swims into the consciousness of the viewer and signals the moment of recognition. Or what can one make of the coy flourish of geraniums peeking out from logs that have been carefully stacked against a wall, brimming at the top with a band of the same red flowers except to say that if that's Switzerland that must be a chocolate box cover picture?
For Mehta however, the plastic bin is a defining moment and when you, as a viewer, can actually be distracted for an instant by the sheer squat round plasticity of the salt bin, you realise that the sunlight flooding through the countryside has bathed the rounded hills at the back with that very same golden yellow "plastic" sheet of light. You begin to appreciate what Mehta is trying to say, when he explains: "As one begins the inner journey, events are replaced by happenings. Events happen in time and are soon forgotten. Happenings are carried in the unconscious till the very end. Perhaps beyond."
What then of the chocolate box moments, those familiar juxtapositions of certain stock images that we with our over-stuffed visual baggage are inclined to reject with the tired tail wag of the pampered poodle that refuses to accept one more chocolate truffle, even if it is served on a silver plate?
The antidote is to pay attention when Hoskote lectures the reader on how Mehta's eye does not shrink away from the obvious and the beautiful if they are part of the journey that he has undertaken to recover for him first, and then perhaps for the viewer the secret path that some commentators call "Bliss". Or as Hoskote would have it: "So that, when the visionary occasion manifests itself, we share with the photographer a certain preparation to accept it in the form of darshana, the glimpse of splendour, the intimate vision in which the universe shows itself to us through a beauty that revitalises our dormant senses, while gently uncovering a fraction of its plenitude, that sublime that would overwhelm us in its fullness."
To those who are willing to accept the gifts that Mehta has so consistently and rigorously pursued through the mechanism of his photographic eye, every picture can lead the viewer into another dimension, every line that he shares with his listeners can add to the experience and even a pink-surfboard dredged up against the sand of a California beach can lift you across the surf into the blue waters beyond. In a world that stands divided by so many distinctions of rigid beliefs and fierce sectarian rivalry, it's good sometimes to be told that god can also be seen on a pink surfboard on a sandy beach in California.
Happenings A Journal of Luminous Moments, Ashvin Mehta,
introduction by Ranjit Hoskote, p.196, 88 colour plates, Rs 1,500.
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