Every urban centre has its still moments. |
A look at a book that captures them.
A cyclist speeding past a wall painted with a comic tableau .... in Singapore.
REMEMBER the delight, both sensual and sensational, of Marilyn Monroe standing on a hot-air vent on the pavements of New York and clutching at her swirling skirts in the film, "Seven Year Itch"?
It's an early attempt at mythologising the harsh urban grottiness of the built environment of a gigantic city and juxtaposing it with the image of a young woman. A tale of beauty and the beast in which Marilyn, the epitome of blond innocence incarnate allows the beast to caress her in its hot sweaty breath. We remember it because it seems so unreal, so unexpected the contrast between her obvious youth and enjoyment of the moment and the power of the steel and concrete city. Or more acutely the sudden encounter between the brute matter and living flesh.
This is what happens when Ashvin Mehta, the photographic chronicler of Himalayan splendour leaves his pine-sprinkled valleys and the sudden sparkle of a blue-eyed lake to walk the streets of the steel and glass cities of the modern world. He documents a new mythology. He looks for the chinks that open up before him, somewhat in the manner of Alice who falls into a hole and re-discovers another world that is not just topsy-turvy but so full of strange and unexpected creatures and ideas that we too, her ardent readers or followers find ourselves part of this "wonderland". Or, if we were to use a more contemporary model, like in the movie "The Matrix" Mehta crashes through the barriers of the everyday and the ordinary and almost casually leads us to contemplate another dimension.
This jarring of perceptions between the commonplace and the unexpected is captured in a vivid moment in one portrait in particular. A woman is walking along a street, in the City of Westminster, London, when suddenly, a giant-sized figure looms at her round the corner. The photograph is taken just at the point when the woman shrinks back and has instinctively moved her hand to clutch her red shirt around the region of her heart. She is jarred into a state of inaction. She does not know whether to flee or just wait for the assault. It could be a mugger. There is something very sinister about the figure, with its white painted face and open red mouth, with red-gloved hands spread out in an apparently threatening posture. In the same instant, we see, as does the woman, that it's a clown on stilts. He's just another part of the street-side entertainment that one encounters in a city like London. It's a masterly shot. Not just because of the drama that Mehta has managed to choreograph in such detail, but because he also includes many visual clues that link up the texture of the stones that meet at the corner, the black and white elegance of the shops at one side, that are contrasted to the black and white cube of the rubbish bin and bollard that stand in the corner, as well as the stark emptiness of a Western City, that makes even a Clown such a threat to the pedestrian.
Nancy Adajania, an art critic and curator of note has provided an interesting introduction to Mehta's collection of moments that record his journeys through the cities, most of them taken when he was on assignment for various travel magazines. She remarks on the little moments of playfulness that are evident in the collection, which are in quaint contrast to the grandeur of his earlier encounters with infinity. As she reminds us, "The laukika, or commonplace, does not cease to exist because of our encounter with the alaukika or miraculous. Rather. The flavour of the latter is enhanced by contact with the former, rendering the experience richer in texture." Or as she goes on to observe, "For the first time, we see Mehta unplugged as a subtle humorist, smiling wryly at the urban spectacle."
Adajania also alerts the viewer to the way that Mehta tends to view his images in multiple layers. Just as in the picture of a giant pair of sunshades that acts as a sunscreen for the front window of a lime-green car in San Francisco, with windscreen wipers that are seemingly poised to clear the panels of the goggles, Mehta creates numerous views in which reality and reflection merge. Particularly in the case of the very real looking mannequins that strut and preen their stuff in the windows of plush shops in the West, looking down superciliously at their target audience, or mirrored surfaces of tall buildings that seem to sag and dissolve in a play of chance reflections, or in the sprawl of signs and graffiti, Mehta explores a world that is very precariously poised between substance and hypothesis. Ezra Pound's reality that lies in a bundle of broken mirrors is now bound and waiting to be explored in the Cityscapes of Ashvin Mehta's unique perspective.
Intimate Cityscapes, The Still Point of the Turning World, Ashvin Mehta, introduction by Nancy Adajania, 69 colour plates, p.96, Archer 2004, Rs. 1,200.
Send this article to Friends by