Celebrating the genius of Prabuddha Dasgupta
Just what did Prabuddha Dasgupta mean to photography in India? Rediff.com's Abhishek Mande tries to find out.
The website loads almost as soon as you hit Enter. Against a pristine white backdrop, five hyperlinks lead you to the biography and the works of the man to whom it belongs.
And then slowly but surely in the white expanse below, an image begins to appear; at first it seems like a sketch, drawn with a pencil but later evolves into a proper monochrome photograph revealing a young woman with her back to camera, her hair flying, perhaps due to breeze or perhaps because she's flicked them just before the shutter went click.
The picture is devoid of all colours, except shades of white and black. In some ways it is just a photo of a bare-backed model looking in the same direction as the photographer's camera and yet in many others, it evokes a thousand emotions -- of longing and lust, of love stolen between moments of hectic activity and of a sense of loss, of having to leave the past behind and move on to brace a new world that lies beyond the high walls, towards which she seems to be looking.
Prabuddha Dasgupta's website does not announce his passing away on the morning of Sunday, August 12 of a heart attack. Yet, the photograph of his muse and partner Lakshmi Menon speaks a million words.
Dasgupta's death came as a shock to many who knew him. Some took to Twitter to express their disbelief.
Model and chef Padma Lakshmi tweeted: 'RIP Prabuddha Dasgupta. Huge loss. Lucky to work with such a master, artist & friend. So sad for Lakshmi & his girls.'
Models who'd worked with him shared their pictures. Ujjwala Raut posted this photo from an advertisement campaign for which he'd shot her, a bright and colourful picture shot with Raut in the foreground.
Lara Dutta recollected the time she'd posed for him soon for the cover of Femina soon after she'd won Miss India. "It was every woman's dream to be shot by Prabuddho (sic)," she wrote, "No one captured a woman like him (sic)."
Dutta couldn't have been more correct. Dasgupta's women stood out not necessarily because they were physically attractive but rather because they never felt the need to be. Sure some confirmed to the gender stereotypes but most defied them.
Whether in colour, which he usually shot for commercial assignments, or in monochrome, which was his first love, Dasgupta never gave in to stereotypes; his genius perhaps lay in the fact that he created them. Be it in his work for jewellery brands or fashion designers or editorials of glossy magazines, Dasgupta set the rules.
"That was a bold thing to do," Avinash Gowariker told me over the phone "He had the sheer daring to shoot the conventional unconventionally. The fact that the agencies who hired him let him do that, speaks volumes of who he was."
Gowariker confessed that though he's followed Dasgupta's work, he's never seen him at it. "I did meet him once," he says, "I was attending a workshop he was holding for the Photographers' Guild of India and I remember being taken aback by the simplest explanations that he had for every picture he took. You would imagine that there is a lot of thought process and planning that goes behind the making of a Prabuddha Dasgupta photograph but I realised that day there isn't. He stressed on the fact that one should do what one wanted and not what the norms dictated. And that was all!"
Image: Prabuddha Dasgupta on assignment for Fashion at Big Bazaar, which would be his last job
Photographs: Bhupal Ramnathkar/Founder of Umbrella Design
Celebrating the genius of Prabuddha Dasgupta
Much like Dasgupta, Avinash Gowariker is a photographer too, except that unlike him, Gowariker has worked with some of the biggest names in Bollywood, many of whom he counts as friends.
Contrarily, Dasgupta avoided working with the Bollywood crowd. In a 2009 interview to Rediff.com, he confesses of being 'quite shy of working with 'Bollywood starlets and people like that because a couple of my experiences, while not unpleasant, haven't been something that I would want to repeat very often'.
He refused to deal with 'the baggage that comes with them in terms of star quality' and be part of 'that universe they seem to inhabit'.
Dasgupta did however make an exception for the young Sonam Kapoor (who had made her Bollywood debut two years before he shot her). "I was very pleasantly and happily surprised when I photographed this young, very talented actress called Sonam Kapoor, Anil Kapoor's daughter," he recollected in the interview. "I told her, 'You have a special quality, you have to keep this going.' She has an old-world face and she's very charming, very well brought up, very solid, very rooted. That is a pleasure to encounter in the business."
Kapoor tweeted this picture that Dasgupta had shot of her with a short message: 'RIP Prabuddha Dasgupta'.
Across publications today, Prabuddha Dasgupta has been called a fashion photographer, which is perhaps a terribly limiting definition of the man who never let his work be restricted to a single genre. Sure he shot pictures for magazine editorials and fashion and jewellery brands but his real love for the image comes across in the work he's done for himself.
On his website, under 'Personal' he lists four projects, each distinctly varied from the other -- from urban women to Ladakh to his pictures of Goa where he lived and a collection of photos quite simply labelled 'Longing'.
It is in these photographs that you see the genius of the man -- a blurred image of a sidewalk, a half-eaten meal, a car under a rain-proof cover, a lone bus against a dry arid landscape -- of how with a click of a button and the snap of a shutter, the everyday gets transformed into a work of art.
"He created a whole new viewpoint," fashion consultant Prasad Bidapa says, "He redefined photography in India and created a look at that was uniquely his!"
Bidapa remembers meeting Dasupta over 25 years ago while doing a fashion show for the Ministry of Textiles for the Government of India and then eventually introducing him to clients in Bengaluru.
"He created some path-breaking shots. Like back when he shot for Ganjam Jewellery, he shot it in a manner no one had shot before. He placed (pieces of) jewellery on rocks or at the end of a fisherman's pole... very unconventional," Bidapa tells me.
Dasgupta's younger colleague Subi Samuel couldn't agree more. Speaking to me over the phone, he Subi recollected a campaign for Lee jeans shot by five different photographers.
"This was about 8-9 years ago and we were shooting for a Lee campaign. While the rest of us were shooting futuristic pictures all he did was to take Yana (Gupta) to a beach and get her to run around and shoot! There was that whole class act about him that I always admired.
What was spectacular about him and what I admired in him was that he wasn't swaying and swinging with the times. He believed in a few things and he stuck with it. When the world went ballistic over Photoshop, he was doing clean, simple shots.
When I started my career, a friend gifted me a book by him and in a note hoped that someday he'd see a book by me," Subi says.
Image: Cover of Women by Prabuddha Dasgupta
Celebrating the genius of Prabuddha Dasgupta
Prabuddha Dasgupta's bibliography includes three books -- Women (Penguin India, 1996), Ladakh (Penguin India, 2000) and Edge of Faith (Seagull Books 2009) and two catalogues -- Work (Bodhi Art, 2006) and Longing (Bodhi Art, 2007).
By at least one account, Prabuddha Dasgupta's last assignment was for Fashion at Big Bazaar (FBB).
The art director for the shoot was Bhupal Ramnathkar, a former Enterprise Nexus man and now the founder of the very creative Umbrella Design.
(Ramnathkar is also the photographer of the picture on the first page of this story, one he was kind enough to share with us)
"We did our first campaign together back in 1989. Since then, I've always ensured that I get to work with him on at least one campaign a year. He's never compromised on his work and never bothered to network so he could get more work. He was never bothered; never in the race," Ramnathkar says adding that his association with Dasgupta was special. "My first campaign was with him for Charms cigarettes. The one we were shooting for FBB happened to be his last."
It may never be possible to put down in words what Prabuddha Dasgupta meant to photography. "56 is no age to die," photojournalist Pablo Bartholomew wrote in the Monday edition of Hindustan Times recollecting the genius of Dasgupta and his calming presence that he'd always miss.
Actor Kabir Bedi put it succinctly in his tweet: "Sad farewell to Prabuddha Dasgupta whose Black & White photography will be a living memorial to his fantastic creativity."
For all we have left now is the monochrome photograph of a young woman with her back to the camera, looking perhaps in the direction of the wall with two high windows.
Image: Cover of Edge of Faith in which he collaborated with William Dalrymple