This review was published in The Statesman on July 31st 2016
Sumit Basu belongs to a rare breed of photographers who shoot black and white film and then processes and prints himself in his own darkroom. Painstakingly acquiring the chemicals and paper from select sources, Basu watches the image develop in front of his eyes like the masters of yesteryear – a far cry from the instant gratification of today’s digital technology.
Time in Banaras is Basu’s first book produced after spending more than two decades shooting in the city. Mainly working with a Leica and Kodak Tri-X film, a photo- journalists favourite, Basu has spent many days and nights wandering the lanes of Banaras. He often uses a wide angle lens which gives greater depth and a different perspective to his photographs. The book has an engaging foreword written by the art historian Partha Mitter.
Though Banaras is a much photographed city, Basu’s images steer clear of picture postcard views. The evening aarati, sunrise and sunset on the ghats, boys diving into the river, which are the clichéd images of Banaras do not find a place in this book.
Instead Basu focuses on the day to day cycle of life capturing the complexities of everyday living in dark and sombre tones.
A man lying on a ghat with a pet monkey for company is set off against a wide sweep of the river with a boat just leaving the frame. Another image, photographed way back in 1998, shows a dog and a man perfectly balanced between the steps of a flooded ghat. A young boy walks away from Gwalior Ghat leaving a circle of pigeons behind him, while in another frame a large Thums Up bottle painted on a wall is set off against a man cradling a cup of tea.
In Basu’s own words “Black and grey were my colours as I wandered the streets in different seasons following the sun as it moved south and then north again after the spring equinox”.
Using the power of light and shadow to his advantage Basu is able to convey the impact of life and death in this holy city. A particularly poignant photograph shows a priest towering above the flames at Manikarnika Ghat while at Mukti Bhawan a couple awaits the death of a relative who hopes to attain salvation.
Many of Basu’s photographs capture the timelessness of Banaras like the cover photo which shows a woman praying on her terrace above the ghats while the daily chores of existence carry on next to the river below her.
Patterns form an important part of Basu’s composition and he photographs the steps of Assi ghat with sleeping pilgrims and a line of boatmen awaiting passengers. Using a top- down perspective , Basu captures an old woman climbing the stairs of Gwalior Ghat which stretch down to the water below.
An interesting aspect of Basu’s work is that the subject is often unaware of his camera and the photograph is over in a fleeting moment.
Some of the images are though provoking like the one of a white horse looking out from an old house where a bicycle is parked. One cannot help but wonder whose horse is it, who rides it and what is it doing there?
The last shot in the book shows in concluding finality, spent lamps strewn on a broken river bed, possibly after an “aarati” the evening before, which captures perfectly the pulse of this eternal city.
The Afterword written by Basu explores how the photographer views Banaras and his interaction with the city and its people.
The book has been printed in duo tone and this has resulted in some of the photographs looking soft and muted. One wonders how much richer the backs and the whites would have looked had the publisher chosen four colour printing.
Some links to the book are below: