Profile: Mritunjay Kumar /From Selfie to Self: Unseen Scenes behind Pouting Lips / Sushma Sabnis
Photography artist Mritunjay Kumar travels, creating a repository of rare moments culled from the blur of an urban lifestyle, presenting the big picture and the smaller one with equal tenacity, observes Sushma Sabnis.
Streets are interesting places and though the culture of walking to places has diminished over time, the very act of going from one place to another unintentionally celebrates the precious sensorial gifts, especially sight. In the award winning French film, ‘Amelie’ the protagonist lives in a fantasy world while keeping precise intersections within reality. There is a scene in the film where this over imaginative girl helps a visually challenged old man cross the crowded street. The beauty of the scene lies in the way Amelie describes each and every thing happening around them to the blind man, gifting him sight for a few joyous minutes, putting his dark world into perspective. Photographer Mritunjay Kumar falls into this rare category of celebratory individuals. Mritunjay celebrates his gift of sight aiming his camera at silent stories unseen and unknown.
Mritunjay, has a MBA degree which in a way supports his passion for photography, in fact it enhances it. What began as a mere looking-out-the -window on his numerous business trips in the past seven years, changed into a way of seeing things, people and interacting with them.
“My interest in photography was a result of my professional engagement and the fact that I felt anxious interacting with strangers. I traveled widely on business and always wanted to bring back a piece of what I saw. I also came across interesting people but never mustered enough courage to get to know them. Photography seemed to bridge the gap for me” he says.
Calling the street the ‘playground of life’ the artist displays a wide variety of perspectives of the mundane and the easily ignored. But going by the images, one could say, the streets have not just provided a playground but a university itself to Mritunjay. The photography works in his Street series are a subtle documentation of our society and the lives of people on the streets. The paths which lead to and from destinations hold within themselves treasure troves of experiences and distinct cultural hues which cannot be classified and defined. In a country as vibrant as India, every gully, ‘nukkad’( street corner) or ‘chauraha’ ( junction) poses a kind of surprise and unpredictable element which often one ignores in the blur of life. But not Mritunjay, he positions his camera sharply at these ‘holy’ moments of capture and brings into focus what others blissfully ignore.
While most photographers are left with this question whether to choose colour photography over black and white, Mritunjay chooses to toggle between the two tonalities which have very distinct outputs.
“Unlike popular belief, monochrome or black and white photography is more complex to handle than colour photography. Monochrome is ruthless. It allows you no space to hide. It bares the form, composition and story in the simplest format for the world to see.”
His Street series was shot in urban and rural areas captured at different times of the day. Policemen, rickshaw pullers, the crowds at a market place, morning walkers, footpaths, people in waiting rooms at bus depots, youngsters at beaches, people at railway stations are just some of the places the photographer’s camera has explored.
In his other series based on market places or bazaars, one is reminded of the sensorial accosting by the visuals, the smells, the tastes, the sounds and touch. This all round experience of a market place is more than just sensory.
Market, erstwhile places of bartering values for consumables have now become the locations that define our very existence. Market defines both secular and religious desires thereby giving a thrust to the making and breaking of civilizations. The world runs on this one element, and when the photographer captures certain ironic traders, like the shop selling Shiv lingas created naturally by the flow of the Narmada river, it appears that humankind would even cook up an online ‘email@example.com’ for a living. This image is relevant in today’s times where religion threatens to segregate rather than harmonize, where everything could be bought or manipulated.
Also what comes across through the bazaar series is the state of the common man, the proletariat, the small time trader who tries his best to sell his ware and go back home. There is a certain desolation and fatigue in their expressions and that could only be the reminder of the state of the economy in today’s times.
The hardworking fisher folk are captured during their afternoon siesta, a few hours before they lay their nets in the oceans at night. There is a kind of peace in the person’s face as he sleeps in the very basket he carries his catch to the market to, like a baby in a mother’s lap lost to the world outside.
Mritunjay does not limit himself to the physical appearance of a glittery and well stocked ‘shop’ facade as he captures this series, instead the faces of the people who sell their wares itself act as a ‘facade’ for their commodities in his captures. This shift in focus turns some of these works onto lines of pure portraiture even if they are images from documentation. The sharp differences between rural market places or streets and urban market places are seen in these works.
Mritunjay calls himself a street photographer and documentary artist, using digital and film mediums to capture the specific locales he travels to and from. Without being too hung up on the technicalities of wielding a camera, the artist in him creates images which exude meaning. He also tries to correlate imageries in an incessant need to tell a story.
This story telling track can be seen in his Ganesh Chathurthi series. One is aware that festivals are the estuarine hubs of activity and culture. This evokes numerous levels of engagement for a photographer and the narratives could vary considerably. While superficial levels of ‘clicking’ the festival are rampant, in a ‘look-at-me-selfie’ generation, Mritunjay points the lens outward away from himself, towards the event. What he captures also becomes part of his vision, therefore a subtle ‘selfie’, although it is more a capture of his ‘self’ than a practiced meaningless pout.
While the Chathurthi series does capture the entire process of the festival from preparation of the idol to the immersion of it, the fervor and the religiosity involved, he sprinkles the series with tiny bits of brilliance to balance what would have been a lop-sided view of the festival. He brings in the silent narratives of religious beliefs, the city which becomes a single mass of million heads during immersion almost mirroring the sea, the lone security personnel whose presence adds humour more than security when placed adjacent to the million headed mass of people, the big and small of the idols compared to the equality of the people who become part of this festival.
Mritunjay Kumar focuses his lens on the obvious and then trains it further into the silent unseen zones only a sensitive photographer is privy to. This brings his works to a full circle, telling stories close to home and revisiting often ignored narratives of everyday life.