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A photographer traces the afterlife of political posters

Ritesh Uttamchandani’s first solo show looks at political posters dissociated from their original function, and are found as awnings, backdrops, covers for fish nets and makeshift beds

In the photos. Ritesh Uttamchandani is trying to stay as close to the nature of the posters and the nature of engagement of politics. Photo: courtesy Ritesh Uttamchandani/Cymroza Gallery

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Ever wondered what happens to political posters after all the rallies and campaigns? In his first solo exhibition, A Lease Of Life, now showing at Mumbai’s Cymroza gallery, photographer Ritesh Uttamchandani explores their afterlife—as awnings, backdrops, fish-net covers, makeshift beds, even a drape for an idol of a goddess. In one of the images, you can see a sheet, lined with upturned mugshots of politicians, form the roof of a shanty in a half-constructed zone. In another photograph, the poster serves as a spread for onions, lemons, potatoes and a weighing scale on a vegetable cart.

“Prized for their sturdiness, these flex or vinyl sheets retain their original imagery, which is now thrust into unexpected, delightfully bizarre relationships with everyday objects,” writes art critic and cultural theorist Ranjit Hoskote, who has curated the exhibition. “Uttamchandani’s images capture the raw materiality of an economy premised on ingenious strategies of improvisation, while conveying a poignant allegorical charge.”

Uttamchandani, who has worked as a photojournalist with The Indian Express, Hindustan Times and Open magazine, and whose work has been published in magazines such as TIME and Newsweek, has taken the majority of these images since 2009, though the earliest image dates to 2004. The idea for the series, which continues, stemmed from his fatigue with photographing politicians during election campaigns. 

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“The images shot during rallies were very performative in nature. You were always trying to make the person look relatable, more human. I felt that it was like an extended PR exercise,” says Uttamchandani, who is also presenting a section drawing from his debut photobook, The Red Cat And Other Stories (2018), about his home city, Mumbai. The photobook forms the second layer of the show. It is printed and installed in its entirety, and has been juxtaposed with the after life series. There is an interplay of ideas between both the bodies of work.

At some level, he was always on the lookout for a different take. “I am never without a camera. The advent of the phone camera is the best thing to have happened to me,” he says. Once, he recalls, he happened to see someone setting up a stall. With one swipe, the man pulled off a political poster that had been covering the stall. That image, exuding a sense of suspended disbelief with a poster so incongruous to its surroundings, is the lead on the exhibition brochure. 

“While taking these images, I was not looking at clean lines or the golden hour. I am not trying to show that I am some craftsman, rather I am trying to stay as close to the nature of the posters and the nature of engagement of politics,” says Uttamchandani. “In the use of these posters, the transactional nature between the politician and the janta is reversed. The politician’s image is pulled off a pedestal and used by the people for their needs. This time the engagement is driven by the people and not the other way around.”

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Hoskote, in his note, attributes the observant and sensitive photography to Uttamchandani’s deeply empathetic gaze. He also sees Uttamchandani as an archivist. “This chronicle focuses on the big city’s generative paradoxes: between the found and the made; the posed and the spontaneous; suffering as imposed structurally on the vulnerable and as voluntarily, temporarily embraced by hedonists,” he writes.

It was a conscious decision to not title the images or give descriptive captions. Uttamchandani likes creating open-ended images. People can make their own inferences. “The afterlife series will continue. The idea is to make it into a book or a zine, which can be held in hand, and is accessible and affordable. I am not keen on producing very highly priced photobooks as those tend to alienate a lot of new readers,” he says.

A Lease Of Life is on at Cymroza Art Gallery, Mumbai, till 28 February, 11am-7pm (Sunday closed).

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