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Suresh Punjabi: The man who captured the Great Indian Dream

Over 40 years ago, Suresh Punjabi established Suhag Studio, a commercial photography studio, in a small town in Madhya Pradesh. His archives now stand as invaluable social and artistic documents

A portrait by Suresh Punjabi.
A portrait by Suresh Punjabi. (MAP)

Suresh Punjabi was born in 1957, the year Guru Dutt’s iconic film, Pyaasa, was released. It was an odd coincidence, considering the key role the movie would play later in his life.

Those were heady days for the 10-year-old independent nation. Its first prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, had envisioned big dreams of economic reform and scientific modernisation, aspirations that spread among the teeming population of the infant republic. Two decades later, when Punjabi opened his commercial photography studio in the small town of Nagda in Madhya Pradesh, India was still buzzing from that excitement of self-discovery. It didn’t take Punjabi long to establish himself as the chronicler of that Great Indian Dream, although his role was acknowledged, and is being celebrated, only in the last decade or so.

The latest instance of such recognition comes in the form of a stunning online exhibition of Punjabi’s work, The Business of Dreams, curated by Nathaniel Gaskell and Varun Nayar at the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP) in Bengaluru, which now holds the photographer’s extensive archive. “I came across his work when (visual anthropologist) Christopher Pinney gave a talk about it (based on his book, Artisan Camera: Studio Photography from Central India, co-written with Punjabi) at the Delhi Photo Festival in 2013,” Gaskell says on a video call.

Impressed by Pinney’s presentation, Gaskell went to visit Punjabi in Nagda, where he runs Suhag Studio, albeit in a new and improved avatar, to this day. “I'd hopes of acquiring some of his work for the museum,” Gaskell says, “so I invited him to visit us.” Having witnessed the conservation and restoration efforts undertaken at MAP, Punjabi was moved to donate his entire archive there.

A photograph by Suresh Punjabi.
A photograph by Suresh Punjabi. (MAP)

Over the next few years, hundreds of images from Punjabi’s collection were cleaned and photographed again, before they were scanned. Negatives were touched up and repaired. And from this visual treasure trove, 90-odd images have been chosen for the current exhibition, which is divided into four broad segments, conveying the richness and diversity of Punjabi’s oeuvre.

“These photographs are remarkable in and of themselves,” says Nayar, who has written two deeply researched essays for the show, one based on his extensive interviews with Punjabi. “Our aim was not to let the social and anthropological context of the work hide his aesthetic brilliance.”

Even a cursory scroll through the exhibition site reveals the special appeal of Punjabi’s photography. Rooted to the hallowed tradition of studio photography that began in 19th-century India with pioneers like Samuel Bourne and Lala Deen Dayal, Punjabi was also a visionary entrepreneur-artist. When he stood before his sitters, the film of familiarity lifted from their faces, exposing their fondest dreams and desires. In a sense, Punjabi donned the mantle of a dream merchant, as the archivist of the Great Indian Dream. And to such dreams, he himself had also been susceptible.

In thrall of his guru

Like a generation of Indians born in the 1950s, Punjabi was in thrall of cinema, especially that of Guru Dutt, as a young man. He was particularly riveted by the black-and-white aesthetics of Pyaasa, which released in the year of his birth and is hailed as one of the greatest movies ever made (it made to Time magazine’s “All-time 100 best movies” list in 2005).

Growing up in a well-to-do business family in Indore, Punjabi had access to world-class cameras early on, at a time such gadgets were way beyond the reach of most middle-class Indian families. As a teenager, he began to travel around Madhya Pradesh, picking up freelance assignments or photographing whatever took his fancy. Rural weddings, especially the faces of the people during such ceremonies, fascinated Punjabi, Nayar writes in his essay.

In the 1970s, the family business had started to dwindle, forcing Punjabi to move to Nagda, a small town, some 100 km away from Indore. There, he opened Suhag Studio—the name was meant to drawn in clients interested in taking matrimonial photographs—to help his family. It proved to be a lifelong move, indeed an obsession.

A portrait by Suresh Punjabi.
A portrait by Suresh Punjabi. (MAP)

Punjabi’s archives, as Gaskell and Nayar indicate in their curation, could be divided into several segments, first of which is his administrative photographs, which cover almost 30% of his archives. These images are mostly mug shots of individuals, taken for the purpose of identification papers and bureaucratic documents. But even in these fairly generic images, the drama of the human face is dimly palpable. You can sense the presence of a humane vision behind the mechanical eye of the camera. Punjabi seems to avoid the vapid blandness of documentary studio photography, where the subject is usually leached of all character and presented sans expression for the unfeeling scrutiny of the state.

A man in crutches is photographed in full profile by Punjabi on his request, with the camera lights included in the frame. The image is meant to be evidentiary record of his disability. Another man in a turban stares back at the camera, his pupils dilated, like the proverbial rabbit caught in the headlights of the Indian state. The incongruity of the carpeted studio floor, the sophisticated props (by the standard of those days) and the intensely ordinary attire of these people are starkly noticeable.

A portrait by Suresh Punjabi.
A portrait by Suresh Punjabi. (MAP)

In hindsight, it’s tempting to read political meanings into these scenarios, but such arrangements were not consciously designed to make social statements. However, an element of premeditation—whether in striking the right pose or embellishing the setting with suitable props—is obvious in another group of images, featuring individuals, or small groups of friends and family members.

A woman dangles a bunch of grapes before her mouth, recreating the cliché of a lovestruck/ lascivious heroine from the annals of Indian cinema. A man poses stiffly in tie and a pair of bell-bottoms, his hair neatly combed. Another one, in a vest, presents a study in contrasts, his hair stylishly long, a kerchief tied to his neck, a cigarette hanging from his lips. He rocks the archetypal mawali look to a T. You can sense the shadow of a slightly crumpled angry young man about his persona, modelled perhaps after Amitabh Bachchan, who was still the reigning hero in the galaxy of Bollywood cinema in the 1980s, when these photographs were taken.

If the influence of cinema shines through these compositions, more intriguing insinuations are made by some of the group photographs. In one, for instance, three men are seated close to one another, two of them locking fingers. The one in the middle stares at the camera, while the other two look in different directions.

A photograph by Suresh Punjabi.
A photograph by Suresh Punjabi. (MAP)

These “playfully intimate” photographs, as Nayar calls them, are mementos of different kinds of bonds—filial, friendly, romantic—that were enacted inside the realms of the studio. Thus, Punjabi's Suhag Studio opened up a space, where much more than plain documentation could be wagered.

The dream merchant

Punjabi was instrumental in transforming his mundane photo studio into the simulacrum of a film studio. He would keep film magazines for his clients to refer to, if they came around with the express purpose of experimenting with their inner stars. There were furniture and backdrop to serve as the right prop for a specific mood. “He would ask his clients how they would like to be seen,” says Nayar, “then conceptualize the shoot according to their specific demands.” Punjabi didn’t shy away even from allowing a client to pose with one of his own spare cameras because the gentleman in question had wanted to look “smart”—a byword for an urbane dandy in many parts of India.

While each of these images stands boldly on its own—carrying its individual aura of distinction and enveloped by its unspoken narratorial arc—they also exist within an ecosystem of emotions that coursed through a nation during a certain phase of its development. With their thoughtful curation and textual notes, Gaskell and Nayar draw our attention to details that would otherwise have escaped our untrained eyes. They also make crucial connections between Punjabi’s work and those of Malike Sidibé’s (1935-2016) from Mali and Hashem El Madani’s (1928-2017) from Lebanon, among others. These photographers, legends in their own rights, also documented the seen and unseen faces of their nations with skill, complexity and exquisite artistry.

In Punjabi’s studio, for instance, the telephone, embodied in the form of a bakelite receiver, is a recurring presence. A relative novelty in the 1980s, certainly in a small town like Nagda, it was a symbol of status, class and modernity, for many. People longed to hold it, pretend to speak into it, and be frozen in that image by the astute timing of Punjabi’s camera. Women lost their diffidence inside the studio. In one photograph, three girls stand in their Sunday bests, a bag hanging off the shoulder of one of them, all three beribboned and bejeweled for the occasion. Some of the men went a step further. One of them came into the studio with a parrot and had his portrait made holding the bird aloft, one leg resting casually on a footstool.

A photograph by Suresh Punjabi.
A photograph by Suresh Punjabi. (MAP)

It is evident that Punjabi was—and continues to be—a much-loved figure in Nagda. The ease with which people opened themselves up to his gaze and the trust they invested in him are as much the reasons behind his greatness as a photographer as his enviable grip over the technical aspects of his craft. If Punjabi possesses oodles of the latter, he exudes charm, affability and humility, as well, qualities that endear him easily to the locals of Nagda.

“[Punjabi] had the ability to disappear into a crowd while photographing a wedding ceremony on the streets,” says Nayar, referring to the small but arresting body of outdoor photographs that is part of the exhibition. “He engages with all his clients as their equal. As he says, he is only a small part of a big event in someone else’s life.”

The Business of Dreams can be seen on till February.

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