Opinion | The sacred in the ordinary
The metaphors in Ritesh Uttamchandani's photo-book are loaded with meaning
It was the middle of summer vacations and we were away from our home when photojournalist Ritesh Uttamchandani’s first photo-book, The Red Cat And Other Stories, arrived there by courier. We returned home to a whirl of house guests, more travel and a backlog of neglected chores. I had no mind space for a new book.
The children browsed through it first, sometimes lying on a settee and turning pages quietly. I took photographs of them leaning into the book, talking to each other in soft tones. Sometimes laughing over a joke or a connection that resonated with them.
Finally I picked up the book when I had an evening free. The first words in the book are a quote by Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist best known for his theory of the hierarchy of needs in which he places self-actualization—the desire of every person to realize their full potential—at the top of the pyramid. The quote ends with the sentence: “To be looking elsewhere for miracles is to me a sure sign of ignorance that everything is miraculous."
These words set up the reader to experience the rest of the book. To borrow Maslow’s phrase, the “sacred is in the ordinary", and Uttamchandani invites the reader to find it with him—quite literally in our own neighbourhood, daily commute, moments of pause and in the view from our own window, wherever that might be.
Within a few minutes, I knew I had a very special book in my hands. I felt an overload of sensations as the images, stories and design of the book all elicited simultaneous reactions. The photographs are expressive and aesthetic, evocative as well as thought-provoking. Their juxtaposition is playful and symbolic, gently nudging the reader to see connections we miss everyday.
There are moments of humour as two lovers are framed in the centre of a wall signage in bold black letters—Strictly Prohibited Area For Couples, By Order. Another photograph captures the laughter of children in mid-run against a smoky white backdrop. One smiles involuntarily till one reads the caption—Fumigating the slums. A woman stands with her back to the camera, silhouetted perfectly against a window grille; the only movement in the frame provided by the billowing of the white dupatta printed with red flowers that covers her head. She could be anyone’s mother, you think to yourself. The text on the next page reveals that she is Zeenath Pasha, a transgender woman who refers to herself as a hijra. She is the mother of her adoptive daughter, Saleha. This window is the only respite in their chawl in Kamathipura, Mumbai, that is going to be demolished soon.
“Slowness is something everyone must practise," says Uttamchandani. “Consistently be more observant, even as the demands on our attention continue to grow."
As one spends time with this book, one realizes that Uttamchandani isn’t telling other people’s stories as much as he is listening to their stories. These metaphors may be accidental, but there is meaning to be found nevertheless.
After 14 years as a photographer with a full-time job with newspapers and weekly magazines—notably The Indian Express and Open—Uttamchandani is now choosing a pace that allows for reflection. Many of the photographs are moments of silence, many others impose a pause on the rush of the city to draw attention to contrasts, conflicts and contradictions.
“As a small boy, my mornings started with watching my father reading the newspaper. Every day the same chair, the same quiet immersion and the same posture. I would look at the photos and try to understand the stories that had his undivided attention," says Uttamchandani when I ask him about influences. “My middle sister used to click a lot of photos and again I would look carefully at what she was framing.
“As a child I was deeply conscious of how different families treated my sisters and me when we landed up in various homes in our neighbourhood to watch popular television shows in the 1980s. That has made me very careful about representation. How do I look at people lower in the class hierarchy than me?"
As someone who has worked as a videographer myself, I find myself reflexively looking for the photographer’s story in the images. What is it that is being revealed by the artistic choices he makes—the visual framing, sparse captions and the Sindhi fable of the red cat that his mother used to tell him as a bedtime story when he was a child.
I ask Uttamchandani what his bucket list is. “What all do you aspire to do, both as Ritesh, the person and Ritesh, the photographer?"
“Duniya dekhna hai, bas (I just want to see the world)," he answers. “I want to travel and I want to make both my sisters travel. And as much as possible, make photos, share meals and stories."
Somehow, as Uttamchandani’s book project worked out, it began to include many of these elements organically. Unable to find a publisher, he finally decided to self-publish, self-fund and self-distribute his first book. He did a short online course in self-publishing, collaborated with his mentors and friends and created The Red Cat... to the exact design specifications he wanted.
He booked pre-orders on his website, Riteshuttamchandani.com and without much pre-planning found himself self-delivering as many copies as he could to those who had ordered them in Mumbai. A book about universal connections ended up creating many more of them between people.
“I wanted a book that would be easy to browse and easy to carry," says Uttamchandani. “The 7x7-inch square book with open spine binding has a lay flat design, so no photos get distorted and no text is lost in corners. Sabeena Karnik’s cover design is minimal and inviting."
As we compare notes on the process of getting our first books published, Uttamchandani shares, “Mainstream authors should take inspiration from indie folks. One needs the privilege of isolation to find one’s voice. It can be difficult to choose solitude, but it is also an essential ingredient in the creative journey."
As it continues to lie on my work desk, The Red Cat... feels like a book of poems. One can’t read all poems in an anthology in one go. One dips in and out. Some photographs seem like I am seeing them for the first time, others have the comfort of returning to the familiar.
A photograph towards the end of the book shows a working class woman catching up on her sleep on the floor of a local train compartment. A flower-seller on her way to work, she has used an old flex banner as a sheet under her. An upturned corner of the banner reveals a goddess with eyes wide open looking back at the viewer. In the accompanying text, the woman talks about her daughters’ education and work and adds, “All my dreams have come true."
Its almost as if the author is saying, create your comfort wherever you are, get some rest now.
Natasha Badhwar is a film-maker, media trainer and author of the book My Daughters’ Mum.
She tweets at @natashabadhwar