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Rohit Chawla goes inside the artists’ studio

The photographer enters the private spaces of some of the country's greatest artists and renders 3D portrait sculptures in a new series, 'The Artist, Unboxed'

S.H. Raza: “I was lucky to watch Raza as he painted his last few canvases in his Delhi studio. Ironically, what stood out for me was the irony of the word aarambh (the beginning) on the canvas behind, in stark contrast to his journey ahead.” Photo: Rohit Chawla
S.H. Raza: “I was lucky to watch Raza as he painted his last few canvases in his Delhi studio. Ironically, what stood out for me was the irony of the word aarambh (the beginning) on the canvas behind, in stark contrast to his journey ahead.” Photo: Rohit Chawla

Modern Indian greats like S.H. Raza, Ram Kumar and M.F. Husain have left behind unparalleled artistic legacies. It was in their studios, among coloured canvases and open paint cans, that their lives were lived. The studio was their temple: a room for meditation, rumination and creation. Every element that inhabited this space—the lone almirah in the foreground, the cluttered table in the background—revealed a glimpse of each artist’s life.

Ram Kumar: “A prolific painter even during the last years of his life, Kumar wielded the scalpel (the mainstay of his craft) with a steadiness that belied his age. I’ve tried to maintain the minimalism and silence of his basement studio for an immersive look.” Photo: Rohit Chawla

The Artist, Unboxed, photographer Rohit Chawla’s latest offering, is an invitation into these sanctums. His new series is a 3D photo installation which will be on display as part of a group exhibition, Art Now ’18, at Art Alive Gallery, Delhi. The series serves as a homage to Indian artists, particularly the modernists.

Atul and Anju Dodiya: “This photograph within a painting adds the illusion of space. The painting was Atul ‘s tribute to artists Rene Magritte and Bhupen Khakhar. And in choosing to photograph both Atul and Anju in the same construct, I bring to the fore the elusive poetry of form.” Photo: Rohit Chawla

Chawla visited the artists’ homes and photographed them in their studios. A project that took five years in the making, some of these are images that were made a few months before Raza’s and Kumar’s deaths in 2016 and 2018, respectively. Recalling working with Raza at his home in Safdarjung Extension, Delhi, Chawla says, “When Raza was photographed, he was sitting with his eyes closed, and in the background, he had a canvas on which was written aarambh (the beginning), which stood in contrast with his life since this was actually the last chapter of his career."

Akbar Padamsee: “I shot this photo in Padamsee’s penthouse-studio in Mumbai. Here, he sits by the railing of his balcony, eternally watchful and mindful of the randomness of the city’s landscape. A few of his recent works lay scattered on the floor for a higher vantage point.” Photo: Rohit Chawla

This is unlike his earlier work, Portrait Of An Author, which featured 350 world-renowned authors whom Chawla captured in intimate, tightly-framed close-ups. For his artists’ series, he deliberately pulled out to reveal the expanse of each artist’s studio or their personal environment. “I was very clear from the beginning that I wanted the images to be more immersive, so that you get a sense of the chaos and the world that the artist inhabits," he says on the phone.

Anjolie Ela Menon: “This was a homage to Frida Kahlo. I was lucky to recreate the same with Anjolie. A fusion of the Mexican/ Indian sensibility, the garments were tailor-made by Sabyasachi. The miniature set also includes some of Anjolie’s paintings.” Photo: Rohit Chawla

The rectangular box, which has often framed Chawla’s muses (including the authors), has become a recurring leitmotif and a visual anchor in his work. The Artist Unboxed is no exception. “The box has always been an intrinsic part of my practice and housing the works in them adds a graphic element seamlessly," he says. What is unique about this series, however, is that he presents these black and white portraits as layered sculptures, lending them a three-dimensional appearance. “I’ve done them as 3D photo sculptures so that the viewer gets a sense of being inside the studio," he says. “Each image is a single photograph—purist in spirit and approach, but shot keeping a background and a foreground in mind, to add the requisite depth and space."

Paresh Maity: “Banaras has been Maity‘s muse of sorts. He has been coming here and painting the city for the last 35 years. This recent portrait of his was made in September, when the Ganges was swollen after the monsoon. It lent itself to a quiet meditative portrait with the ghats mostly submerged.” Photo: Rohit Chawla

Chawla’s exhibition is a capsule show, featuring nine artists: Raza, Kumar, Akbar Padamsee, Krishen Khanna, Sakti Burman, Atul and Anju Dodiya, Anjolie Ela Menon and Paresh Maity. The eight visual sculptures are priced at 3 lakh onwards each.

Krishen Khanna: “This image was shot in Khanna’s Gurgaon studio, surrounded, as he was, by his serenading fibreglass sculptures, Bandwallahs. He is holding his prized memory, a vintage photograph of him and his wife, taken by his close friend and artist Tyeb Mehta.”

The Artist, Unboxed will be on view at Art Alive Gallery, Delhi, from 8-31 October.

Photographs and captions by Rohit Chawla

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