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A photographer’s personal connection with Bishnupur’s ancient temples

Sanjay Das’s relationship with the town’s deteriorating monuments has continued to inform his practice

'Untitled' from the series 'Temples of Bengal'. Photo: Sanjay Das
'Untitled' from the series 'Temples of Bengal'. Photo: Sanjay Das

Photographer Sanjay Das grew up in a traditional Bengali family, one which allowed him to absorb the rich cultural histories around him. It’s no wonder then that he has based his practice around capturing the forgotten heritage of the region where he grew up. Calling himself a ‘travel photographer’, he aspires to present in his work a very intimate connection with these monuments, degenerating at a fast pace now. Bishnupur’s temples have been photographed extensively in the past as well, but what makes his image-making different is that he enmeshes the photos with layers of personal journeys and emotions.

Over the years, he has ended up reaching temples far beyond the realms of Bishnupur, these were spread across Bengal, ranging from Bardhaman to Murshidabad, from Krishnanagar to Purulia. For him, it was like discovering architectural gold. “As I journeyed through these temples, district after district, estate after estate, I became richer in my senses. The myriad stories that accompany each of these temples is fascinating, and need to be told and shown for their uniqueness” he says.

The images taken by Sanjay Das are documentations wrapped up in anecdotes acquired through chance interactions. Photo: courtesy Shampa Sircar Das
The images taken by Sanjay Das are documentations wrapped up in anecdotes acquired through chance interactions. Photo: courtesy Shampa Sircar Das

Edited excerpts from an interview with Das about his deep connection with forgotten heritage:

Could you talk about how images became so important to your life?

My camera has been my constant companion in this three-decade long journey in art. But my family’s pursuits were far removed from hobbies such as photography. The only link between photography and the lifestyle those days was the amateur shots taken on holidays. Having said that, imagery continued to be integrated into my boyhood in the form of Bengal’s folklore, narrated by the elders at home. Thus, there was a constant seeping in of cultural snippets all along.

What is at the core of your practice? Is it research and documentation, a mode of expression or a spirit of revival?

Photography is my profession and the outdoors is my chosen forte. My camera records what I see but that is layered with my own perception. It is not a ratification of what has been said about a place or its associated tales. My work is not a documentation along scientific parameters. Rather, these images are documentations wrapped up in anecdotes acquired through chance interactions. The artist in me mingles with my inner self to emerge in the form of photo frames. And this process makes my shots into art compositions. Over time, my frames have become simplified, with focus on a few aspects rather than on a broad sweep. I am biased towards ruins and their patina of age. I invest myself in discovering the varied known and unknown facets about this country. My objective is to create an imagery that tells a story through texture, light and shadow. It is spiritually very rewarding.

How are you rediscovering Bengal through your practice?

I grew up in Bengal and keep going back. I want to explore every nook and crevice of this fascinating region that still beholds so many surprises. Be it the landscapes, the rivers, the people, the dialects, the architecture, the crafts, the cuisine, the textiles--Bengal is one place where culture gleams through in the very way of life. It was the trade centre in British India, owing to which much of Calcutta, the capital, readily took to the anglicised ways in dressing, dining and speaking. I am intrigued with the juxtaposition of the old and the new, the sophisticated and the raw, all so seamlessly meshed together.

Why the focus on lost heritage?

During my survey of Bengal, spanning nine years, I have witnessed the changes these structures have undergone. I am convinced that in few years many of these temples will be reduced to dust. And with that, we will kill an epoch of our pristine glory. Therefore, as a photographer, who wants to keep alive the stories and unique elements of this country for posterity, it is my effort to preserve them through a visual archive. When these elements of our heritage will cease to exist, this archive will provide a reference for those who may never get to see the structures.

What is your fascination with untold stories?

As a photographer I have always been drawn to the fleeting moments. Seldom do I plan my journey. A spark of mystery and spontaneity always drives me. Our rich cultural diversity and its many unique customs and traditions have been a major source of inspiration for me. My images are a merger of theoretical and conceptual assertions with experiences. I aspire to continue to document the rich treasures of the country’s heritage for the generations to come.

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