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Photographer Prabir Purkayastha captures Ladakh in its varied hues
“In September 2001, I was in the village of Basgo, one of the four ancient capitals of Ladakh,” says photographer Prabir Purkayastha, 54. “The main monastery in Basgo is about 600 years old. I was helping a dear friend – His Highness Jigmed Wangchuk Namgyal of Ladakh – photograph the sad decay and ravages of time in this exquisite house of god.”
It was 4 pm and Purkayastha was exhausted and desperate. He had been taking pictures since 11 am and did not have the time to eat or drink. “I wanted to go back home,” he says. “Just when I thought it was time to leave, my friend asked me to go to a smaller monastery and photograph it, too.”
In this old and desolate monastery, there was a 16 ft tall bronze statue of Maitreya. The body was in the hall while the shoulders and head extended upwards into a glass-fronted attic. “The caretaker took me to the roof, as it was too dark in the prayer hall to see anything,” he says.
The panes were grimy and Purkayastha cleaned them by using his bandana and some water.
“As I looked upon the radiant face, glowing like burnished gold, in the rays of the setting sun, I saw tears–molten and shining–streaming down the cheeks!” says Purkayastha, as he rapidly took photographs. “Tears, just like yours and mine.”
Purkayastha was stunned into silence and disbelief. He showed this amazing phenomenon to His Highness who insisted they leave the monastery immediately. Next morning, on the flight back to Delhi, he was introduced to His Holiness, the Gyalwang Karmapa. When he was told about the phenomenon, the Karmapa was speechless, too. He had never seen nor heard of such a thing.
A few weeks later, a curious Purkayasta went back to Basgo. This time, when he looked in through the roof, he got a shock: “I saw golden rays of sunbeams streaming from Maitreya's eyes - glowing like a million suns all blazing together,” he says. “The tears had dried up but His eyes were alight with wonderment. I always show this picture, with the light shining in Maitreya’s eyes, in all my exhibitions.”
This has been one of the most astounding experiences of Purkayastha, in his decade-long love affair with Ladakh, trying to photograph this mysterious land in all its varied moods.
In Mumbai, Purkayastha’s exhibition, called ‘Zendo’ is on show at the Bodhi art gallery. There are 42 pictures on display, of which 28 are in black and white. These are images of desolation and a stark beauty. When you look at them, you feel like going into the photograph and escape from the madding crowd, the pollution, the daily struggle and the fears of terrorism that is life in Mumbai these days. This is a glimpse of a strange and unreal world, where Nature lords it over man; where you sense the insignificance of man in the scheme of things.
What helps to quiet down the hysterical voice in your head and your ragged nerves is the haunting music: it is a rare jugalbandi between the Tibetan, Nawang Khechog, and the Red Indian, Carlos Nakai, both of whom are among the best bamboo flutists in the world. The vocals are by Senegalese star, Baaba Maal, who is singing, according to Purkayastha, one of the finest azaan's ever recorded: Duniya salaam. These are pictures of mountains, lakes, valleys and of deserts, shot with deep affection and respect. Even though the environment dominates in most photographs, the striking images are of people: an old man, sitting on his haunches, his face ravaged by age, wearing a weather-beaten cloak, a couple of sticks in his hands, in a rock strewn desolate landscape and yet, in his eyes, there is such an acceptance of life that you are transfixed on the spot. Then, there is an image, in light and shade, of the late Bakula Rinpoche, the head lama of Ladakh and India's Ambassador to Mongolia. It is a face of tremendous character and serenity and Purkayastha has caught it perfectly.
“This Zendo (a Japanese word for an ancient meditation hall suffused with energy) exhibition is the result of a fascinating journey,” says Purkayastha. “I wanted to show the latent and haunting beauty of Ladakh and I have compared this mystical land to the sacred zendo.”
The obvious question to ask: Why Ladakh? What has made him go back so many times over so many years? Purkayastha is eloquent about his love: “When you trek across a lake that dried up a million years ago, at 14,000 feet, with barely enough oxygen, to keep you alive, you stop thinking of this mundane world. You are no longer who you are. This freedom from the superficial self is more than a breath of fresh air. You are one with the astounding beauty all around you. It’s magic! And that’s why I travel back to Ladakh. Time after time.”
Talking to visitors at the gallery, on a rainy Tuesday afternoon, Fashutana Patel, 20, feels the photographs look more like paintings. Collegian Nergish Sunavala, who admires Purkayastha’s technique, feels some digital manipulation has taken place.
Purkayastha explains why the photographs look the way they do. “I was desperate to photograph Ladakh only as my mind’s eye viewed it,” he says.
After many experiments, with films and processing techniques, he said the best effect came when he used Kodak Technical Pan film. He says he only uses ambient light, and that, too, at a select time of day or year.
“My portraits have a dark, moody appearance where the highlights and shadow details glow like polished pearls,” he says. “During winter, depending on the quantity and brightness of the snow, the natural light and by pushing the film speed I am now able to create images that look like charcoal paintings. No digital wizardry. No darkroom manipulation. Just pure photography! What more could a photographer ask for!”
Purkayastha has had a successful career in advertising for over two decades, when in 2004, much to the dismay of his family, friends and colleagues, he quit to pursue photography full time. In 2005, he published a coffee table book on Ladakh, which coincided with a presentation at the Rubin Museum of Arts in New York. In 2006, Ladakh won the silver at the Regional SAAPI awards in Jakarta and was selected in July, 2006 as the ‘Book of the month’ by UK’s Outdoor Photography magazine. His Ladakh portfolio also won the international Spotlight Award in B&W Photography magazine, a leading American journal.
So where does he go from here? “I have begun shooting some specific subjects in Ladakh,” he says. This is quite different from my Zendo work. For this I am experimenting with some new film from Germany. Hopefully this body of work will be
exhibited next year. The future has never seemed more thrilling!”