They were professionals I respected and admired, but they had found my comments disparaging. “What about the work we’ve been doing all these years?” they had hurtfully said. I had reflected upon the fact that while there were some great photographers in India, it didn’t really have a photographic movement. Until now.
Whenever I passed through Delhi, Raghu, Pablo, Dayanita, Prashant and other photographer friends would all meet at the India International Centre and try and kick start this movement. “Karne hoga yaar” (we’ve got to do it mates) was the rallying cry we would leave each other with, but while several initiatives had been taken, it was the Delhi Festival, launched in October 2011, that showed the first signs of that collective endeavor.
It was the 18th December 1998. The day Pathshala was launched. Indian photographer Saibal Das had taken me aside to quietly ask, “is this the ‘real’ Reza?” I had nodded and he went on “can I touch him?” Reza Deghati, the famous National Geographic photographer, chuckled when I explained. We all paused as Saibal approached – and touched – his idol.
It took me back to 1991, when Fred and Wendy Baldwin had walked me through the exhibition spaces in Houston. I had never been to Fotofest or any other festival, but listening to Fred and Wendy, I could see myself surrounded by images and image-makers.
Arles was my first festival. Mexican photographer Pedro Meyer and I had known each other for many years, but we had never met. I barely survived the crushing hug at our first encounter. The joy of seeing outstanding work all across the city. Stunning multimedia displays on the giant Amphitheatre. The excitement of walking amidst household names in photography, seeing, sometimes touching, my heroes, made me realise this was a feeling that had to be shared. I wish I could have taken a suitcase full of photographers with me to these festivals. I settled for two. In a subsequent trip to Arles, we stopped on the way in Paris and Abbas, the chairman of Magnum, took my two young colleagues Shehzad and Mahmud on a guided tour of the agency. I recognized that glazed look in their eyes.
Meeting Raghu Rai on a boat from Hong Kong to Kowloon. Lunch at Chelsea with Raghubir Singh, Sunil Janah and Ram Rahman, courtesy of Max Kozloff. Working with Dayanita Singh, Eugene Richards and Mark Abraham in my first curatorial assignment, have been seminal moments in my own photographic career. I remembered the high I got from each of those encounters. This was a high that needed to be shared. I needed a very large suitcase. If the photographers couldn’t be taken to the festivals, the festivals would have to come to them. So Chobi Mela was born. That was 1999.
Little had we realized what an electrifying effect this festival would have. Photographers who came over, went back energized and set up their own festivals. Besides the Chinese mega events, small intimate festivals took place in Singapore, Malaysia, Cambodia and Thailand. India however, was still lagging behind. That was when Prashant Panjiar and Dinesh Khanna stepped in. They weren’t foolhardy youngsters, and a great deal of thinking and planning went into staging this important event.
When asked why Delhi Fest became such an instant success, Prashant would in his typical manner respond “it was because Dinesh and I are not superstars”. While I certainly dispute his non-superstar status, I know what he was getting at. Prashant and Dinesh were going to make the festival a success and not let their egos get in the way. As brave people do, the duo had some luck on their side. It was ambitious to take on such a diverse programme on their first attempt. The choice of the magnificent grounds of the Habitat Centre, was key to making it work. I am sure a lot went on behind the scenes to make it happen. The Amphitheatre, the classrooms, the open air space and the splendid location were central to creating the atmosphere of the special event
Fine shows, interesting talks, the organic mix of the experienced and the new, combined with ambitious curatorial projects, made it seem it was a festival run by old hands. I am sure there were cracks, as there always are, but whatever might have gone on behind the scenes, the show on stage went without a blip.
For me, it was the camaraderie between the photographers wafting throughout the festival that made it particularly special. My lasting memory – of the inevitable photo op -with Raghu Rai, Pablo Bartholomew, Prashant Panjiar, Prabudhdha Das Gupta and I, will forever linger. Prabudhdha is no more, but what these fine photographers have together built, will I am sure, outlast them all.