Posing questions: The place of dance photography in India

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It might just be easier to plot the path of light. Dance photography is quite literally a dynamic discipline, a question of two artists engaged in pursuits that are at times complementary, at times extremely antagonistic. The photographer is the one tasked with comprehending both the arts, for it takes an acute understanding of kinaesthetic patterns to be one with dancers whose swishing skirts may not wait for time, tide or the camera.

Recently, husband-and-wife duo Soumit Banerjee and Soumita Bhattacharya held a small exhibition of their dance photographs at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi. Bhattacharya was in for a surprise when people walked up to her and asked if they could buy prints of her work. “I never thought they would look at dance photography as an art,” she exclaims. Dance photographers are no longer the scruffy-looking, long-ignored photojournalists whose dalliance with dance is only by “moonlight”. So, has dance photography in India “arrived”?
“Onstage photography has a long history. There are lots of books too. However, project photography in collaboration with dancers is not very common. Once, I shot extensively with a dance company, and used the photographs to create a film that played in the lobby of the theatre where they were scheduled to perform. So people had an idea of what to expect through the images even before they entered the theatre,” explains Bhattacharya.
Avinash Pasricha, who has photographed dance for almost five decades now, is nearing 75, but can be found driving to a dance concert on most evenings. Talking about his journey, he says, “The first dancer I ever photographed was Indrani Rahman for Span Magazine. I did it as a photo-journalist and the pictures were not very good. Then I started photographing music when Gandharva Mahavidyalaya would hold all-night festivals. I started making black-and-white mood pictures. I shot Madhavi Mudgal in a Kathak pose for an ITDC poster that went around the world. Most of my great photographs were more a matter of luck than chance.”
Research by UK-based scholar Alessandra Lopez Y. Royo traces the interest in dance photography to the 1920s, when photographer Charlotte Rudolphe began to make images of dancers in motion. She also directs our attention to colonial photography, where reality had to be documented for the purpose of classification.
Now, there is documentary photography, where the purpose is to record for posterity. This also encompasses the vast area of pre-performance photography that is now opening up, and is sometimes studio-based. Creative photography is where photographers experiment with modes that help them recreate dance as artwork. Pasricha feels that dance is more in the eyes than in the pose; his experience of studio photography with dancers has honed this observation.
Karthik Venkatraman, who is based in Chennai, says that he is increasingly concentrating on one dance – Odissi, and making it his exclusive focus. His experience of dance photography leaves him with an enhanced understanding of movement and movement patterns, so much so that other repetitive patterns from nature now stand out clearly. He says, “Engaging with dance photography has changed the way I see things. When one is able to translate the emotional beauty and intensity of a dance the rhythm creeps in too.”
While rolls of film have their disadvantages, the world of digital cameras is not a flawless enterprise. The biggest problem with digital photography is the time lag between clicking and what gets recorded. Photographers learn to anticipate the dance to know when to get the best shots. “There is no question of wasting film, so one tends to click madly. On an average evening, I take 300 photographs. I spend two hours every morning sorting through them and editing them. But it keeps me going; it keeps me feeling,” opines Pasricha.
Younger photographers are quick to articulate the difference between dance photography in India and the West. Bhattacharya says that dance photographers abroad attend technical rehearsals so that they know what light and movement to expect. She reveals, “Photographers are allowed to shoot during the tech rehearsal, where a special performance showcase is arranged for them.”
Such steps are progressive in their recognition of dance photography and sensitive to the needs of audiences. Over-enthusiastic photographers who are allowed to run amok in the aisles and in front of the stage, a privilege easily granted in most Indian auditoria, disturb the performers by their proximity to the stage and ruin the experience of watching dance. Nevertheless, many professionals are sensitive to the fact that they might disrupt performances while going about their work.
Bhattacharya points out that flash photography is one of the most attention-grabbing acts in dark performance spaces. She tries to attend tech rehearsals before performances so that she is familiar with the quality of light and comes equipped to make good photographs.
Pasricha agrees that dance photographers earlier stood in front of the stage; nowadays, he finds a good seat. He is quick to tell you that sitting with the audience has not affected the quality of his photographs. “Dancers love them,” he says.

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