Supranav Dash’s ongoing photographic series ‘Marginal Trades I’ is a tribute to the lost ancestral occupations and the tradesmen struggling to survive on the fringes of urbanisation within the city, especially Calcutta.Influenced by the works of Eugene Atget (Les Petit Metiers), Irving Penn (Small Trades), August Sanders and by the ethnographic images of John F. Watson and John W. Kaye (The people of India, 1868-75), Supranav Dash captures the full-length black and white portraits of the petty workers in the city within his studio under natural light with neutral photographic backdrops. Tradesmen dressed in their regular working clothes and carefully placed with their occupational tools and commodities in a studio-like set-up were recorded more as theatrical portraits performed for the camera. By emphasising on the bodily gestures, physical attributes and occupational tools of the photographed subjects, Dash not only finds an expression to describe his subjects’ nuanced details but also directs the viewer’s attention to the traditional entanglements of caste and occupations, which in pre-British rural India played an important role in forming the hierarchal social structure of the society.
Caste linked with hereditary occupations was one of the central systems of hereditary division of labour in pre-British India. People were grouped into hierarchically aligned castes and rules concerning appropriate occupational pursuits and behavior were laid out in ancient scriptures so as to allow groups to perform social and economic tasks passed on from one generation to another. There are studies which points to the monopoly of the certain (lower and brahmanical) castes over their traditional occupations and the maintenance of the arcane skills and knowledge within the community which were not shared with the outsiders. But even within this system of division of labour, there had always been economic interdependence, competition and upward mobility among various caste groups, for access to resources and power. Post-Independence and over a period of time, as towns, villages and cities have become more interlinked, this entire practice and caste system has undergone drastic change through various trade networks and migration of the villagers to the nearby industrial cities. Access to resources and education for acquiring urban jobs in the cities has led to the secularisation of caste into class and as new generations have speedily shifted away from their traditional occupations, wealth and power are no longer associated with caste in modern India.
Calcutta being one of the oldest industrial cities and host to one of the highest migrant population, has a huge labour force of poor immigrants, coming from rural areas, performing a variety of skilled and semi-skilled jobs in the city. Supranav Dash’s photographic series ‘Marginal Trades’ is an attempt to capture the lives of the last generation of artisans, residing in Calcutta, who are still clinging to their age old traditional crafts and are providing services even though caught in the flux of times and modernisation. Photographed in a studio like setting, these intimate photographs attempt to establish subjects beyond being mere functionaries rooted in their caste. It unfolds them more as individuals with conflicting migrant stories and experiences to narrate while celebrating labour.
Supranav Dash was born and brought up in Kolkata, India. He currently lives and works from New York City.
After finishing his Diploma in Fine Arts from RKMIC under Ramananda Bandyopadhyay, Dash assisted ace commercial photographer Gautam Sengupta for four years. In 2002, he embarked on a career in Fashion/ Advertising/ Editorial Photography from Kolkata and later went on to work with Jeena Mitra Banik for DNA-Me magazine, Mumbai. Their successful partnership ended in 2009 when Dash moved to NYC and enrolled in a BFA Photography program.