“Everything that’s great about India and everything that’s wrong with it can be summarised in a single wedding. Young men and women assume the role of prince and princess in a bollywood fantasy. On the periphery, a multitude of workers facilitate the creation of Disneyland-like sets, entertain crowds, cater to thousands of guests, and generally keep the show going for anywhere between one to five days. Weddings will always be the greatest enterprise of consumption in India, no holds barred.”
Mahesh Shantaram, an independent photographer from Bangalore works with subjective documentary photography, creating fresh and open narratives of modern India. Following his study of photography in Paris, Mahesh returned to India and initially made a name for himself as a wedding photographer which sparked his interest in documenting contemporary Indian culture.
In this interview with Sameena Siddiqui, Shranaram discusses his project Matrimania which looks at 21st century India through its wedding culture. Matrimania was exhibited at the Sony World Photography Awards 2011 and at photo festivals in Cambodia and Spain curated by Christian Caujolle.
Tell us about your series Matrimania which started in 2009 and is still evolving?
Matrimania actually goes back to 2008 when I was a year into my career as a freelance wedding photographer. I was too embarrassed to admit that I shoot weddings because it seemed like not a very respectable thing to do. I thought I’d be doing justice to my photography diploma only if I were somehow creating ‘Art’. That’s what my first pictures were trying to be, forced as it were.
I noticed all these pictures from weddings, perfectly legitimate in content but useless to the client. I made an edit and showed it around to a few people. One of them was the Magnum photographer Mark Power, who went through the work but was more impressed by my official wedding portfolio–and the details of sets in the background that he thought I should train my attention towards. Mark, being a landscape photographer himself, influenced me to look at pre- and post-wedding sets. That version of Matrimania went on to win at the 2011 Sony World Photography Awards.
How has this project helped you in switching roles from a wedding photographer to that of an anthropologist?
Matrimania was getting too predictable and limiting as a photo project about wedding sets whereas it could be so much more. As I showed it to more people and took in their interpretations (“This is not about Indian weddings. It’s about your nightmares!” – Aveek Sen), it helped me break through glass ceilings and connect back to why I started it in the first place. (I have a history with weddings that I’ve shared in my talk at Delhi Photo Festival.)
Everything that’s great about our country and everything that’s wrong with can be summarised by a single wedding. Today, I’m able to express that more sincerely through this long-term project that is evolving into a form of visual poetry rather than a hard-hitting critical essay. Matrimania is the ‘dark’ narrative from a world that I’m very familiar with. It helps me balance the ‘sweet’ narrative that I construct in service of clients. That balance is necessary to preserve one’s view of life.
Matrimania, as you have said is a ‘theatre of society’. Working closely with different regional families makes you examine the contradictory cultural practices and unstable positionality of the contemporary middle class in India. How do you strike a balance between creating desirable photo-albums (which are an apparatus of the wedding theatre) and bringing forth social complexities, which lie at the root of cultural change that the middle class is experiencing post globalization?
I am only one photographer; I see many things. Matrimania grows at the rate of maybe 10-20 images per year whereas I deliver, say, 5000 images per year to clients. There is the burst-mode rate of delivery to satisfy commercial expectations. And then there is the slow documentary that allows for patient reflection. The two can co-exist.
As a photographer, do you think in any way your own pre-conceptions, assumptions or intentions intervene while shooting different cultures in India?
Again, I’ve been conscious to avoid the trap of a ‘photo project’. If this work were derived from a half-dozen weddings, then the results could be a projection of narrow assumptions and preconceptions. At this point, however, Matrimania is five years of work distilled from over a hundred weddings shot across the country from Chennai to Chattisgarh, Kolhapur to Kolkata. Biases tend to flatten out. What emerges is a sort of national portrait. Having said that, this is subjective documentary photography after all, and as such, it is coloured by my entirely subjective way of seeing.
By subtly capturing the constructed nature of the social performances at the weddings, what kind of photographic memories do you think your wedding photo-albums creates for the participants?
It’s like coming back from a bachelors party in Bangkok. You make one edit for friends and another for family. The photo album made for clients will serve its purpose very well, and when Matriamania finally becomes a photo book, it will command its own audience.