Interested in experiencing first hand the political frenzy surrounding the sixteenth Lok Sabha elections, Mahesh Shantaram packed his bags and went on a cross country trip in March 2014, following the election trail. Mapping the charged political landscape of the country through the lens of his camera, he not only documents the spectacle of democracy, but also reveals it in its making.
Academics theorizing about photography have over the last few decades, recognised the power of the photograph to blur and redraw the lines between aesthetics and politics in multiple ways, be it subversive, conjunctive, or disassociative. The propensity of photographs to “refract as much as reflect, and thus to do things or exhibit agency as much as record or document the will or action of extraphotographic actors or agents”, (Bajorek, 2010) enables it to function as more than a mere spectator of, and witness to, an event.
In these photographs, Mahesh Shantaram moves away from the legacies (and limitations) of political photojournalism. Though his subjects – the politicians and publics – are the same, his work frames them in new ways, facilitating a better understanding of the theatricality of political rhetoric and event.
Ironically almost, Shantaram claimed to be a political photographer of a fictitious magazine to gain access into the vaulted chambers of political power. His candid photographs of these political players are not however a display of ostentatious strength, rather they capture moments of vulnerability; thereby, exposing cracks in the grand seamless visual rhetoric usually represented in the media. Demonstrating the inherent performativity of the political stage, these photographs provide new ways of engaging with the construction, consumption and function of the political-image.The view of the democratic machinery that Shantaram presents here is one that questions the ready flood of images that otherwise inform our perception and analysis. The intriguing photographs of spaces devoid of human presence are yet imbued with the resonance of people just outside of the frame; juxtaposed with images that are saturated with human bodies, they produce a new framework to better understand how power is signified. Does power reside in the people (the idealistic claim of democracy), or the political parties and representatives, or is it simply an abstract performative exercise of belief?
These photographs taken over the last two months of a lengthily campaigned election record a historio-political moment, at a time when many eyes from all across the world were trained on it. Significantly though, they also produce a brand of politics that refuses to be clearly and singularly defined. The potential scope for such a study to produce a multiplicity of narratives that broaden our understanding of how Indian politics – specifically, and as an instance of a global democratic community – functions, is one that Mahesh Shantaram appreciates. The series, which is to also include material from the five assembly elections scheduled later in 2014, will seek to wed his recent parliamentary election inspired obsession with politics to his general interest in large and complex systems, societies, and institutions, he explains.Moving beyond the documentary, this project attempts to build an immersive view of a specific world, its economic, socio-cultural, and political aspirations and realities. Raising questions of whether the play of power can be witnessed, measured, and captured by the photographic gaze, it challenges the dominant cultural script of socially visible politics in India today. Navigating public and private spaces, spectatorship and participation, it attempts to unveil the theatre of a hypervisual political structure, with both insight and gentle affection.
– Shilpa Vijayakrishnan