Saibal Das began his career as a photojournalist for The Telegraph in 1986, going on to work as staff photographer for Outlook and India Today and photographing the ULFA insurgency, the Taliban’s invasion of Afghanistan, cultural unrest in North-East India and other socio-political and cultural upheavals in Nepal, Bangladesh and Bhutan.
In the series exhibited here however, Das explores the world of religious faith and spiritual belief with the vision of a poet, rather than the eye of a photojournalist. Taking its title – Before the Birth of Time – from Naveen Kishore’s text which is an appropriately poetic response to these photographs, reproduced below, the series moves beyond mere documentation; presenting pilgrimage sites, Sadhus, Nagas, devotees, monks, all with a contemplative air that resonates with a rare empathy and reflects Das’ meditative sensibility. Attempting to unpack spiritual and religious realities and landscapes, highlighting unnoticed characteristics and revealing shrouded details, these images are intended to be an exploration and observation on the nature of life, death, and the journey to the inner ‘Self’.
Currently touring India, the exhibition organised by Tasveer and enabled by Vacheron Constantin and The Singleton of Glen Ord can be caught next at ICIA, Mumbai where it will show between the 29th of September and 10th of October 2014. It will later move to Delhi, Kolkata and Bangalore.
Also, take a look at the Saibal Das catalogue and get ordering details here.
Before the Birth of Time
– By Naveen Kishore
We have no control over what we remember. Often what we do recall is refracted through the lens of memory as ‘fiction’. Our truth as literature. That which ‘took place’, ‘that which may have taken place’, ‘that which may never have happened.’ So revisiting the scene of old memories is not always ‘accurate’. At least not in the way we are used to accepting the ‘truth about ourselves’. Then again what is ‘truth’ and what is the ‘self’ we wish to express? Is the truth we wish to articulate a satisfactory representation of what we perceive as our self-image? Is the unhappy truth as acceptable as the one we see as a happy one? Does one suppress the other? None of this is meant to be confused with an ‘active’ untruth. Or what we call ‘a lie’. Lying is a whole different art form. One that may eventually become one’s truth. Everything is within the realm of the possible.
What we remember is helpless before the altar of Memory.
Gathering the landscapes of my winters.
A woman I had always known. Familiar.
Like the lines. Of my hand once clasped.
In hope. In fear she let go. These very hands.
I tried to whisper. My understanding.
Of what was happening. She gazed.
A woman I did not know. With unfamiliar eyes.
Hearing. With ears tightly shut. Excluding me.
I watched. Her shadow walk away.
On legs. That were no longer hers.
There is a river in me. Shrouded in mist. Bruised by the rocks. Pregnant with its own silt. Blinded by the ashes of people cremated on its banks. Bodies that were once full of life. Animal bones. Meandering. Exhausted. Incessant and burdened. Skeletal in places. Turbulent and roaring in others. Full of mystery. Even magic. Frivolous moonbeams. Garbage dump of humanity. Elixir of a longer life. Receiver of the undesired. Giver. Passing through so much unexplored wilderness. Heavy with thought. Resurrections. Shipwrecks and salvaged lives. Untamed. Full of sorrow. Full of heart. And humour. Rusted machinery. Melting snow. Melancholic. Blue. Brown. Grey. Silver in turn.
Full of the debris of unclaimed anguish the river in me murmurs stories. Tales it has collected from the sea.
Between Wellesley Mansion and Royd Street, where we stayed, there is an old bungalow. Like other such places it had two iron gates and a connecting driveway. At the out gate was a huge tree. Beneath this tree and sheltered by its shadows was a small enclosed space. Within this space was a Shivaling measuring at least eighteen inches in height.
Between nineteen-sixtyfive and sixtyseven—both years included and each morning, mind you—I used to watch a young boy dressed in his school uniform of blue and grey, wearing slippers, carrying a tiny glass of milk (the glass, I discovered later, was of pure silver), disappearing towards the gate with the tree, under which waited a thirsty godstone for his daily drunkenness.
The slippers were worn to achieve a state of barefootedness while drowning the God with fresh un-sugared milk. A sight the boy refused to see. Why else would his eyes be so tightly shut? Or was it because he hated the big black ants that battled over the milk? Was shutting his eyes his way of braving the ordeal? I forget now.
Often unknown to me. A shadow, cloaked in black, would follow me. To see if I was doing what I had promised to do.
For three years my grandmother led me to believe that this morning ritual would make my father give up his daily drunkenness.
Does it take three years to lose Faith?
Things that were sharply in focus.
Clear. Tangible. With weight and volume.
Suddenly lost their shape.
Began to appear faint.
And hazy. Outlines blurred.
Like someone had begun to erase things.
And was doing a bad job.
Leaving behind my present.
I walked swiftly but calmly into the fog.
Before time was born. That is to say before the birth of time when everything was unhurried. When the cold wind blew snowflakes over the landscape and the hot air danced with the rain to signal the changing of seasons. And light. And shade. Playing ebb and flow. A sea of shadows. Advancing only to retreat. Orphaned foam on the seashore.Unable to find its way home. Abandoned by the philandering of the oceans. Time in those days had not learnt to stand still. Remember there was no measure for what we later came to recognize as time passing. Neither did we know what it felt like to have the sands running out. Or sense the heat rising from the dust tracks as scores of tumbleweed parched and relentless tumbled in vain seeking shade. Age like time was unmeasured. Slow growing cancer. The shadow at noon attempting to climb into your body was a thing of the future. Who was to know that it would soon outgrow its childhood and become long and able-bodied as it stretched slanting before you. Like train-tracks. The horizon as mirage. Leave home. Walk away. As children are wont to do when they come of age. The smoothness of the back of your hand had long ceased to disguise the ravines formed by the veins as the pain in your knuckles slowly refused to leave. Unwanted guests abusing your hospitality. Overstaying their welcome. Growing old had nothing to do with the number of years. Nor were the creases on your face a sign of approaching oblivion.
Death just happened.
He carried a pair of tiny scissors in his seven year old head. One must always be prepared. Like a good scout. For any eventuality. To one day chance upon an unsuspecting piece of blue sky. With a fluffy white cloud. So as to swiftly snip a portion. For himself. Other people wanted a slice of land. He just wanted a bit of sky. To float in.
Woke up to a dream stealing away.
Leaving behind a glass slipper. Unnoticed.
A hurried departure.
Sometimes not so quietly.
one evening he
stepped back into the shadows
so as to be able
to watch life go by in the fading light
He yearned of a time when he could slip out of his skin and slither away into the grass leaving reality to others.