pennews
www.pennews.net
Soham Gupta - breaking through stillness
Arts Speak

Soham Gupta - breaking through stillness

Divya Menon

A breakdown in college led him to an isolation of sorts which inspired him to pursue photography, a childhood obsession. But Soham Gupta, the prodigious photographer and writer from Kolkata whose works are on show at the 58th Venice Biennale, is a brilliant manifestation of looking at things from a different perspective, through a pair of seasoned eyes.

His subjects captured in Kolkata, in the dark of the night showcase various shades and tints of despair. They are not merely silent pictures but they are literally chronicles that speak with a rare sort of eloquence uncommon to a static medium, so to say. They weep; they mourn; they plead; one almost hears shrieks and feels pain through these dark representations of the marginalized of society. While the top notes are anguish and loneliness, disgusting reality runs through these captures that are by no means beautiful. Art has come a long way and the eccentric and socially challenged times that we live in today, define art through parameters that quantify the inner experience it offers. The ability of art to set into motion a process of inner chaos has become an outlandish yet certain measure of its reach. These photographs that are crafted dexterously to ‘disturb’ albeit with not a bit of untruth in them, do exactly that.  With the rare quality to attach themselves to the eyes of the mind these images are here to stay.

Emotionally drawn towards vulnerable individuals, in his initial days as a photographer he began to capture the homeless, the mentally broken and other kinds of downtrodden people in the hope of shaking up human conscience through his images. However, he soon realized that his images could do no more than bringing the world to face his suffering protagonists or deliver a grave message for nothing further would manifest. He says, “I can challenge the viewer to face the world I see – I can be a messenger boy but that’s all – I once met a homeless man who pleaded with me to admit him to a hospital for he was sick – I tried everything – I took him to two government hospitals, where he was given medicines but was not admitted, as they said, ‘these people are a menace, don’t bring them here anymore.’ Then I went to the hospice run by the Missionaries of Charity, but I was shown the door there too”.

In this brief interview, Soham Gupta shares a few thoughts about his journey through the dark lanes of life and Kolkata as a photographer who captures faces and their silent cries.

Can you tell us about Angst

Angst is my reaction to the trials through which the weak must pass in our society.

This work has its roots in my childhood riddled with severe asthma attacks and in my troubled growing-up years spent trying to come to terms with the world's expectations. Deep within Angst runs my anger, my frustrations, my hatred for a world in which there is no place for the weak, where weaklings are left to rot.

Nourished by this anger, this hatred, this cynicism, this body of work has grown into a hopeless tale of a fictive nighttime hellhole, whose nooks and crannies are inhabited by decaying souls.

Soham Gupta - breaking through stillness

Ultimately, I want Angst to stand as testimony to the requiem of countless dreams, even as it is a record of my angst-ridden youth.

Why do you say, “Kolkata the crumbling city”?

It is one of the oldest and grandest of the modern great cities. But it is a miracle that it still stands tall – having experienced the man-made Bengal famine of 1943 and the mass migration as well as the tragic three decades of economic inertia. Today, there is still life in the city but the city is tired. The city echoes with the cries of pain and the howls of agony. You just got to lend your ears to those silent cries, whether in the depths of the neighbourhood garbage vat, by the trapped soul of the stinking dead cat and the unconscious mad man, flies buzzing around them, or in that country liquor bar buzzing with the grumbles of impoverished melancholy drunkards, the stink of urine from the lane leading to the bar and the stink of bangla from the glasses and the bottles and the countless mouths amplifying the atmospheric melancholia.

Yes, at times, Kolkata seems to be the bleakest of all places. The city, like that forgotten pot of tea, feels so bitter, the tea-leaves resting in the teapot’s womb – like my love for Kolkata – responsible for all the bitterness.

You are eternally linked to Kolkata through your captures and what is your relationship with this place and how has it shaped your practice?

Kolkata is my beloved city but the further I go away from it, the closer it clings to me. I have a love-hate relationship with this city – neither can I escape, nor can I cling to it. It’s like an old, intimate relationship, a marriage you don’t want to end, even though you’re sick of each other.

Even though the city makes me feel restless, bored, frustrated, I am still finding new dimensions of it – it never fails to surprise me. The day it will fail, my time here will be up.

Could you throw light on Soham Gupta at the Venice Biennale 2019 and the experience it gifted?

I am showing my work Angst – two versions of it – one, at the venue Arsenale, the other, at Giardini – in Arsenale, it occupies a very prominent position – and I feel indebted to have had the support of Mr. Ralph Rugoff, the curator of the Venice Biennale. People have been moved to tears, looking at the work, looking at the harsh realities of life - in ways, my aim of provoking the viewer to react has been successful – I want to shatter the illusion of a vanilla world, bring people close to what is real around us – perhaps on the other side of the invisible wall that separates the privileged from the disadvantaged.

How do you choose subjects for your compositions?

I am always on the lookout for characters. My eyes are always scanning. I am a very ordinary person. But I observe things, people, movements, the world around me. Perhaps a part of it reflects in my texts.

About the compositions, it’s done in collaboration with my sitters. One of my rather more known image, of the bride who is spreading her shawl as if she’s spreading her wings like a great bird – it was an unbelievable, magical encounter. I was making very ordinary images of her, when she suddenly lifted her hands as if to fly – and I made the image.

Can you tell us about Eden, Desi Boys, Dont let them know and L'Appel du vide.

Eden is a collection of similar looking portraits made over time in between 2007-2019

Desi Boys is about fashion of the subaltern youth.

Don't Let Them Know is about what lies behind the façade of perfection men, women and families put up for others to see and the secrets that we have been smothering all the while. And perhaps vaguely, these images explore and question the idea of relationships and its varied dynamics in the suffocating yesteryears of India.

Soham Gupta - breaking through stillness

L’Appel du Vide: I started this series of portraits in France during a residency, where the work was primarily an ode to our bodies that are real, not plastic. But then, as people opened up to me during long conversations, as we talked of our past and of our pains, as we shared our secrets and our hopes, our moments of jubilation and our failures, we ended up forming a bond based on empathy and vulnerability. And at this very juncture, this series of nudes was no longer just about our bodies, but about our souls, about our memories and our ghosts, our insecurities and our fears, which we struggle against every passing day while seeking liberation.

Do you see sadness mostly in life? What is your take on human relationships set against the background of the changing landscape of social and family values and system?

From my days in school, I have been fascinated by Chekhov – then, I chanced upon the work of Hubert Selby Jr, Charles Bukowski; the films of Ken Loach inspired me greatly. But the turning point in my life was chancing upon Don McCullin’s work in 2006, at the very, very beginning of my journey as a photographer. The dark images of McCullin led me to Goya, another turning point in my life.

I respond to themes of loneliness and isolation, of abuse and pain, of scarred pasts and uncertain futures, sexual tensions and existential dilemmas more than any other themes…

There is so much hatred today – all over the world, the fascists are winning because of the hatred nurtured in the hearts of people, divided by race, class, gender, ideologies – we are all becoming indifferent towards each other – all of us are part of the same system, the same hypocrisy. The end is not far from us – just today I chanced upon a picture of a fatigued, starving polar bear having traversed a great journey to a town in Siberia in desperation.

But, in my work, there is humor too, there is joy. A breakdown in college led him to an isolation of sorts which inspired him to pursue photography, a childhood obsession. But Soham Gupta, the prodigious photographer and writer from Kolkata whose works are on show at the 58th Venice Biennale, is a brilliant manifestation of looking at things from a different perspective, through a pair of seasoned eyes.

Soham Gupta - breaking through stillness

His subjects captured in Kolkata, in the dark of the night showcase various shades and tints of despair. They are not merely silent pictures but they are literally chronicles that speak with a rare sort of eloquence uncommon to a static medium, so to say. They weep; they mourn; they plead; one almost hears shrieks and feels pain through these dark representations of the marginalized of society. While the top notes are anguish and loneliness, disgusting reality runs through these captures that are by no means beautiful. Art has come a long way and the eccentric and socially challenged times that we live in today, define art through parameters that quantify the inner experience it offers. The ability of art to set into motion a process of inner chaos has become an outlandish yet certain measure of its reach. These photographs that are crafted dexterously to ‘disturb’ albeit with not a bit of untruth in them, do exactly that.  With the rare quality to attach themselves to the eyes of the mind these images are here to stay.

Emotionally drawn towards vulnerable individuals, in his initial days as a photographer he began to capture the homeless, the mentally broken and other kinds of downtrodden people in the hope of shaking up human conscience through his images. However, he soon realized that his images could do no more than bringing the world to face his suffering protagonists or deliver a grave message for nothing further would manifest. He says, “I can challenge the viewer to face the world I see – I can be a messenger boy but that’s all – I once met a homeless man who pleaded with me to admit him to a hospital for he was sick – I tried everything – I took him to two government hospitals, where he was given medicines but was not admitted, as they said, ‘these people are a menace, don’t bring them here anymore.’ Then I went to the hospice run by the Missionaries of Charity, but I was shown the door there too”.

In this brief interview, Soham Gupta shares a few thoughts about his journey through the dark lanes of life and Kolkata as a photographer who captures faces and their silent cries.

Can you tell us about Angst

Angst is my reaction to the trials through which the weak must pass in our society.

This work has its roots in my childhood riddled with severe asthma attacks and in my troubled growing-up years spent trying to come to terms with the world's expectations. Deep within Angst runs my anger, my frustrations, my hatred for a world in which there is no place for the weak, where weaklings are left to rot.

Nourished by this anger, this hatred, this cynicism, this body of work has grown into a hopeless tale of a fictive nighttime hellhole, whose nooks and crannies are inhabited by decaying souls.

Ultimately, I want Angst to stand as testimony to the requiem of countless dreams, even as it is a record of my angst-ridden youth.

Why do you say, “Kolkata the crumbling city”?

It is one of the oldest and grandest of the modern great cities. But it is a miracle that it still stands tall – having experienced the man-made Bengal famine of 1943 and the mass migration as well as the tragic three decades of economic inertia. Today, there is still life in the city but the city is tired. The city echoes with the cries of pain and the howls of agony. You just got to lend your ears to those silent cries, whether in the depths of the neighbourhood garbage vat, by the trapped soul of the stinking dead cat and the unconscious mad man, flies buzzing around them, or in that country liquor bar buzzing with the grumbles of impoverished melancholy drunkards, the stink of urine from the lane leading to the bar and the stink of bangla from the glasses and the bottles and the countless mouths amplifying the atmospheric melancholia.

Yes, at times, Kolkata seems to be the bleakest of all places. The city, like that forgotten pot of tea, feels so bitter, the tea-leaves resting in the teapot’s womb – like my love for Kolkata – responsible for all the bitterness.

You are eternally linked to Kolkata through your captures and what is your relationship with this place and how has it shaped your practice?

Kolkata is my beloved city but the further I go away from it, the closer it clings to me. I have a love-hate relationship with this city – neither can I escape, nor can I cling to it. It’s like an old, intimate relationship, a marriage you don’t want to end, even though you’re sick of each other.

Even though the city makes me feel restless, bored, frustrated, I am still finding new dimensions of it – it never fails to surprise me. The day it will fail, my time here will be up.

Could you throw light on Soham Gupta at the Venice Biennale 2019 and the experience it gifted?

I am showing my work Angst – two versions of it – one, at the venue Arsenale, the other, at Giardini – in Arsenale, it occupies a very prominent position – and I feel indebted to have had the support of Mr. Ralph Rugoff, the curator of the Venice Biennale. People have been moved to tears, looking at the work, looking at the harsh realities of life - in ways, my aim of provoking the viewer to react has been successful – I want to shatter the illusion of a vanilla world, bring people close to what is real around us – perhaps on the other side of the invisible wall that separates the privileged from the disadvantaged.

How do you choose subjects for your compositions?

I am always on the lookout for characters. My eyes are always scanning. I am a very ordinary person. But I observe things, people, movements, the world around me. Perhaps a part of it reflects in my texts.

About the compositions, it’s done in collaboration with my sitters. One of my rather more known image, of the bride who is spreading her shawl as if she’s spreading her wings like a great bird – it was an unbelievable, magical encounter. I was making very ordinary images of her, when she suddenly lifted her hands as if to fly – and I made the image.

Can you tell us about Eden, Desi Boys, Dont let them know and L'Appel du vide.

Eden is a collection of similar looking portraits made over time in between 2007-2019

Desi Boys is about fashion of the subaltern youth.

Don't Let Them Know is about what lies behind the façade of perfection men, women and families put up for others to see and the secrets that we have been smothering all the while. And perhaps vaguely, these images explore and question the idea of relationships and its varied dynamics in the suffocating yesteryears of India.

L’Appel du Vide: I started this series of portraits in France during a residency, where the work was primarily an ode to our bodies that are real, not plastic. But then, as people opened up to me during long conversations, as we talked of our past and of our pains, as we shared our secrets and our hopes, our moments of jubilation and our failures, we ended up forming a bond based on empathy and vulnerability. And at this very juncture, this series of nudes was no longer just about our bodies, but about our souls, about our memories and our ghosts, our insecurities and our fears, which we struggle against every passing day while seeking liberation.

Do you see sadness mostly in life? What is your take on human relationships set against the background of the changing landscape of social and family values and system?

From my days in school, I have been fascinated by Chekhov – then, I chanced upon the work of Hubert Selby Jr, Charles Bukowski; the films of Ken Loach inspired me greatly. But the turning point in my life was chancing upon Don McCullin’s work in 2006, at the very, very beginning of my journey as a photographer. The dark images of McCullin led me to Goya, another turning point in my life.

I respond to themes of loneliness and isolation, of abuse and pain, of scarred pasts and uncertain futures, sexual tensions and existential dilemmas more than any other themes…

There is so much hatred today – all over the world, the fascists are winning because of the hatred nurtured in the hearts of people, divided by race, class, gender, ideologies – we are all becoming indifferent towards each other – all of us are part of the same system, the same hypocrisy. The end is not far from us – just today I chanced upon a picture of a fatigued, starving polar bear having traversed a great journey to a town in Siberia in desperation.

But, in my work, there is humor too, there is joy.

http://www.soham-gupta.com/