Swapan Parekh and Daljit Nagra



Two very different meetings. Now photography I know next to nothing about and poetry I imagined I understood a lot about. It's surprising but not disturbing to realise that every year you know less and less.

I don't know much but I know Daljit Nagra is adorable.

The Bluest Eye
IN CONVERSATION, Swapan Parekh alludes to the annoyance that iconic photographer Raghubir Singh faced from casual viewers who felt, “I could have taken that picture.” He alludes to it in the context of a danger that he, too, could face. The photographs in his new show Between Me & I, do not possess prettiness, drama or a National Geographic- once-in-a-lifetimeness to instantly humble the viewer. Instead, the show shares Parekh’s way of seeing, an eye trained by 25 years of photographic work in every genre — what he calls a “photographic reflex”.

The show is dedicated to his parents: his father, the celebrated photojournalist Kishore Parekh, who died on assignment in the Himalayas when Parekh was 16, and his mother, who died a few months ago. “I picked up a camera when my father died. It was my shield, a way of dealing with life.” On a wall, set apart from the other prints, is a photograph of his feet, close to the feet of his mother’s body laid out for her funeral. In its quiet use of colour and fragmented bodies, it is in perfect unity with the other images. More than the others, it speaks directly of a life where the camera is a crucial link, a constant companion. All the photos in this show are unstaged, taken impromptu, often between assignments for advertising and the media, which have given 42-year-old Parekh an exciting and lucrative career.

Parekh is best known for his award-winning press and advertising photography in black-and-white, a dramatic medium he calls his legacy. His new work does not provide instant gratification and one wonders how much some images would work in isolation. But, as a whole, the show is bound to satisfy a patient viewer, for whom patterns will resonate.

For simple satisfaction, your best bet is the profile of a white bull, seemingly levitating, sparking every myth about bulls your collective consciousness has accumulated. Much of the show is about absences and missing links. A child’s face is obscured by party decoration. A girl stares into the middle distance from behind a piece of blue cloth as disembodied arms emerge from behind her. A child with a disproportionate look of loss reaches vainly for a coathanger inside a locked car. Just as one imagines the clothes that would hang on a coat-hanger, so with many of Parekh’s images one’s instinct is to connect the dots, imagine the missing trunk of a tree. The most interesting images are those that defeat intuition. The quickly glimpsed man’s profile seems like Gandhi or a Brahmin with a choti, but he’s neither. The choti is a wire emerging from the wall, which you transfer like an epithet to his baldness.

Parekh started early, and his work is familiar to people across generations. Before he went to study photography in New York, for a while he trailed Raghu Rai, his father’s friend, at work in India Today. Rai was only one among dozens of legendary photographers and photojournalists who were at the enthusiastic opening of Between Me & I this weekend. SN Sinha, former photo editor of Hindustan Times, said simply that he enjoyed how fresh Parekh’s work seems. “You get bored seeing the same kind of work.”

Delhi-based photographer Sanjeev Saith, who has been following Parekh’s work, doesn’t hesitate to use the loaded “refined” to describe it. When Parekh picked images for this show, he threw out all those whose locations were easily identifiable. Parekh was determined that his newest viewers should not get that sort of nudge. No sadhus in Varanasi, East European cities, overcrowded living rooms — nothing with an overpowering history. “His is a very special eye that has studied the form more than the content of photography,” says Saith.

SAITH ALSO calls the work cold, the coldness being descriptive of its “blue-ishness” rather than pejorative. “These are images about the abstraction around people’s lives, the geometry that surrounds them. Though you don’t see too many people, you sense people, lurking.”

Parekh confides that he does not care whether he sells. (The edition is limited to eight prints, priced at Rs 80,000 each.) For now, the art market is welcoming of work that’s loosely being called personal. “It was called personal because, in the past, you shot socks or banians to make a living. You roamed the streets to take pictures that satisfied you, but did not pay. Now, it’s inverted. What you get by shooting yourself or your family for a gallery show pays a million times more than a commercial assignment,” says Saith.

Saith is just as intrigued by the context developing around Parekh’s work. “Is he ahead of his time? Is he of the moment?” Saith wonders. One can only wait and take some pleasure in watching.

No Gunga Din, this gig

WHEN DALJIT NAGRA entered the Smith/Doorstop poetry pamphlet competition with Oh My Rub! in 2003 he looked around for a pseudonym. “I didn’t take poetry seriously and I didn’t really write till I was in my 30s. But I wanted to create an Indian character in English poetry. I wanted a really forceful character, a positive character.” He cheekily chose Khan Singh Kumar, sure that no average white person would call his bluff — they would have to know how utterly improbable this logjam of Indian surnames was. For a while after he won the contest, some people even called him Mr Kumar, respectfully. Five years later, Nagra acknowledges that the joke is on him. The 41-year old British schoolteacher is in lively danger of having his poems included in the textbooks he had robustly mocked for their arbitrary grouping of poems from “Udder Cultures”.

When the high holy Vatican of poetry, Faber and Faber, published Nagra’s exuberant first collection, Look We Have Coming to Dover in 2007, the poems astonished Britain with the latitude they took with the English language and the range of immigrant experience they were able to capture. For almost all the poems, Nagra created characters and complex speech patterns. He unleashed the anal-retentive Mr Bulram, who savagely mimics his less-educated Punjabi neighbours; poor Rapinder telling his angry teacher how his father yelled at him for doing Hail Marys while watching Amar Akbar Anthony; Jaswinder who hates that her mother makes her “sheep my eyes/shelled in salwaar once hers”; the old Punjabi narrator whose utterly vulgar imagery in Bibi & the Street Car Wife does not ever obscure her despair.

Though the poems are like nothing you have seen before they are also easy to enter and fun to read aloud. It’s difficult to imagine how this has been achieved. Nagra says he likes to hold on to poems for a few years. “Wait a couple of years, change a single word and everything changes.” He happily cites Elizabeth Bishop, who redrafted a poem for 19 years till she was ready to publish. “Since I had no hopes of being published, I experimented as much as I wanted. When I started to write I was breaking down words and it was mad. It took a while to make an emotional connection with the reader, to break the language up in a way that is still accessible,” says Nagra.

When Nagra made the leap of faith, it could not have been better rewarded. He won the Forward Prize, among other awards, and was invited everywhere. Indian and non-Indian audiences took to his readings — couched as they are in charm and high spirits, Nagra’s sting is barely visible. So perhaps it was sheer perversity that made him choose a poem with expletives for a performance in a gurudwara. A small town had invited several poets, including Nagra, to read and his session was set in the langar (“There was someone who specialised in love poems, he was asked to read in a hotel bedroom”). The old granthi indicated that it was all very nice, but what was with the language?

Whatever is with the language, you never quite miss the trees for Nagra’s startling forest. Made-up syntax, faux accents, thickened accents — the poems still tell you popular culture and literature have behaved as if Punjabi immigrants are all gross simpletons. Nagra’s poems force you to see grand tragedy in working-class lives the way Roddy Doyle did by immersing you in the inner lives of Paula Spencer and the Rabbites.

“When I was growing up, an Indian accent on the telly signaled someone dumb. I wanted to use Indian accents to remind English people of Britain’s racist heritage. So, when I am using the accent, I want them to ask, am I like another white person blacked up like Peter Sellers or am I an Indian asking what’s wrong with my accent? Like in Darling Me, you have the Punjabi couple speaking in that accent but feeling superior to the white couple.”

The hugely enthusiastic reviews usually forebear to mention that he is only the third non-white poet to be published by Faber after Derek Walcott, preferring to say instead that Nagra was born in England, the son of immigrant Punjabis. Nagra blithely brings the difficult years centrestage. His father worked in several factories (sausages, crockery, rubber) and his mother in the laundry department of a hospital until they saved enough to run a shop. You have to see past Nagra’s wide eyes to sense the (only faintly) malicious enjoyment of those whose brains are whirring like nosy relatives, wondering whether poetry pays. “I usually have two to three readings a week. Now they give me money to come and read poetry. Isn’t that amazing?” Having raised hopes that he has created a revenue model in poetry, he tells you that he turns down residencies in American universities so as to not interfere with his teaching. Nagra is serious about teaching, seeing it as a site of both conflict and growth in a Britain that aspires to multiculturalism. But newfound success has liberated him from the grind, he now only teaches twice a week.

In Booking Khan Singh Kumar, Nagra writes his complicated response to success. “Should I read for you straight or Gunga Din this gig?” he asks. It is the voice closest to his own and the epicentre from which we can chart his excursions. “Perhaps I was hiding behind characters, but it was also a way of having multiple perspectives.”

Outside of poetry, Nagra discusses his political concerns with simple directness. “They are taking away people’s rights in Britain under the pretence that we are being terrorised by Muslims. Since 9/11 racial discrimination is no longer about being Indian. This is Islamophobia.” It is a different sort of racism from what he feared as a child, he says. Growing up in predominantly white working-class areas in Thatcher’s Britain, Daljit and his brother escaped racial violence but constantly feared it. “I don’t know how we learnt what we learnt to fit in. I guess survival instincts kick in.”

THAT NAGRA is a great admirer of survivors is amply evident in the title poem, Look We Have Coming to Dover, his response to Matthew Arnold’s classic. Dover Beach is a vast Victorian sigh that continues to inspire strong feelings, including Anthony Hecht’s parody Dover Bitch and now, Nagra’s rollicking poetry.

“The poem picked me — it’s beautiful. But here is the narrator feeling sad, worrying about the decline of the British empire. It should have been the people in the colonies and the working class who were sad. So my poem is a tribute to immigrants, to strong and stoic people, who have come to Britain. And where Arnold had his perfect English and a polite iambic rhythm, I have used my made-up English and a seafarer rhythm.” Nagra is experimenting with sonnets and classical forms for his second collection. Does he see himself as part of Britain’s comic poetry tradition? “No, British poetry is usually gloomy stuff. And the humour tends to be ironic. Punjabis are not ironic. They are loud, noisy, gossipy and bitchy, silly, in your face.”

His parents are very proud of his success, he says. “Before they wondered where this poetry was going. Of course, their ideas about poets came from India. Someone who drinks, gambles, turns out love poems.” Nagra falls silent for a moment. “A Punjabi bohemian. Can’t imagine what that’s like.”

2 comments:

Which reading did you attend? was told the Delhi one happened by vidoe link...

October 31, 2008 at 10:46 AM  

Didnt attend reading. A highly persuasive friend of mine trapped him into having drinks with us.

October 31, 2008 at 12:34 PM  

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