We meet on an afternoon of any other day when the atmosphere of Delhi seems to turn to gold dust and the sun filters through the leaves of the thick trees that want to remind us that there was once a forest here. It is the magical hour before sunset and in the air, you can hear the calls of birds, while groups of parrots fly through the sky, so fast that they seem to leave trails of almost phosphorescent green.
The place is the garden of the Taj Ambassador, where I have my office, in this city I love so much, and our chat takes place in front of a masala chai, to my delight as a great fan of tea, especially those grown in India. I am here to meet a young artist, inspired and inspiring: Imdad Barbhuyan, who comes from one of the regions that are famous for growing a certain type of tea: Assam.
Who is Imdad Barbhuyan? How would you tell about you to everyone who will read the content of our chat?
Dearest Angelo, thank you so much for having me. How about you do the honours and introduce me to your readers? It’d be more meaningful and I’d love to know how you see me.
Every time I see your photos, I am speechless. I recognise a common poetic that fascinates me, but I also recognise that this poetic lends itself to situations that are always different. What inspires you and moves you to tell moments of life that become art?
My world is quite ‘internalised’ in the sense that I have, for as long as I can remember, preferred to observe rather than put myself to experiencing a situation- living inside my head, interacting with the world visually rather than physically. This tendency of mine has kept me detached from the physical world much like how we are separate from an image and can never really become a part of any moment of life once it becomes (or rather made into) an image. I look at life and I see images; I remember the pain and anxiety this caused me as a child because I didn’t understand this feeling; all I understood was I wanted to remember all those moments, those places, but it wasn’t possible until I got my first phone, which thankfully had a camera.
At the cost of sounding dramatic, I would have to confess that I still suffer a lot because of all that I see and the undeniable need to ‘capture’ those moments that come with it. So the poetry you talk about is probably this pain in my chest that I feel all too often. There was a point when I decided to desensitize myself, to not look around as much, to make life easier but you can’t lie to yourself for long, right? You have to come back to being yourself.
You know how much I appreciate your photos. Let’s start with the flowers… Whether they are simple flowers in a field or sprouting between the cracks of a wall, or whether they are blooms in the background of a “piece” of this city, everything speaks of an inner world rich insensitivity. Not to mention the attention paid to the materiality of the petals throughout their life, from their full turgidity to the moment when their fragility and transience is most evident. Would you like to tell us more about your vision of a flower as the subject of a photo?
Thank you Angelo for this beautiful thought. Getting closer to your inner voice and your vision of beauty comes with a certain degree of loneliness. You can’t share beauty, two people will never see the same way. I feel like I share this loneliness with flowers; my malediction is how I see while they are cursed by their being. When I observe a flower, I see a world inside them and through some of my pictures I try to emote how it would actually feel to live inside a flower. The flower becomes a landscape in my series ‘Anatomy of a flower’. The more you look, the more there is to see. There are worlds inside the smallest of things, what is even ‘small’ you know? We’d like to think we’re not but we are minuscule and yet we are all so stressed and serious about our lives and our troubles. I photograph flowers to invite others into this world, this way of thinking- reminding us of the transience of our own lives and that there’s more to life than we realise. When you look at one of my images of a flower, I like to believe that you, I and the flower are all sharing the same feeling – of being and becoming, comforting one another.
Often you are the protagonist of your photos and again, your delicacy emerges in wanting to tell something that speaks through your body. What is your vision of the human body, be it your own or that of the people you portray, often people and family members very close to you?
“ And yet sometimes we feel like
strangers sharing the same pillow.
We are the children of hope,
growing and flowing in faith.
I become you, as you
I stretch and you scratch,
I sigh and you dance.
My memories etched onto your surface,
like the visceral stains on this tablecloth.
Layered summers, winters and springs
all becoming one,
longing for the next rain.
The next tumble, the next wrestle,
tender and then violent.“
These are a few words from a piece that I just finished writing. Titled ‘I become you, as you become me’, it’s a letter from me to my body. Our body is our most special gift, but we sadly get so used to it that we forget how priceless it is to even have a body. Can you imagine how different life would be without one, a life without sensations? We are split between two realities- physical and the metaphysical and the relationship between these two is just astounding. We are nothing but the invisible balance between these two realities, so we need to be more mindful of this relationship and love our bodies, unconditionally and endlessly.
I remember some time ago, you told me about an architectural project of yours in which the building you were considering had a perfect reflection of its image in the lake in front of it, which created a play and a relationship between the architectural image and the image of the landscape. I would like you to recount this fascinating point of view.
Aah yes, I’m surprised you remember. That was my thesis where I designed a lakeside resort in the quaint city of Bundi, Rajasthan. The Bundi Fort is placed atop a hill that is on the other side of the lake, opposite my site, so the views were breathtaking. What I found most inspiring was how the lake reflected the entire panoramic view of the fort and so I decided to call my resort ‘Aaina’ (mirror in Hindi) and based all my concepts around reflecting the essence of the traditional architecture of the city and the culture of Rajasthan at large. Inspired by the water-centric cities of Udaipur and Banaras and conceived as a harmony between man, nature and geometry, I designed the volumes in a way that would create a network of open and semi-open spaces within the building and in the landscaping, to frame and celebrate the views.
Keeping all the guest rooms on the upper floors, with private terrace gardens, restaurants and ‘hammams’ (public baths), the central garden on the ground acts as the heart of the site. The entire lakefront was developed as a public promenade and a vibrant craft and cultural complex woven together by the many gardens, orchards, step-wells with vegetation and water features of various sizes and types. The pure white volumes became the perfect backdrop for a celebration of all colours of Rajasthan, in all their glory. In hindsight, although I was designing spaces, my vision, approach and priorities were always visual.
Colour is the soul of my life, I owe it to my Mediterranean spirit and it is the same for you, as an Indian and therefore linked to the tradition of colour used in all its possibilities, but also as an artist who draws on the colour of everything around you. What does colour represent for you and what is your relationship with light?
This question makes me a bit uncomfortable but I’m so glad you asked because it’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot lately. What I have with colour is an ongoing fight, a love-hate relationship. It might not seem like it from my work but I am very reluctant to accept the significance and control that colour has on my work. It is not colour that directs my imagery; I don’t see the world or visualise my imagery based on and around colour, what engages me is beyond the superficial. Having said that, I do find myself seduced by colour, in reality, and oftentimes in my work, but then I also feel like it’s restricting me and my notion of beauty, and so I have this urge to fight my way out of it.
Beauty is the essence of something, colour is merely an aspect of its appearance. I want to believe that I like very monochrome imagery, black & white and beige frames. Colour, however, always finds a way into my imagery, can it be because of the fact that I am in India? I’d hope so. It is quite possible that someday down the line I learn some things about myself, my work and what colour meant to me, that will change my point of view entirely but I won’t be surprised. In a way, I like that I don’t know for sure, because there’s scope for questioning and exploring and having conversations such as this.
Your communication goes far beyond what the reality you tell is. An orange, a flower, a twist of hair, a colourful sari, there are no more words or genres or preconceived ideas. Just great freedom of thought. I would like to close our chat by focusing on your concept of freedom.
To give complete freedom to your mind and your thoughts is the rarest, most beautiful and generous thing you can do for yourself. Freedom to me is to be able to live as your authentic self; as easy and obvious as it may sound, we all know that it is the most difficult thing to do. To sing your own song might mean alienation and persecution and no one wants to be alone, we all want to belong.
This is telling of the very nature of our sad reality that we can only be together if we all look the same and uphold the same ideas and beliefs. The very notion of ‘not fitting in’ means that there is a need to look/be a certain way so that one can blend in with the rest. I grew up always being the odd one out, never fitting in because I was different and, to be honest, I still feel that way. But I don’t want things to stay that way; I want to belong. Being different should be celebrated, together, because, in authenticity and togetherness, there is freedom. I am hopeful though because things are changing, slowly but surely.
Article edit by Angelo Garini