"The Prabuddha Dasgupta retrospective at NGMA is a repertoire of this personal journey that saw him transforming from a commercial photographer to someone whose eye captured landscape and people of Ladakh to life in Goa," writes Bishweshwar.
Much before Prabuddha Dasgupta was a lensman he was a writer of slogans and crisp copies. A shoe campaign changed that.
Pre-liberalisation winds were blowing, and though Reeboks and Adidas’ trickled in with cousins and uncles coming from abroad, a coup of sort happened with an unknown brand – Tuff shoes. The ad showcased a reptile entwined on the naked bodies of models. The picture was clicked by a photographer one hadn’t heard before - Prabuddha Dasgupta.
The ad, the company, the models and the photographer created a sensation. Prabuddha made his entrance in this commercial world of photography in a dramatic fashion. A click on fashion that became more than just fashion. It became a talk of the town at times when Debonair still had centerspread and the internet was yet to make its mark on Indian firmament. In those pre-Poonam Pandey and Sherlyn Chopra days, what models Madhu Sapre and Milind Soman achieved was unthinkable. The nakedness of their bodies was still covered with a snake. Well, India is a country of snake charmers, but it stops there. The snake can just dance within the ‘bin’ but it transgresses the line if it is entwined on naked body of a man and a woman. The fact that the agency, photographer and models didn’t wink or develop cold field on going ahead on the shoot and design, is remarkable.
It established Prabuddha as a bold and refreshing new talent in the advertising universe. It also fuelled his creativity to be more experimental in his work and test waters with a personal journey with the camera.
The Prabuddha Dasgupta retrospective at NGMA is a repertoire of this personal journey that saw him transforming from a commercial photographer to someone whose eye captured landscape and people of Ladakh to life in Goa.
His journey started in his growing up years. With a father who was a Director of National Gallery of Modern Arts, Prabuddha grew up amidst canvasses, installations and sculptures. On a young mind this might have been an overwhelmingly beautiful experience giving him the solidity of an artist that we find so evident in his later works. Having grown up in Delhi, he graduated in history and as with most drifters with a bent of art, he joined advertising as a copywriter. But advertising is fluid and maybe it is here that Prabuddha found his inherent knack with art mix with a bit of style and fashion.
The amalgamation couldn’t have been at a better time. By then his picture of Feroza Gujral sitting in a café with a cigarette in hand with the gaiety of a French countryside girl for designer Sumeet Verma had garnered attention. But beyond the gallery he grew up, the creative room and studio he wrote copy in an agency and beyond the clicks he was experimenting, what shot him to national prominence was the Tuff Shoes ad. What Prabuddha did was unimaginable in those times. He chose the costume as a python curled to their naked bodies. It must be a matter of conjecture that even if this was the agency brief how did Prabudhha manage to get this in a photograph in those pre photoshop era.
Though that particular campaign photograph is missing in the present exhibition, sometimes an event shapes a person. The picture took him and the agency into litigation but those were less harsher times. What might have propelled Prabuddha realise through this incident where he escaped prosecution for obscenity is that beyond the commercial brief, photography also exists in un-staged moments. His classic Luois Vutton picture of pigeons idyllically sitting on Louis Vutton pieces with the Jama Masjid for vogue issue propelled him further as someone with a keen eye who can balance art and commerce. And it is this fine balance that Prabuddha managed to achieve in his not so long life. Sometime during this journey, he found a muse and lover in Lakshmi Menon and this brought him to Bangalore and then took him to Goa. The 90’s and 2000’s were particularly productive, and his work found space inWoman (1996), Ladakh (2000) and Edge of Faith (2009). All these three books are monumental work and it shows his grip on all the subjects that he has attempted photographing.
Straddling between art and commerce he has always produced something that is his signature style. Minimal lighting, tight compositions, grainy and out of focus. He shot as he saw it and except for fashion most of his work carried that signature style. His work for Ganjam, the jeweller group again broke grounds with dark-skinned models at a time when fairness is some kind national virtue. The way he played with shadows in his pictures of the ruins of Hampi is outstanding. In fact, as one’s memory goes the landing page of the Ganjam website few years back had a Prabudhhda’s click of a Hampi Pillar with the shadow like a clock hand. There was no jewellery, no model, just that one single frame with a pillar and a shadow behind it.
Three years after he passed away in 2012, NGMA had showcased 90 monochrome works of his. The present running retrospective in NGMA takes it even forward by giving prominence to some of his coloured blowups as well. Thanks to NGMA, Bengaluru, this may be the first time the people of the city where Prabuddha once resided before he embarked on his final journey to Goa, are able to admire his frames spread across the lower gallery of NGMA. The inaugural day saw the presence of the scions of the house of Ganjam. As one walks in one realises how prolific Prabudhha was. Frame after frame he captivates with his mastery over this intensely difficult medium - black and white.
But when one sees his few coloured frames one realises why he regaled more in black and white. Colour can be distracting. Colour is what we see every day. The reality as it is, stark and ugly at times. There is a beauty in monochrome that Prabudhha show us time and again through his frames. In many ways he is a chronicler of our times from the past and a window to the modern and contemporary. One can call his work a bridge between fashion and editorial, beauty and real, and the seen and the unseen. How the future sees him is however another matter.
This brings us to the question whether Prabudhha was a provocateur or an artist? A photographer who clicked or a photographer who painted in every click? A lover of people or a lover of places? An explorer or just a traveler? Whatever he might have been, his pictures undoubtedly stand the test of time and set him miles apart from others. Maybe his work was far advanced for his time. Maybe he had seen the future in the present. It’s hard to tell.
The Prabudhha Dasgupta Retrospective is being showcased at NGMA, Bengaluru till January 15th.
Bishweshwar is a poet, author, and photographer. He currently lives in Bengaluru.