Karan Kapoor: Time & Tide

Karan Kapoor, 2016.
Photo: Stuart McClymont

Photographs from another time, surface after two decades of being hidden away in a personal collection. It has the effect of a time machine, when one looks back on a bygone era. Many do not know Karan Kapoor as a photographer; rather they remember him as the dreamboat modelling expensive suites and male apparel. However, Karan is a compelling photographer and his images present a personal and empathetic study of the Anglo-Indian community, from Mumbai and Kolkata. He has also trained his lens on the catholic community in Goa and the Parsis of Mumbai. The son of famed actor and thespian Shashi and Jennifer Kapoor, Karan is himself of British-Indian decent. Unique access to the community triggered his imagination. The personal and historical create a body of work, that looks at mixed identity and the notion of being caught between worlds.

© Karan Kapoor, Tollygunge, Calcutta#2, 1981. Courtesy Tasveer.

Tasveer presents, a travelling exhibition, hosted in three cities, as a series of limited edition prints by Kapoor, titled Time & Tide. Curated by Nathaniel Gaskell. It brings together two bodies of work made in the 1980s and ’90s, and focuses on people and places that have either been lost to history, or changed beyond recognition. The exhibition is accompanied by a new book with reproductions of photographs in the show and essays by William Dalrymple and Felicity Kendal.

You documented the Goan community at a time when no-one knew that things would change so rapidly. How did you zero in on Goa?  Also, what led you to focus on the Anglo-Indian, community?

© Karan Kapoor, Three Kings feast in Chandor, Goa, 1994. Courtesy Tasveer.

In the case of Goa, no-body knew it was going to change that much, that fast. It all began quite informally, I was taking pictures because that’s what I do. My family had a home in Goa and we were often invited to our neighbours parties and weddings. Before I began taking any images, there was a lot of interaction with the community and I got an intimate view of it. By the early 1990s however, I became aware that the Portuguese culture was fading in Goa, and then there was a conscious effort to document that.

My work with the Anglo-Indian community began when I was very young, around 18 or 19- years-old. We were feeling the impact of the 1947 Partition and I was aware that the Anglo- Indian community was a fading one. Most of the kids immigrated to Canada and Australia and the community was diminishing. My mother’s film 36 Chowringhee Lane also played an important part in my developing an interest in documenting the community, since I was helping her research for the film.

What took you so long to show this body of work? Why keep it hidden from the world?

(Laughs) a small section of this larger body of work on the Anglo-Indian community was featured before, in the poet and author Dom Moraes magazine, Keynote. After that I don’t know…it just got lost. Shooting the Goa Series was a long process, I shot there from 1975 to 1995.  I would go there in the monsoon and shoot. It’s nice that Tasveer asked me to show this and offered to do the book. I think people appreciate it more especially with Goa…with a twenty-year gap, the work gains a certain gravitas.

Your photographs have a certain nostalgia for a time that has already disappeared. What leads you towards this approach?

© Karan Kapoor, Mr. Carpenter, Tollygunge, Calcutta, 1981. Courtesy Tasveer.

In Kolkata everything was nostalgia, it was like breathing nostalgia, there was 36 Chowringhee Lane, Tollygunge, Park Street. Delhi did not have that much of nostalgia as a city. They had all the fancy big hotels 1979 and 1980, so it didn’t connect with me. As a photographer, you are looking for an emotional element that conveys something more than that meets the eye. In my work, I am always conveying some sort of emotion. It took months before I took any photographs. I would meet them, spend hours with them, I recorded their interviews, to get their dialect, I have lost the tapes…but it made it more interesting to document them. The pictures…grew out of evening tea, spending days, taking the bus to the old age home and the club in Tollygunge where one spent the whole day. It was a community where they raised their own chickens and veggies…all that is gone now.

There is a distinction between nostalgia and sentimentality, how did you avoid falling into the trap?
I don’t make statements, I wanted to capture the lighter moments of the community so I have very strong portraits, people playing instruments, people dancing. My experience with the community wasn’t a sentimental one it was full of life. It just happens organically. I think being a photographer is really about working with the materials. I never go to a situation pre-meditating what image I am taking…one just sees how it works out.

Now that you mention the recordings, there is a very strong element of sound and music in your work. 

© Karan Kapoor, Rachol Seminary, Goa #3, 1994. Courtesy Tasveer.

Yes. Music is so important in both Anglo Indian and Goan communities. It’s a shame I have not got the recordings anymore, especially those with Archibald who was a manager at Flurys in Kolkata’s Park Street. It was an incredibly dignified and elegant place. People dressed up to go there. In the 1950s and 60s, music was an important part of that culture. Musicians were quite well-to-do and lived in huge big beautiful houses. One would ride a scooter or the bus and end up playing the violin for people in hotels, however what was unique was the fact that their houses were far more beautiful than you could imagine.

American photographer Mary Ellen Mark gifted you a roll of film in the 1980s. What was the significance of that act? Would you think of her as a mentor?

© Karan Kapoor, Tollygunge, Calcutta #5,
1980. Courtesy Tasveer.

Mary Ellen, was a good friend of my mums, she dedicated the book on Mother Teresa to my mum. I was working with the Anglo-Indian Community and she on Mother Teresa. It were photographers like that, who inspired me and I looked at their work— Raghu Rai as well.

Your new works are very different from what you have done in the past. Is it a conscious decision or purely because of demand and commercial considerations?

It’s happened organically, I have done more commercial work now. I wish I could go back and spend the time and meet people and photograph them like I did in the past. My Life Guard Series just happened on Juhu Beach. I saw this event happening one morning and I just took some pictures. I think it’s a conscious effort that I have not done new work, because I don’t live in India any more. But I would like to spend more time in India doing stories.

You shot on film in the 1980s and 1990s…Why did you chose to shoot in black-and-white?
I shot the Anglo-Indians in black-and-white because the subject demanded it. I did shoot in colour in Goa but it did not seem right. I think these photos lend themselves to black-and-white.

© Karan Kapoor, Daphne Sampson, winner of the 1956 Marilyn Manroe look-alike contest, Ooty, 1987. Courtesy Tasveer.

How does your time in front of the camera influence the way you take photographs behind it? Acting and modelling was a phase. I was always taking photographs. I remember while doing Loha in Ooty I discovered an Anglo-Indian home and I would go to photograph them on Sundays and in my free time.

Could you sustain as a fine art photographer or do you still have to do commercial photography?

I figured that commercial photography is very important, I could not survive as a documentary photographer. I think it’s very difficult now. Once I did images for the Sunday Times, Observer and The Independent. In the ’90s magazines were interested in doing quirky stories and they flew you to places to cover them. Now you are expected to be there. It’s extremely hard, I found gradually that the magazines were not paying and weren’t interested.

How is Europe different from India through the eyes of a photographer?
India is visually unbelievable. It’s hard to miss. You have the light. I find it easier to shoot. In Europe from November to April it’s pretty dark. India is full of contrasts and good for photography and art.

How tough is it to make it as a fine art photographer in India?
Photography as an art form is hard in England and India. In America and Paris, they respect photography. In India, its mostly movies and cricket that takes over everything else.

What do you think about mentorship of senior photographers in India? 

There should be more. In England, there is a lot of mentorship. Photographers have assistants and mentoring happens in the process. I do not think it’s like that in India.

You’ve chosen the format of a book for the show…how does it fit in with today’s time. What is the future of the photographic book. 

© Karan Kapoor, Mr and Mrs Carpenter, Tollygunge, Calcutta, 1981. Courtesy Tasveer.

It is a book cum catalogue with essays from William Dalrymple and Felicity Kendal. I think it’s great to have something physical on a shelf and a coffee table. The internet is fantastic for research. Having the physical book is different, it’s something tangible.  I have books on Cartier Bresson, Raghu Rai, Raghubir Singh. I use kindle but I forget the title of the book! It’s all a blur of information on the internet. A book is a curated experience, with expensive paper and chosen works. You cant just stick everything on it. Quantity is always not the right thing.

Karan Kapoor: Time & Tide, 22nd to 30th September, coming to Bikaner House in New Delhi.