[Reader-list] The Shape of Emptiness - Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi's photography exhibition

Chintan Girish Modi chintan.backups at gmail.com
Sun Apr 3 00:06:12 IST 2011

>From http://openthemagazine.com/article/arts/the-shape-of-emptiness

*The Shape of Emptiness*

By Rahul Bhatia

19 February 2011

The day after Siddharth Dhanvant Shanghvi’s exhibition of photographs opened
noisily at a cosy space in Mumbai’s Ballard Estate, Matthieu Foss, the tall
Frenchman whose will runs the gallery, stood before an image of a clothing
line. Foss gestured at a picture of the writer’s clothes hung beside his
father’s, and said, “You know, I like to think this is homage from a son to
his father.” *The House Next Door*, Shanghvi’s exhibition, is about his
father, who features in many of the 27 monochrome pictures on display. But
it’s just as much about a widower, about a man affected by brain cancer, and
about how these calamities forced new meaning into the simple acts that make
up the days of our lives.

In one image, Shanghvi records his father seated alone on his bed. He wears
spectacles, and looks on at a scene we can’t see. We can’t see his eyes, but
we can interpret his thoughts, and just as well infer emptiness. His shape
weighs on the frame. His burden weighs on the room around him. What he sees
is unimportant. This is what Shanghvi sees. Few other pictures here portray
the burden and guilt of his father’s loneliness as elegantly as this one.
His father is here, but he’s also someplace else. This bothers Shanghvi, for
he misses his father’s old self. It’s a self that shaped him, and those
traits, now gone, force the writer to come to terms with his own mortality;
when the memories associated with a time fade, that time is lost too. ‘He
had a temper that terrified us,’ Shanghvi wrote in his introduction to the
show, ‘which we were relieved to see go: the chemo blasted it away, along
with everything else… But without his temper, he was difficult to realise,
and one afternoon my sister pointed out that all along, our father had been
waiting for us behind it. This gentle, slightly befuddled and disarming man
was who he really was. And now without his anger he seems unfamiliar to us.’

Shanghvi has a masters in photogra­phy, but remained unconvinced about his
work until he was persuaded to exhibit his photographs. This project began
as a visual diary after his father’s diagnosis. Shanghvi’s efforts found a
man grinding out time.

Shanghvi’s dominant theme is of the emptiness of a life, but he makes room
for joy. He captures Bruschetta, his father’s dog, mid-motion on a lawn from
above, with a winding hose cutting through the grass like the outline of a
speech bubble. One of the photographer’s more graphic composi­tions, its
lightness of spirit contrasts starkly with the mood that pervades his
father’s home and these pictures.

Bruschetta, it turns out, photographs well. Posing for a memorable
photo­graph of his owner’s feet, the animal, taut and alert, thrusts its
snout downward behind old toes pointed to the sky. Metaphors abound. In
another, Bruschetta sits for a portrait on a chair. Families change.

Shanghvi’s novels are unrestrained and lush, and bulked up by his penchant
for serious exaggeration. But Shanghvi’s photography is another matter. To
write fiction requires searching and reaching for a thing that isn’t there
yet. To take pictures in the style he prefers is to wait for a thing to
form; a moment, a feeling, an under­standing. He waits for the quiet poetry
of moments. At times they come as abstractions, apparent in pictures taken
from above or below: his balding father, dressed in a *kurta*, takes a walk
in the building’s compound assisted by a helper who clasps his hand.
Sometimes they come as startling compositions: his father’s head, seen from
below, sticks out from a balcony. No body. Just a head with glasses.

His father’s routines gave Shanghvi room to explore. In one image from the
side, his father sits on an old swing alone, staring straight ahead, his
body slouched, and his hands holding on to each other. In another, taken at
a low perspective from behind, he walks alone outside, his left arm gripping
his right elbow around his back, with the fingers of his right arm pulling
at a kurta sleeve. At the moment of his preservation his posture is
awkwardly tilted. In another, his father eats alone on a long table built
for ten. But the sadness in this picture comes not from his loneliness, but
from that grand chandelier above the table. More heartbreaking than
loneliness is decline. Shanghvi explains this with feeling in his
introduction. ‘I do not want to wait so long that my nights become sleepless
and my afternoons full of unbearable solitude. So the photographs have me
thinking about not only my father’s end but also my own. A timely retreat
ought to be uninfluenced by either age or sickness. Leave when you are not
interested in the life around you. Don’t wait so long that life is
uninterested in you.’

Of course life has a stake in us all. If not for our vitality, then for our
usefulness as test subjects, like taps turned ten thousand times before they
squeak. Shanghvi, who recently lost his mother, now witnesses the gradual
absence of the other parent. He sees ‘afternoons full of unbearable
solitude’. He does not want to ‘wait so long’ that his ‘nights become
sleepless’. This dread seeps through his photographs, nowhere more so than
one where his father stands outside, surrounded by fallen leaves, and
considers the barren earth beneath.

The day after the opening, silence allowed a visitor to truly feel the
photographer’s work without distrac­tion. Here was a lonely father. Here was
a dog. Here was a meal taken alone. And here was an empty room; merely an
empty bed in an empty room. At first. A closer look revealed what Shanghvi
saw. A four poster bed, with two sets of pillows. One pillow was ruffled and
depressed, the other was immaculate. One half of the mattress was pressed
down, while the other half kept its shape. The detail. The most incredible



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