Ambarin Afsar speaks to Ganesh Shankar, a man who has inspired and mentored a whole generation of wildlife photographers, about his evolving aesthetic.
This article was originally published in December 2014.
This foray into Ganesh Shankar’s mind is best introduced by a quote by one of his favourite poets, Dr G S Shivarudrappa, paraphrased from Kannada, “I sing because I need to, not because there are others to listen to.” It is hard enough to find your own voice, as it involves journeys that make you earn your way of seeing, and then it is even tougher to stay on a path that constantly demands radically different things from you. Ganesh’s way of seeing has gone through a similar evolution, yet still is in a state of metamorphosis that may never be complete.
From Formulaic Postcards to Nature as Art
Born and brought up in a small village close to the Western Ghats, Ganesh Shankar entered professional life as an engineer. A nature and wildlife photographer for the last 20 years, he now lives in what he calls the ‘concrete jungle of Bengaluru.’ His time in the Western Ghats is among his most memorable, and he recounts using a Kodak Kroma, a point-and-shoot camera, for his nature trips. A friend of his introduced him to SLRs, and he hasn’t looked back since. “For about ten years, I was a photo-scientist more than a photographer. I mastered all the formulae and followed textbook rules. After a point, I realised I wanted to be different, and I needed a signature.” The reason also changed with time, and soon, it was about more than creating individualistic images.
“Someday, I would like to associate twigs or blades of grass with nine different emotions.”
What is Art?
He spent a lot of time pondering over this question and then came across a similarly titled book by Leo Tolstoy. “The book taught me that art has three attributes—it conveys feelings or emotions, it is novel, and most importantly, the artist is sincere to his creation. While these factors might seem limiting, they prevent just about anything from qualifying as a work of art. On the other hand, art for art’s sake tends to be far more accommodating… and perhaps, more meaningless.”
The Primary Purpose of an Artist
For Ganesh, the reason why anyone should create art is not to hang a frame on the wall of a gallery. “It is a truthful expression of the inner self, and that the image becomes a work of art is secondary.” He also believes that the difference between documenting natural history and turning nature into art is, “With the former, we photograph what is outside, and with the latter, we photograph what is inside our heart. And so, our emotions, feelings or our value system take the shape of a image.”
“For the documentation of natural history, factual representation is important. In photography that is pursued as an art form, subjective reality takes precedence.”
Mentoring Young Minds
Ganesh’s critiques and the guidelines on a forum started by him and his friends called Creative Nature Photography also introduced me to the term ‘bird-on-a-stick photography’. This basically refers to images where a bird is perched on a branch or a stick. While the shot is conventionally good, sharp and with the requisite shallow depth of field, it doesn’t say anything else besides the fact that the bird, however rare, is on a stick. “My friends and I wanted to create a place where everyone could share their own creative visions and after six years, the forum has also evolved into the exploration of abstract perspectives.” Any photographer will know the value of constructive, informed feedback. And this is what Ganesh provides, almost on a daily basis, to the people who post on the forum.
Lending a Voice to the Intangible
The reason why Ganesh finds nature and wildlife photography stimulating is because the medium and the subject itself are a challenge. It is difficult to lend intangible concepts like emotions and feelings to natural elements. “All photographs of nature are described as being beautiful. On the other hand, an image of a child with a tear rolling down her face evokes so many more reactions. This makes me ask, can I relate to the emotions of animals? Can I make my viewers relate to the emotions of a spider, ant or elephant?”
“Creating abstractions is tough. Often, such expressions are born dead, even to my own senses.”
Letting Go of the ‘I’
And he succeeds on all accounts. Not only is his work aesthetically provocative and engaging, it is also soft and subtle. “Some time ago, I wondered whether I should share my work at all, since it is comprised entirely of my emotions. Can I let go of the ‘I’? But then I think that if people manage to identify their own selves in these extremely personal images, then it may be that these images are worth sharing. But, I am yet to reach a resolution.”
Nature teaches humility in its barest, simplest form. It teaches us to be close to our roots, to know our true selves and to always remember our mortality. Ganesh’s images and his approach are almost like little snowglobes, encompassing a fragile, ephemeral moment in the wild, brought to a standstill… a moment that reminds us that there exists a great beauty within us.
More of Ganesh Shankar’s work can be found at www.naturelyrics.com.Tags: Aesthetic, Ambarin Afsar, art, blurs, creative, dadaism, Emotions, feelings, ganesh shankar, Great Masters, leo tolstoy, Nature, Wildlife