Chennai Photo Biennale: Balaji Maheshwar on Urban Water

 

With less than ten days to go for Chennai Photo Biennale (Feb 26 to Mar 13), we try to give you a preview of what to expect at the city’s first ever photography festival.

One of the highlights of the festival is an exhibition titled Urban Water, presented by PhotoConcierge. The show, which will be displayed at the Lighthouse MRTS railway station, is a culmination of work done by 15 photographers, earlier this year. The participants, under the guidance of mentors Munem Wasif and Ravi Agarwal, have created bodies of work surrounding the issues of water in Chennai.

Raj Lalwani interviews Balaji Maheshwar, who is one of the photographers who was a part of this project.

Balaji Maheshwar

Balaji Maheshwar

What did you work on during the Urban Water workshop? What led you to the specific topic/interpretation that you worked on? Can you elaborate on the issue that your work tries to explore and your experience doing the same?

If there’s one question that I keep asking myself frequently, it is this: “where are we headed?” Not every development translates into progress necessarily. We have taken a lot of things for granted and it is very ironical in certain aspects. For instance, when I visited a theme park while I was working on this Urban Water Workshop, I witnessed a water-show called Tsunami. For someone who has seen Chennai being wrecked by tsunami in 2004, the word sent down shivers and I couldn’t understand how people found this enjoyable. We’ve objectified certain things to the point of absurdity. The idea of my work is to make people reflect a little on how futile some of our actions are. I’ve used satire to question the vanity in beautification and privatisation of water.

Photograph/ Balaji Maheshwar

Photograph/ Balaji Maheshwar

(Since most of the participants were not from Chennai) How did you overcome the challenge of working in a city that you are not familiar with? More importantly, while working on your specific project, did you observe situations or issues that correlate to anything similar back home?

I am from Chennai; I was born and raised here. Chennai being a coastal city is a very humid place to be in and sometimes it feels like it is summer all through the year. Thankfully, Chennai does receive rainfall in November and December every year but last year (2015) the city recorded its highest rainfall, which resulted in flooding. I wasn’t here during the floods and transit to/from the city was a major challenge. However, among many reasons, this flooding could’ve been avoided to a greater extent if the city planning was done carefully.

My neighborhood is one of the oldest in the city and there was no problem there during the floods. One main reason is that there are close to three temple tanks in vicinity and the underground drainage was very planned and designed. Whereas the recently developed areas like Mudichur, Velacherry and Tambaram were marooned and I hope that you can imagine the multitude of damages that were caused as a result. We again come back to the question of “where are we headed?”

Photograph/ Balaji Maheshwar

Photograph/ Balaji Maheshwar

How different was your style and approach, as compared to your regular practice? Five-six day assignments are tricky, since such a short time usually means that one only scratches the surface of the issue. What are your thoughts about the same and how did Munem and Ravi help you tackle that?

I experimented on a visual language, which was fairly new to me, but this shaped my thoughts. On the surface or at first glance, the photographs are visually very appealing and beautiful, but when you try to look through it all, you’ll begin to question the whole idea behind this aesthetically appealing display. Therein lies the irony and my whole point of employing satire to drive home the message. I had to be careful with my approach as it ran the risk of becoming a work on theme parks. If not portrayed carefully it could seep through the narrow line of distinction and the whole idea will be lost on the viewer. The mentors were very helpful in guiding me isolate the distinctive humor that ran through the images.

I have been following the works of Munem and Ravi Agarwal for many years and I must thank Chennai Photo Bienalle for giving me this opportunity. This sure is one of the most important workshops that I’ve attended so far.

Photograph/ Balaji Maheshwar

Photograph/ Balaji Maheshwar

The work made during this project is bound to strike a chord with the people of the city, especially considering that the workshop and the subsequent exhibition are just a few months after the terrible floods that took place last year. What are your personal thoughts on photography in public spaces, and how important is dissemination for you, in terms of connecting with the common man?

Every time I step outside, I can’t help but think that we’ve become very apathetic towards our environment. Our negligence has lasting impacts and if you’d consider it carefully, for every plastic paper that you throw around carelessly an innocent animal dies or an ecosystem slowly disappears. Take this isolated case for instance; the plastics strewn across the beaches in Chennai is a serious threat to the Olive Ridley Turtles, especially now during their hatching season. This exhibition will be a reminder, to the people and also to those in power, of all the beauty that we take for granted. I was born here in Chennai, I know my city and I think I can take the liberty of saying “what once was, never is and our memories, very fleeting”

Lately, photography has turned into a very universal and a democratic medium, one could use a mobile phone camera to make a good body of work. Ideally, public spaces are the right places for exhibiting photographs that are of social relevance for the obvious reasons of surpassing the confines of a closed exhibit. I chose to exhibit my previous work on an old Cinema Theatre in the city at the theatre itself and the response was overwhelming.

Photograph/ Balaji Maheshwar

Photograph/ Balaji Maheshwar

If you were to imagine photography in a public space, anywhere at all, what work would you like to see, and where?

It is appropriate to display photographs, which reflects the changing attitude of people towards life.

If you had to pinpoint one takeaway, one memorable experience, or one moment of learning and satisfaction from the workshop, be it while shooting or during the mentoring/editing sessions, what would it be? It would be great if you can elaborate on this particular question.

Munem’s and Ravi’s comments were very straight and inspiring- “There are 1000s of work being produced each year, we must push hard to create something unique and it is not easy”. This was something that I kept reminding myself and I hope to create at least one good work during my lifetime.

Photograph/ Balaji Maheshwar

Photograph/ Balaji Maheshwar

And finally, one question that’s not connected to the workshop… who/what inspires your overall practice?

I have this habit of going through old family photographs and snapshots. Not just mine but I value these old pieces of memories, frozen in time, tucked away carefully between pages of a book or in old, treasured family albums. These photos speak volumes and if you think about it, you’ll realize that they were captured so unconsciously. As a photographer, I am trying hard to unlearn what I have learned. I try to learn something new from every artist and many photography masterpieces, books and movies also constantly inspire me.

The above work will be part of a group exhibition titled Urban Water (Presented by PhotoConcierge), at the Chennai Photo Biennale, starting February 26. For more information, visit chennaiphotobiennale.com

Tags: Balaji Maheshwar, Chennai Photo Biennale, PhotoConcierge, Raj Lalwani, Urban Water