It’s About Where You Come From, and Where You Go

Santosh Sivan

Santosh Sivan

This story was originally published in August 2012.

Let me tell you something I strongly believe in, something that I believe, has strongly shaped the way I see the world. I strongly believe that great photography, cinematography or filmmaking has a lot to do with the heart. At the end of the day, all visual artists are defined by two simple factors—where they are coming from, and where they go. Simply put, what’s important is one’s background and a thirst for travel. These are the two fundamentals that open the doors of our minds to new worlds that otherwise lie unexplored.

I will tell you how this applies to me. My grandmother used to teach painting and music. We would listen to her mythological stories while she would show us paintings of the rajas at the palace. This was the beginning of my visual education, a loving grandmother’s simple, yet vivid tales.

The best of learnings happen by accident. For example, when I was a child, I used to play hockey with my family. Since Kerala is the land of water with its different expressions and beautiful monsoon, our game was always threatened by rain. My job was to stand on the terrace top and predict whether it is going to rain. So I would wait and watch… the clouds would form, the silver streaks would peer through and I would think, “Oh, God, this is so beautiful!” This early understanding of the magic of rain helped me shoot my movies for Kerala Tourism.

While on tourism, I must talk about the joys of travel. While travel helps you see the world better, photography itself, is a great visa that can, in the long run, pay for your travels. After all, photography is a universal language, just like a smile… one click and you break through all barriers of language, culture and nationality! Most importantly, every place in the world is different. The one thing that will unify your experience of those places, is you—your background, your personality, your vision.

My first understanding of this happened when I went to Arunachal Pradesh, right after my FTII course. There I was, teaching darkroom processes to a bunch of kids in a school that was surrounded by forests! It was a thrilling experience and the way people would react to the most basic of things, made me appreciate the difference in culture. For example, if you see a tree, what do you see? You glance at it and move on. In Arunachal Pradesh, everyone I met would first look at the roots of a tree. That is because of an ancient folk wisdom over there… that every life, has to have a root. Even when a baby is born, there is a root. Light emerges from darkness. Funny, isn’t it, how this folk adage connects to photography? Light and darkness come together, and when they are in perfect harmony, magic is created.

Harmony is something I have experienced more often while shooting stills, rather than cinematography. There are certain places that inspire you so much, that at one point of time, you believe that ‘you’ are that place. The connect is so strong. I think I have felt this more while doing still photography because photography, unlike cinematography, is a solitary pursuit. When travelling with a still camera, I am alone, and so, the experience is more Zen-like.

Different places humble you in different ways. Japan trips have been especially interesting. On one level, they showed me the locations where legendary filmmaker Akira Kurosawa shot his movies… I saw the country through their eyes, through his eyes. Then again, the way they welcomed me, was by actually dancing to Chaiyya Chaiyya!

The more you observe different places, the more you will learn. For example, in Kerala, the interiors of most monuments are dark. The architecture is made to keep out light, as the climate is so hot. Then, of course, the light finds funny ways of entering through tiny shafts, thus creating this magical low key drama. London, on the other hand, has structures that are only made of glass! They rarely see the sun, so welcome any sort of light in a big way.

Different cities have different colours schemes and visual appeal. In Kolkata, everything looks a little underexposed! Mumbai, on the other hand, is a riot of lights. Similarly, you will notice that rural areas are usually characterised by warmer colours, while affluent, urbanised environments are dominated by fluorescent green and blue.

Some people get disappointed that they have not seen a particular movie or photograph. I do not really care, as I end up seeing the most amazing show on the planet, every single day! I simply wake up early and watch the sky change from monochrome, to two-colour soft light, until a bright burst of sunlight breaks through. We cannot travel everywhere, but wherever we may be, let us just see, appreciate and then create.

Do not expect travel to suddenly make your exposures better or your vision far more pronounced. It is not a quick fix. Everything in life is like a circle. Travelling is like throwing a stone in a pond. The ripples keep happening, keep making waves, connect to each other, and it is only a while later that you can feel the magic.

Let me conclude by telling you about this one incident that happened when I was in Arunachal Pradesh. The school kids took me inside the forest, one day—a scary, ominous area where the blades of grass were so tall that sunlight could barely pass through. Suddenly, everyone started talking amongst themselves and seemed nervous. They had seen tiger pug marks! I was petrified, and asked them what to do. They told me to run really fast and climb a tree. I replied, “But I have no idea how to climb a tree.” One of the kids very cheekily commented that I should not worry… the moment the tiger would come closer, I would automatically learn!

As visual artists, we all have it in us, to make brilliant photographs. We just need that tiger behind us.

About Santosh Sivan
Santosh Sivan, one of the greatest cinematographers that Indian cinema has produced, has practised still photography from his childhood years. He recently became the first Director of Photography from Asia-Pacific, to gain honourary membership of the prestigious American Society of Cinematographers.

Tags: Santosh Sivan, Perspectives, Opinions