On Art for Everyone

Varun Gupta is a Kolkata-born freelance photographer who returened to Chennai, where he now lives, after a five-year stint in USA. His personal work revolves around his life as a passionate traveller. Varun is also the co-founder and festival director of the Chennai Photo Biennale.

Varun Gupta is a Kolkata-born freelance photographer who returened to Chennai, where he now lives, after a five-year stint in USA. His personal work revolves around his life
as a passionate traveller. Varun is also the co-founder and festival director of the Chennai Photo Biennale.

Minutes blur into hours and the dark circles under my eyes grow heavier each morning. I rub my sore eyes and stare at my unshaven face in the mirror, thinking back to that fateful afternoon in April 2015. I walked into the Goethe-Institut in Chennai where Helmut Schippert had recently taken over as the new director and had invited me to discuss possible collaborative projects. What was meant to be a one hour meet-and-greet, turned into a three hour long ideation session of epic proportions. I walked out in a daze, my mind reeling from an overload of ideas and excitement over a promising future. At that moment, I would never have guessed that we would bring most of those wild ideas to reality, ten months later.

When I first moved to Chennai in 2007, I found myself getting away from the city at every chance possible. My travels took me to cities like Berlin and Dusseldorf where one could visit gallery shows, street art fairs, art intervention in the streets and so much more at every corner. At the Venice Biennale I experienced how art can take over an incredible city and make it even more beautiful– heritage homes were converted into galleries, entire areas of the city were demarcated just for exhibitions. Eventually, I found my way to the hallowed grounds of Arles, home to the oldest photo festival in the world, where abandoned spaces are converted into a gargantuan network of galleries that showcase the upper echelons of photographic work from around the world.

By contrast, the scene at home seemed depressingly different. Photography was clearly the spurned child of the art world in India. Only a handful of galleries around the country would even risk showing photographs…‘sales’ became the five-letter word you could never mention to your gallerist. With notions of ‘value’ and ‘appreciation’ defining what kind of photography was let in the door, there was a growing need among photographers for a community where one could share, discuss and look at work that was not deemed ‘sellable’.

Enter the Delhi Photo Festival (DPF) in 2011, the brainchild of veteran photographers Prashant Panjiar and Dinesh Khanna, which has since given birth to a strong community of photographers in New Delhi and around. For the first time in India, we had photographers coming together with the sole purpose to eat, sleep and talk photography. Photojournalists, documentary photographers, fashion photographers, wedding photographers and so many more came together to cleanse their creative soul by immersing in highn caliber photography and discourse.

Around the same time, I met French photo artist JR, whose incredible large format portraits are pasted amidst the city blocks of major cities in the world and continue to inspire thousands of people every day. With our conversations about the virtues of photo interventions in public spaces, it became clear to me that in the absence of large public spaces dedicated to the arts in Chennai, the way forward had to involve intervention of art in Varun Gupta public spaces such as streets, beaches and parks. Six months later, an opportunity presented itself, in the guise of the Goethe Insitute and Art Chennai. We were able to flood the gigantic Thiruvamiyur MRTS station with photographs from 130 participating photographers.

This, in many ways was a turning point for me. We saw thousands of commuters, stop their morning sprint to stare curiously at our exhibits. It was invigorating and humbling at the same time. In Art Chennai’s 2014 edition, we upped the ante and went for two photo exhibitions beside each other on the Besant Nagar beach and suddenly we found old ammas in bright blue sarees wandering into our shows with their grandkids. Concurrently, we were able to invite the outdoor exhibits of DPF 2013 to be shown in the sprawling IIT campus in Chennai, where one could view the exhibits amidst beautiful banyan trees and grazing deer. The confined space of an art gallery with its exclusive crowds and pricelists started to seem suffocating–public art had become our mantra.

And thus emerged the theme of public engagement for the very first edition of the Chennai Photo Biennale. With a few successful experiments and a bunch of passionate minds, who believed that we could make this happen. The Chennai Photo Biennale was held from 26th February to13th March, with the aim of bringing together the photography community in south India.

One of our core focus areas for this first edition became Urban Water. Early in 2015, we were able to put together an unprecedented residency format workshop where 15 emerging photographers from around India came together to research and document the water situation in Chennai. The work that came out of this residency was displayed in the cavernous Lighthouse MRTS train station and will be one of the major highlights of our festival.

Surrealistic by Nature, curated by Chennai-based French photographer Yannick Cormier will be installed in Nageswara Rao Park in Mylapore, whic is one of the busiest public parks in the city. We were able to display selected works from the Delhi Photo Festival 2015 and additionally, we also hosted legendary international photographers Philip Blenkinsopp, Denis Dailleux and Walter Astrada, amongst others, who spoke about their respective photographic journeys.

From none, to one, to thirteen photo festivals by the time this article is published. These numbers are proof of one thing for sure —the very real need that exists amongst photographers to converse, collaborate and celebrate their artistic practice. The first edition of Chennai Photo Biennale played with modern printing techniques, and we were able to display huge photo prints in public spaces where people interacted with photographs within the realm of their daily routine. We wanted create a platform that brought people together from around India to engage in meaningful conversations, see world class exhibits and celebrate their love for the medium.

Tags: Visual Musings, Chennai Photo Biennale, March 2016, Varun Gupta