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Pictures and a Thousand Words—Sitting Down with Mr. Sandesh Bhandare

Mr. Sandesh Bhandare is a freelance photographer and photojournalist who has contributed to various magazines and newspapers such as Hindustan Times, Outlook Traveller, and Heritage India. His work has been exhibited at major galleries in India and abroad. Two of his major projects have culminated into books, Vaari- Ek Ananda Yatra and Tamasha- Ek Rangdi Gammat. The candid photographs displayed at the exhibition perfectly captured the happiness on the faces of the people who get together each year to be a part of the tradition of Vaari.

Can you tell me about today’s photography exhibit? How did you come up with the idea of documenting the stages and aspects of Warri through photography?

The exhibition today is about a 700-year-old Maharashtrian tradition called Vaari. This is an 18-20 day-long pilgrimage in which millions of commoners participate by walking on foot for almost 250 kms to attain oneness with their deity, the Vitthala of Pandharpur. During the pilgrimage, the saints and all the pilgrims sing poems about various emotions and experiences that one goes through during their lives. Although these prayers and poems are from a time that’s long gone, they’re extremely rational and progressive in nature. When people listen to these and sing along, it creates an awareness that directs them away from social inequalities. Living in Pune, I witnessed this interesting tradition take place and I thought that a lot more people would get to know about it if I documented it through photographs.

 

Traditions usually create a divide between various religious groups but Vaari manages to unite people in faith. How does the pilgrimage separate faith from politics, power and, religious divide?

The poems that are read during the pilgrimage are by saints like Namdev, Eknath, and Tukaram who highlighted the issues about inequalities that existed during their times. They went against the common beliefs of blindly believing whatever old scriptures dictated about faith, social standing, and discrimination on the basis of caste. In a time when women weren’t allowed to enter temples or pray, this pilgrimage allowed female saints to participate and openly discuss their opinions. The tradition arose from a movement of rebellion against all kinds of inequalities so it, in turn, unites them to uplift society from all these unnecessary divides.

You won the Maharashtra Foundation Award for your book, Tamasha—Ek Rangdi Gammat. What inspired you to photograph Tamasha folk theatre? Do you think folk art is losing its audience and popularity?

In 2001, the Indian Foundation of Arts offered me a grant to research on Tamasha as a folk art and create a photo documentation of it. I found out that this art form has successfully revived itself every now and then in the past 150 to 200 years. The plays while being thoroughly entertaining also deal with contemporary issues such as demonetization, AIDS, and farmer suicides that the audience can relate to. Through the use of drama, satirical plots, music, and Lavani dance performances, Tamashas attract a vast audience. Through my photographs, I tried to bring forth the newer forms of Tamasha that help in making its audience socially aware. The number of old troupes that had a huge fan following may have decreased but there are many new and upcoming troupes that are gaining popularity gradually. With a loyal audience that only seems to be increasing Tamasha is an art form which won’t be fading away soon.

 

How do you think Tamasha has evolved over the years?

Tamasha has come a long way from when my book came out in 2005 to now 15 years later when I have started researching on the evolved forms of this art. The younger generations, from the families that devoted themselves to this folk art, have formed their own new troupes that are performing a more progressive form this art termed as Manch. They have incorporated performance styles like Powada and Lavani with the poetic art form, Shayari to revolutionize the impact that these plays have. Education has played an important role as well for example, the country is obsessed with cricket scores so a recent Tamasha I watched highlighted that there are many other scores and statistics in our country that are a lot more important like the scores of un-employability, hunger or, poverty. These performances don’t receive any kind of mention in mainstream media but they exist and continue to be a source of entertainment that also educates the masses. There are many troupes that stick to the traditional forms but the ones that are looking at Tamasha from a different perspective are keeping the art form alive. The changes and evolution are great because they are suited to what the audience demands. A couple of 8 hour long plays have segments in which popular Bollywood music is played coupled with choreographed dance routines to go with it.

As a lecturer, how do you guide your students to plan their careers in creative photography?

The number of people pursuing photography is increasing day by day because now it has become so easy for people to just go out and purchase a camera. The students who want to enter into professional photography will find a lot of scope in still photography, also known as frozen images, that are highly impactful. A lot of preparation and thought goes into capturing the perfect image that the audience will remember for a long time. The photographers should be alert and prepared with the basic knowledge about the event or incident that they would be covering. Just like any other field, it won’t be easy for them to get recognition for their photographs without putting in a lot of hard work.