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Not another man

Updated: Jul 1, 2022

I met Photographer Nrupen Madhvani. A memory that will last longer than a photograph...

I met him in some strange circumstances at his home. As soon as I stepped in, a hypnotic trance clouded my senses. The entire space including the passage was suffused with a rather muted glow of light. Only some black and white photographs on the walls had spot lights focused on them. Each element in the apartment was in its place and seemed to be at home. I felt as if I was the odd one out.

As I got a fleeting glance on the photographs, I was startled and a bit shaken too. In some way, the images felt disturbing at first sight.

I was in Mumbai for displaying my paintings in a group show at Jehangir Art Gallery. He knew that. Soon, he settled with a glass of Rum and I held a cup of espresso.

'You want to smoke?' He asked.

I nodded but looked about hesitantly because I felt smoking in such perfect setting would be a kind of sacrilege. I know that I am an epitome of violating protocols. But the ambience in the house cast a profound shadow on me and bound my rebellion spirit into subjugation.

'Should I go to the balcony?' I asked.

He shook his head. 'Come on! Smoke here. Right here.' He took out a hand-rolled cigarette from a steel case and lit it up. I lit mine.

Blowing a thick puff of smoke, he said, 'So, how is the exhibition going on?'

I employed my corporate diplomacy and replied in measured note assuming his question was a casual attempt of breaking the ice. I would not like to give much of myself away. After all, I am not what I usually present to the wider world. My strange characteristics often puzzle and confuse people. They go back even more troubled after they are exposed to all of me than when they are not exposed at all. I had no intention of putting my guards down before this peculiar stranger.

So, I gave him a superficial reply that sounded sincere but was actually hollow. He did not stop there. He asked more incisive questions. And soon, I found myself in an atmosphere charged with deep insights of art, literature and history!

Soon my coffee was over and he opened his cellar. 'What would you prefer?'


He placed a bottle of one of my preferred brands on the table and got a glass for me. And we landed in another world in a blink. It was not just two men in the apartment anymore.

In that shadowy confine of four walls Monet, Manet, Degas, Picasso, Van Gogh, David Hockney, Warhol began to gather around us. The chairs were no more empty. At times I felt I was transported to some café of Montmartre with the impressionist band around me.

Soon I realized that he was a photographer of renown. He also taught photography. I am not much of an expert of photography but I love good photographs. In fact, I find a good photograph no less captivating than a painting or a piece of sculpture. My daughter, a twenty year old lady, is an avid photographer but in a very casual way. When I was in the gallery watching over the darting eyes of the visitors, she was roaming around the alleys of south Mumbai capturing the spirit of the town in her iPhone. She shared the images with me. I liked them. But I do not count on my judgement of a good photograph, hence I shared the photos with him. He looked at them and exclaimed, 'These are wonderful photographs! You should be proud that your daughter has it in her. She has the eye.'

I was happy. But I commented that she refused to take up the camera though I told her so many times to leave the iPhone aside. At my comment, he was suddenly alert. Raising his eyes from the photos, he looked at me and remained silent for a long moment. Then went back to the photographs.

Once he was done with them, he poured another drink for himself; lit another cigarette and said, 'You know, once upon a time there was famous photographer. And the Photographer had a friend who was great chef. One day, the chef, after watching a show of the photographs, asked the photographer which camera he used for taking snaps. The photographer did not answer. Few days later, the chef invited his buddy for dinner and served the best of the dishes he could cook. After the sumptuous dinner, the chef asked his photographer friend if he liked the food. The photographer asked which oven his buddy used to cook the food!'

I got his point right away and burst out laughing. He was laughing too. Then he said, 'For god's sake, don't tell your daughter what she should use to take the photo. Photographs are taken by the photographer, not by the camera!'

A lifelong myth of mine that one must carry a large impressive camera like a mini-cannon, to be a real photographer, ended in a blink. Since then I stopped harping in that matter to my daughter.

He himself had exhibited in Jehangir art gallery in the past. He wanted to know my experience in detail. In course of doing so, I told him how uncomfortable I felt when someone wanted an explanation of my work. I could talk at length explaining contemporary or medieval art but when it came to my own paintings, I fell dumb. In fact, someone insisted for some insights from me about one of my conceptual arts on display. And I had said, quoting a famous art critique, 'No art gets any better if that is explained for an hour by the artist. It remains the same.'

Naturally, the visitor was not completely satisfied with my dialogue. On listening to this, he shook his head absently. The subject was dropped. We shifted gear to some other track. We entered the spiritual subtleties of eastern mysticism. He had spent many years in Japan learning photography under the tutelage of a famous photographer. Perhaps that made him taste the charm of Buddhism. But once we had an intense exchange on the ethereal beauty of the Zen ways of life, he suddenly got up, 'Come, let me show you a couple of my photographs.'

I followed him into the living room where I had seen the uncanny images earlier in the evening. He switched the lights on. And I was standing before one of those black and white photographs!

He asked me what I thought about it. Frankly speaking, I did not tell him the truth. I said, 'Someone looks desperate.' I did not have much to say. I actually found it disturbing.

He said, 'The name of the photograph is 'SEARCH''

And right there in a flash, I realized that there could not be a better depiction of the urgency and desperation of search in the darkness. Every hunt for truth or love is like this. It is a blind rage of a pursuit for the desired. It is like the seeker's chase for the reality. The white streak of lights hinted at it. The image was no more scary or disturbing. It was fact! A bare fact of life.

And then he made me look at another photograph. In this case too, I had a sinister feeling when I had first glanced at it. But he simply told me that it was about meditating on death. The man is looking at death which is dead already. The skeleton of the head of the animal. And in a blink I felt a shiver. It reminded me of the massive stuffed shark of Damien Hirst floating in the glass vessel. Famously known as the 12 Million dollar shark was titled - 'Impossibility of death in the mind of someone living', by the artist. He said that his photograph was purchased by a leading industrialist of India causing a lot of sensation.

He showed me a few more. My enigma about each of them turned into awe. The fear fell off. The peculiar apprehension vanished. I loved the house much more than I did when I entered.

As we were back to our table and prepared another round of drinks, I said, 'You know what? The while perspective changed. I had a very different feeling about your photographs.'

He asked, 'How did it change?'

I said, 'After you gave little cues to me!'

And he was smiling again. 'Don't you think you should help your viewers understand your art? Shouldn't you explain a little to bridge the gap between the distance they walk and the depth in which the insight is hidden in your painting? You must!'

And I was convinced! Like a Zen satori, some window in my mind opened. And the following day I walked up to the gathering crowd to offer some heads-up on what I displayed.

I do not get a chance to enjoy the company of such intense personality often. Of course I have a select few friends but I rarely get to spend an evening with them.

This man left an indelible mark in me that was to last longer than a photograph. We spent several evenings over whisky and rum and a roomful of smoke. We were not the same. We disagreed on several points but unlike me he was decent. I am aggressive in spelling out my opinionated views. I am not much flexible.

He lives alone in that antiquely beautiful apartment across from the sea beech at marine drive. He created his own world under his own roof. He is at home there. On the contrary, I am still hunting for the home I think I shall find some day. My world is still without walls and roofs.

He honors the past and embraces the future. I run from the past and chase the future.

He is a master of keeping order of the elements in his life. I am a whirlwind of chaos and uncertainty.

He enjoys meticulous planning. I plan not to plan.

We were different in so many ways but still we seemed to be each other's reflection when we stood before the photograph, SEARCH. Both of us were searching that unknown. He was doing so within his world and I was doing so all over the place, horizon to horizon.

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2 Kommentare

Damayanti Singh
Damayanti Singh
09. Mai 2023

I liked it more than a traditional interview. As a reader and a sinful lover of good photography, this write-up gave me the space I needed to see him through his art and also as a common man.. A request - please try to share more works of the artist / photographer. Overall, great initiative and thank you for the time and commitment you're putting in.

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Prashant Hirlekar
Prashant Hirlekar
01. Juli 2022

Beautifully written with fluidity of language and it appears to me as a narration of an honest soul.

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