Ramanathan Iyer likes to capture artistes in their most natural form — while they are performing — on his lens. The second edition of the exhibition, Extempore, features 20 artistes from his 10-year-old collection.
CHENNAI: Indian classical performance arts are a visual delight for any photographer – vibrant colours, splendid costumes and raw evocative expressions make for a pleasurable experience. And for Ramanathan Iyer, photographer and performance arts connoisseur, this was home turf. Capturing images ever since he got his first point-and-shoot film camera as a child, he says Carnatic music was an integral part of his life from the time he listened to concerts at the Navaratri Mandapam in Thiruvananthapuram.
The engineer moved back to Chennai 12 years ago from Chicago, and since then has been curating performance art events and now runs his own portal, ‘Artery’, focusing on curating talents and highlight often overlooked art forms. Since his return, he has documented several candid photographic portraits of performing artistes, which are on display at Chamiers for the second year in a row.
Always fascinated by arts, his earliest memory is of an iconic issue of the Illustrated Weekly in the early 80s, dedicated to titans of Carnatic and Hindustani music. “I remember thumbing through the issue filled with memorable portraits of several music stalwarts,” he recalls, saying the raw artistic emotion of those photos left a lasting impression on him.
The self-taught photographer prefers to capture the performing artistes in their natural habitat — while performing on stage. With a camera and several lenses to suit his purposes, he moves around the hall capturing the artistes lost in the throes of their own performance. “I’m not keen in rehearsed photography in studios, with artificial lighting. That doesn’t capture the mood! Most of our Indian art forms are spontaneous, especially Carnatic music and dance,” he asserts.
Though ideal lighting conditions or an aesthetic ambiance/stage backdrop may not be possible in all performance venues, Ramanathan feels candid is still better. “In fact, aesthetics is not given much consideration in the venues. There are garish backdrops with plastic banners and lighting is very uneven!” he opines, thanking the graces of digital photography — advanced cameras, lenses and post-processing techniques — to enable overcoming these drawbacks.
And advanced digital techniques also help him stay unobtrusive. “Many artistes don’t like it when they are disturbed,” he laughs, saying it’s respectful to remain unobtrusive and not use flash. “I’ve seen instances where some artistes ask photographers to stop disrupting them! Luckily that hasn’t happened to me!”
The second edition of ‘Extempore’ features photographs from his collection spanning ten years. Twenty different artistes frozen in frames — vocalist Aruna Sairam, Bharatanatyam maestro CV Chandrasekhar, Kathak dancer Jarasandha to name a few. The raw close-crop portraits capture the essence and mood of each artiste’s uniqueness and quirks. “In portrait photography, it helps if you know the personality of the performer. When you observe the performers over time, you notice their quirks — the way they sit, pose, and the way their eyes light up sometimes — all that is important to make a good portrait. What about people he doesn’t know yet? “I read up a little about them, and observe patiently,” he says, recalling when Venkatesh Kumar, Hindustani classical vocalist came to Chennai. “When he started singing, it just blew me away ! I have many photos of him from his performances thereafter, but I liked this one where he’s smiling — his passion jumps at you,” he shares.
What are his other favourite portraits? “I remember mridangam vidwan Tiruchi Sankaran’s photograph, which was displayed last year. I was lucky to get that snap — it was in the middle of the concert, he wasn’t even playing but was just turning around his mridangam to tap and check the pitch. I got one photo where he was holding the mridangam at an angle and his eyes were popping. I was in the right moment at the right time!”
His other favourites are a candid shot of VP Dhananjayan, during a lecture demonstration on abhinayam’. Do these artistes know they have beautiful portraits of themselves? “Not all of them know...” Ramanathan smiles. “But some do. The Hindustani violinist Kala Ramnath messaged me one day, saying she’d heard there was a photograph. She requested a copy,” he laughs.
Commenting on the need for photography of our classical arts, Ramanathan says that it archives and documents history. “I feel that the quality of such documentary photography is very poor. In museums and archives, there exist passport-style mug shots of these people, which is not what they represent! I mean, come on, if you’re looking at Sivaraman, for example — what’s the point of having only his face in the picture, without his mridangam. That’s his identity!” he says, emphasising that he wishes to remedy this situation with a coffee-table book that has his photographs.