'Bharat', a spectacular photo exhibition organized by the Toronto-based not-for-profit organization, World Heritage Project (WHP), featured 42 never-before-viewed images of India, captured by some of world's top photographers - including Steve McCurry, Mary Allen Mark and James Nachtwey.
The show, which ran for over a month, was inaugurated in early September 5. It was held at the National Film Board in Toronto. As its name indicates ('Bharat' is the Hindi word for 'India'), the show turned the spotlight on the country. From spectacular images of monuments and landscapes to vignettes from daily life, each shot presented a slice of life and cultural heritage of India. But the exhibition was not just about visual delights; proceeds from the sale of the snapshots will be directed to grassroots organizations in India to help fund crucial development programmes.
The practice of ploughing back funds into the country celebrated photographically will continue in subsequent shows as well, says Sandy Reimer, Founder and Chairman, WHP, and the person behind the unique show. A Toronto-based photographer and filmmaker, Reimer says WHP aims to harness "the power of art and media to tell the story of our planet's most important natural and cultural places".
In fact, the organization will, in future, tap the creative resource pool from the world over to produce international events and multimedia projects that "celebrate and preserve the beauty and diversity of our planet and its people".
WHP's inaugural event, 'Bharat' also featured images by Canadian talent such as Jag Gundu, Malcolm Armstrong and Reimer.
Each photograph leads the viewer on a visual journey of India's daily life and cultural heritage. Steve McCurry of National Geographic, famously remembered for his cover photograph of the light-eyed Afghan girl, infuses life into monuments. While any amateur photographer can capture the splendor of Agra's Taj Mahal, it takes the expertise of McCurry to portray the marble masterpiece in a unique perspective: Two of his photographs have the Taj as a backdrop. While one captures the monument's reflection in the river - from which a man is scooping water - the other reveals the white marble structure peeping out from the smoky haze of a steam engine.
It is the juxtaposition of the daily lives of people with landscape and monuments that makes McCurry not just a photographer but a storyteller too. His photograph of women huddled in a desert storm is a cameo of the hardships that define desert life. The women's bright skirts and 'odhnis' (long head stoles) swirling in the dust as they converge for comfort against the barren desertscape, is one of Reimer's favorites. "It is highly evocative for me, because what it says is that when a storm comes, we gather and community offers comfort," she says. One of the most expensive photos on display, the Rajasthani moment was tagged at a whopping US$23,000.
Her other favorite is his rainstorm. "We often see India with bright colors but the monsoon brings a different face to the country and I think he has captured that," she says.
Images by New York photographer Mary Ellen Mark, who specializes in portraits, showcased India through the people that inhabit its different spaces. Mark, who is known for her portraits of celebrities like Nicole Kidman and Bill Clinton, has captured people as they go about their lives. Be it a 'burqa'-clad (veiled) woman, a schoolgirl at a train terminal in Mumbai, or a boy in a church, all her subjects look straight into the camera - as if challenging the viewers to get to know them. It is not just people; in Mark's lens, even places do the same. "She captures not just the place but its soul as well," sums up Reimer.
In a sense, that is what the exhibition has done: captured the essence of India through its monuments, cultural practices and the pulse of everyday life.
Toronto photographer Jag Gundu's image of street girls expertly projects the young urchins' zest for life despite living amidst extreme poverty. McCurry catches the vibrancy of Holi (a popular Hindu festival of colors, marking the advent of spring) in Rajasthan. For other photographers, images of the everyday conundrum of a Mumbai street; or the pulsating railway platforms of the megacity have their own tales to narrate.
The exhibition also offered glimpses of various monuments and archaeological sites that dot India's rich landscape: From the Taj Mahal (Agra) and Humayun's Tomb (New Delhi) in the north and Ajanta and Ellora caves, near Aurangabad, in Maharashtra to Hampi and the remains of Vijayanagar in Karnataka in the south.
The response to 'Bharat' has been encouraging. Reimer says WHP would like to take it to at least six big cities across the world but, of course, that would depend on sponsorships.
The reason for choosing India, the country she calls her "second home" is partly because of her familiarity with the country (she has been visiting India for over two decades now - "long before it was 'hot'," she chuckles), its cultural and architectural wealth and also the need for active intervention.
Says Reimer, "I saw the beauty, but also the suffering and hardship." Here is where the idea of setting up WHP germinated: to celebrate a heritage and, at the same time, give something back to society. "So the idea was to get people excited about the country and help empower it, particularly the women and children, through education and sustainable development programmes. There's no point in having a shiny Taj Mahal if people in the vicinity don't have access to proper medical care and education."
Having zeroed in on India for its inaugural exhibit, Reimer then got in touch with the photographers to lend their works. WHP commissioned Mark to visit India in 2006 to shoot pictures. To bring in some local talent, Gundu and Armstrong were brought on board.
The exhibition is just the beginning as there are more components to the Bharat project, Reimer says. 'The Treasures of India' series will be a showcase of the best that India has to offer, in the form of a vast multimedia collection - books, DVDs, television series, photo exhibitions and other multimedia experiences - showcasing all the sites.