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Freezing Performance - Art of Avinash Pasricha
- Dr. Navina Jafa
Photos courtesy: Avinash Pasricha

July 4, 2019

Performing Arts photography in India has assumed a place of its own. The image in a photograph and its interpretation assumes an independent life. This article is a critique of the art of the well-known artist Avinash Pasricha based on a few selected photographs on dance and music. Among other arts, the performing arts are most temporal - the moment you perform or nuance is born, that very moment it dies. Intriguing is the manner that the performance acquires a new life in another art form - photography. Pasricha's large number of images of dance and music as 'performed' comprise of a large number of Indian dancers and musicians. His body of work spans several decades.

When Krishna adores Radha & Radha adores Krishna- Girija Devi & Pt Birju Maharaj

As a dance student, one recalls his frequent visits to the old premise of the National School of Kathak Dance - Kathak Kendra, New Delhi in the 1980s. Along with his assistant Ashwini Chopra, the duo was often seen crossing the lawns towards a hall at the back carrying their equipment which included a white and black umbrella. Those were the days of reel film cameras, and it was also the period when Indian classical dance attained a new high as a seminal artist in the index of the first series of the Festivals of India. Cultural diplomacy was about presenting Indian culture to the world, its exotica as much as its deep civilizational complexity and sophistication. Dance photography of Avinash Pasricha took a central place in the curatorial display of the performing arts of India.

Photographing Performing Arts:
Photographing Indian dance is challenging. Unlike, the Western classical or modern dance, the photography needs to (a) arrest the individual body language of dance forms and dancers; and (b) the photographer aspires to capture both in Indian dance and music the sthai bhav (essential meaning) of the piece. The sthai bhav can be experienced in the performer's body language and facial expression. Dance photography combines intense focus, releasing shutters at the right moment and assessing light. It is about freezing action, defining aesthetics and displaying emotion.

Arresting a moment in a performance of music and dance in an era of film cameras was exciting. Images, especially those from a live performance catch and freeze a temporal fleeting movement of a dynamic enchanting human face and body in time-space. Pasricha in an interview expressed, "I shot dance during a live performance, studio shoot or even as site-specific. Each has the special flavor that lends itself to the aura of the performed art, and the quality of which I try to capture in my camera. It was much more exciting as an artist to work with the reel camera than with the digital." As an artist, Pasricha preferred to shoot individuals where there is 'greater energy between two artistic genres and individuals.'

Yamini Krishnamurthy

He developed and pioneered the technique of multiple exposed images in a film camera. With this technique, he reached out to capture the dynamics of a movement or changing mood movement in continuity through multiple images. Says Pasricha, "Of course, the shift from the film to the digital camera is significant and impacts the synergy between dance and photography. With the film camera, for the multiple exposures, I put the shutter down to capture a series of fastidious complex continuous moments assimilating flow and completion of a movement. With the film camera, the number of pictures clicked was defined to the 36 images in a roll, hence, the main essence was luck and anticipation to capture the best in a limited space, and one which was final. This is unlike the digital cameras where capacity is unlimited, the tool of multiple exposures is provided or can be later created but the hindrance is that after clicking one image there is a gap before the next one which leads to a loss of capturing the continuity in dance movements. The unlimited capacity results in a large number where a great amount of time is spent in the selection of images."

Recently, Avinash Pasricha exhibited a select few of his photographs at the Habitat Centre, New Delhi; of them, some preferred photographs illustrate the magic of his art. Without knowing the context of the performance, the photographs as artwork have an identity that remains separate from the actual performance context.


The photograph of a captured expression of the idea of the Devi- the great mother goddess n the face of Kuchipudi / Vilasini Natyam dancer Swapnasundari by Pasricha communicates - A certain strength, inner awakening (Teja). The photograph captures a determined action not only in the widened, focused eyes, lifted eyebrows; but the manner the crown and the side ears of the facial make-up gear are raised to highlight the frozen movement. One can almost imagine the opening of the third eye (painted on the performer's face), signifying Kaal (time) corresponding to the camera that catches the movement.

Malavika Sarukkai

The site-specific (Khandarya Mahadev temple, Kharujaho) picture of the Bharatanatyam dancer Malavika Sarukkai has a wider context. One does not know, whether or not either Pasricha or Sarukkai delved in the complex iconographical and architectural design and intention; but the photograph as a stand-alone art conveys an oeuvre structural alignment between body shapes of the dancer with that of the contours of the building. The frills of the costume are in tune with the indentation of the lines of the sculpted walls. However, what is captured in terms of the emotion or state of peace and equilibrium is highlighted in the pulled body accentuated by the sunlight from behind and the expression on the face. The process of the photographer is the figure "like a goldsmith, taking a piece of gold, reduce it to another and more beautiful form, just so this soul striking down the body, dispelling its ignorance, makes for itself another newer and more beautiful form." (Brihad Aryanaka Upanishad). So although for most, the figure of the dancer replicates the celestial mythical dancer - apsara - the photographic art takes it beyond.

Photographing Group:

Chandralekha's group

Pasricha expressed that photographing a group of performing dancers requires a different treatment. There are more bodies to orchestrate and there are different issues of the composition to consider. Light, angles dictate the formation of group synergy. An interesting site-specific photograph is a work by avant-garde Bharatanatyam dancer/choreographer Late Chandralekha. Against the background of the turbulent ocean are juxtaposed five, still and inverted bodies of performers. Each dancer has a leg reaching into space above. The picture evokes a thought expressed by the 19thc spiritual thinker Swami Vivekananda: "As the different streams having their sources in different places all mingle their water in the sea, so, O Lord, the different paths which men take through different tendencies, various though they appear, crooked or straight, all lead to Thee." In the Rig Veda, the waves are described as ripples in the fabric of space and time, a metaphor to model them as sound. The critique of this photograph leads to the most well-known iconic pictures by Pasricha, that of M.S. Subbulakshmi.

The Naad Brahm:

M.S. Subbulakshmi

The capturing of 'the moment' is not known to the performer or to the photographer but is an art piece by the latter. The performance is transformed as a punctuated frame for posterity.

The intriguing part of this photograph is not merely the intense equilibrium and bliss in the face of the singer, but the blurred figure in the background. The figure appears as a remembered lived but temporal reality which is juxtaposed to the evolved state the artist finds herself in. She is transformed as a personified Naad Brahma - (Naad- the flow of sound - reality). The form of MS freezes the intangible process of channeled consciousness. The photograph captures the journey of the motion from within. The sound flows outwards, but she retreats inwards. Seeing the photograph - it seems, that there is no art - for art just began!

Navina Jafa did her Phd on socio-economics, and aesthetics in the world of Kathak Dance in 6 urban towns of North India under Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan and urban historian Prof. Narayani Gupta. She learned Kathak from Gurus Pt. Birju Maharaj, Munna Shukla and Reba Vidyarthi. A Fulbright scholar at the Smithsonian Museum, she worked on cultural management and diplomacy. She runs a business on Academic Tourism and is vice president of Centre for New Perspectives presently working to create sustainable livelihoods for marginalized street-folk performers.

Mr. Pasricha, India's well known versatile photographer's capability to shoot has nicely been projected in the article.
- unknown (17 Jan 2020)

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