Strange Places (2012)
Places of mythological significance in South India. Black and white 35mm images.
Statement by Sumeet Banerji
A culture can be understood by studying its collective mythology. The mythology of a community is composed of the stories that are commonly repeated and shared. Stories are an integral part of community. There can be no community without collective stories. The path of a community or even a civilization is determined by the quality of the stories it is built on, the mastery of the storytellers who keep them alive and the degree to which they stand the test of time.
I grew up in Bangalore, which is a major economic hub in South India. I lived most of my childhood in this metropolis. Much of my time growing up was spent at school, playing football/soccer, cricket, partying at friends’ houses, in bars and hotels and restaurants. I remember going to my first Iron Maiden concert and what a big deal it was for my friends and I to go see. When I went to the USA for college a year later at the age of 18, I started to become very aware of my Indian heritage. Being far outside the epicenter of Indian culture in Pennsylvania somehow brought my attention to Indian mythology for the first time in a serious way.
I read versions of The Mahabharata and The Ramayana in college while auditing drama classes. The novelist Haruki Murakami describes myths as being reservoirs for stories. The Ramayana and the Mahabharata are two such giant reservoirs. Slowly I became more and more familiar with Hindu and Buddhist myths and stories.
I was made aware of the story of Parashurama, who is the sixth avatar of Vishnu by one of my early art teachers Balan Nambiar. Parashurama is Vishnu with the axe who comes down to curb the ego of the ruling classes. Nambiar told me the story of an episode of Parashurama’s life in relation to an actual beach town in South India. For the first time, I felt a mapping of the mythological realm to the observable geographic realm. I quickly learnt that many of these mythological stories cited real places in India. I decided I would use a camera, which is the medium in the visual arts that is most enslaved to the real world and take pictures of these places that were associated with these major stories of gods, demigods, demons and royalty. That is where the idea for the series ‘Strange Places’ came from. It is a juxtaposition of observable geography and mythology.
Every photo in the series is of a place that is cited in some major Hindu or Buddhist story. India is so packed with such places that I limited my geographical radius to South India and my mythological radius (mostly) to the avatars of Vishnu.
I used a 35mm camera loaded with black and white film to achieve the effect that I wanted. In contrast to other series’ of mine, I used a 35mm camera for its convenient size and journalistic traits. The black and white film reminded me of the photographs of monuments and such places in textbooks and encyclopedias I had grown up with. I was used to seeing temples and historic structures photographed like that so I recreated a similar effect, now that we have clear, hd color imagery for many of the sites and structures.
The stories themselves are sometimes thousands of years old. I wanted the pictures to look like they were taken in a pre digital age, like they could have been taken during a longer window of history. I used this outdated, less convenient type of photography so that the images could be extracted from the age in which they were actually taken and be seen in the timelessness of the stories they represent.