Saturday Night Conversations : Ananth Padmanabhan

Recently walking in Indian Habitat Center through the commotion of an ongoing language festival and book stalls, I was directed by my friend towards this small gallery tucked  away inside a dark corridor. A spotless white hall with beautiful black and white prints, it seemed to pick up on the mood of Delhi’s monochromatic mornings filled with chilly fog. The images explored a intimately quiet relationship between the viewer and a industrial press. Unlike what you’d expect, it approaches press in a sentimental way, almost as if collecting traces of stories from his past.

I speak to the photographer Ananth who talks about his latest exhibition “Calcutta : Walking in the City”, his photographs and the thoughts behind the project.

From Calcutta : Walking in the City by Ananth Padmanabhan

So tell us a little about yourself?

I am a self taught photographer. I am have been working in the publishing industry for over twenty years and have a deep rooted love for books and the written word. I discovered a passion for photography in my early thirties and haves worked on various projects since, both personal and professional. My early work has been featured on and within books with Penguin, Rough Guides, a travel guidebooks publisher and in an exclusive Youth Reach book on the relationship between trees and cities. Some of my work has also featured in SOS Ladakh, an exhibition for charity organized by NDTV Lifestyle.

I was born in Madras in 1975, and now live in Gurgaon, with my wife, and two Boxers and a Labrador.

How did you get introduced to photography?

I suspect I had a streak somewhere; i carried a point-and-shoot with me when on a course at the Stanford University and was quite pleasantly surprised with how much feedback I got for my pictures from that trip, both to the Bay Area and New York. Since then I have been making pictures regularly and learning by trial and error.

From Calcutta : Walking in the City by Ananth Padmanabhan

You’re currently exhibiting a new series right now in IHC New Delhi, tell us a little about that?

Its called Calcutta : Walking in the City.

There are cities we occupy and there are cities that occupy us. Like Calcutta. An alluring and beautiful older woman I fell in love with, the moment I laid foot for the first time in ‘98. Walking around in the city I was overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of what I might discover. Of the future it might reveal, or of the history it protects. We drove through Calcutta and beyond, making images along the way, and pleased with it, little knowing the best was yet to come.

The reason I went to Calcutta was to go visit a printing press. We spent a whole morning there, my colleague and I, being walked through the process of how a plain white roll of paper came out the other end as your morning daily, or a beautifully bound Bible, or indeed your favorite paperback. I came back with memories; of the steady hum of the machines which I felt somewhere in my underbelly, of the smell of ink, and sweat, and the delightful feel of fresh paper.

This particular press also held another invaluable memory. It was where Penguin India published its first six paperbacks, the year was 1987. This year as the publishing house celebrates its 25th anniversary, I made that trip again, going back to where it all started, and naturally took my camera along. Our gracious host Buddhadev Babu was nostalgic. Time stood still, as the machines rolled.

From Calcutta : Walking in the City by Ananth Padmanabhan

What had been your inspiration to this series?

I have spent over two decades in publishing and deeply love the process of the making of a book. This year as Penguin India rings in its 25th anniverary, I was curious to go to the press where Penguin printed its first 6 books – in every way the publishing of those 6 books by a House like Penguin was a moementous occasion in Indian publishing history and it wouldnt have been possible without this press. I wanted to go there as a photographer also having good memories of the same place, I had last visited this press in February ’98.

I noticed that there had been only two color images in the series. I understand the romanticism of black and white but don’t the images look dated in comparison to the color images in your series? Or how do you think the color images with their grungy and very industrial look come together with the romance and nostalgia of black and white? 

Print is beautiful ony in black and white and there was a certain timelessness in that experience that was best expressed (in my mind) in black and white. the printed word is best expressed in black and white. As I walked around the press, I realized that the two images you see have had to be in colour, the panel, controls the whole machine is an intriguing piece of electronics, with language and lights from another country. The other image, in simple terms, illustrates the order of appearance of colour on to text. I thought they were relevant, to the narrative, in this particular order.

From Calcutta : Walking in the City by Ananth Padmanabhan

This relationship between you and the press, how did that evolve and how did it come to a point when you started thinking about this project to now this exhibit?

I alwasy held a deep fascination for manufacturing and machinery, and how  they work, combined with the fact that for over 20 years all I have been doing is working with books, it was natural that I include a press in my personal projects, in photography. If you have deep faith, a pilgrimage is inevitable.

Thank you so much Ananth for speaking to me. Calcutta : Walking in the City is on from 1st to 10th Nov 2012 in the experimental art gallery, IHC New Delhi. Totally worth a visit. Also if you’re not in Delhi or can’t make it, have a look at his website.

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