Arts Illustrated

October 1, 2020

Keeping It Real

Award-winning photographer Bikramjit Bose captures that fleeting idea of beauty living in the ordinariness of reality, giving us insights into spaces we are not meant to see and are yet observing, and we discover that the line between the photographer and his image is just as fleeting as it is beautiful

Vani Sriranganayaki

While researching avenues we could explore within the myriad and, quite frankly, complicated interpretations of beauty in art for this issue, I came across a Wikipedia article titled ‘The Feminine Beauty Ideal’. It stated that the feminine beauty ideal ‘is the set of dimorphic feminine characteristics held as superior and desirable for sexual selection’ and that they ‘are rooted in the natural human attraction for harmony and balance, as manifested in the secondary sexual characteristics of the female of the species’. The article went on, in its pseudo-scientific tone, to illustrate how the pressure to conform to any given society’s definition of beauty was nothing but the natural consequence of the human impulse to compete and overcome limitations. The article succinctly dotted out the undesirable effects of rigid norms then placed on gender and the concepts of aesthetics in rather unflinching terms. Yet, it took me a while to come to terms with it.

Bikramjit Bose
From the story Almost Famous for Grazia, India, Styled by Ekta Rajani, Makeup by Rosario Belmonte, Hair by Keiichiro Hirano

I wasn’t so much bothered by the unfairness of the rules and regulations imposed on my gender – I was already, painfully aware of those. What irked me was the very existence of the page: the idea that the said set of rules are so well entrenched in our everyday lives that we now readily accept them as facts and normalise them as just another banal entry in the encyclopaedia of human experiences. It is no longer a hypothesis, a general observation or a critique on the functions of a society – but just the cold, hard, indisputable truth. A truth repeatedly validated by everything around us – the stories and heritage we carry with us, the lessons we learn through experiences, and, most importantly, the images we like to surround ourselves with. After all, an image, to quote the supermodel Cameron Russell, is powerful. Images are the carefully constructed, strategically designed tools we use to judge our own likeness – flatteringly or otherwise – a measure of our perceived successes and perceived failures.

The first time I saw award-winning photographer Bikramjit Bose’s works, it was within this context. Like most practitioners, Bikramjit doesn’t attempt to create beauty in his works consciously. More focused on the image’s ability to relate at a more elemental level – a place where its authority and perfection merges to create an irresistible, almost defiant narrative – he tends to otherwise shy away from any proclaimed sense of beauty. ‘The idea of beauty, as put forward by popular culture tends to be a little “uni-dimensional”, and thus a little boring. For me it is little more democratic and freer, in the sense that I find beauty in things, in people; in faces that don’t necessarily conform to that which is popular. I don’t know if my works have a purpose, per se. But the idea is to bring the standard down from the pedestal and present it in a context, a setting, or way that is relatable, that is real’, says Bose. Mindful of their power to influence, shape and even change minds and beliefs, Bose’s works resonate with a clear yet compelling sense of morality. I am not sure if Bose’s images would change the world and all that ails it. But what they would do is change people’s understanding of what is, and what ought to be. After all, isn’t that what art is really about?

Bikramjit Bose
Lolita, Personal work

Excerpts from the interview

A lot of our perceptions can be traced back to our personal experience, chance encounters or conscious influences. Given that, how do you reinterpret and redefine the concept of beauty, knowing that your work too would be absorbed into mainstream thought, possibly influencing consumers of art?

I don’t really feel the need to reinterpret or redefine the concept of beauty – it is something that I simply react to at an instinctive level. Beauty, especially the idea of beauty in photography, is a very subjective one. Every creator and beholder has his/her own take on the matter. The best I can do is to try and put out something that I can relate to and is in keeping with my aesthetics and sensibilities. Once it is out there, how it is interpreted is entirely up to the audience. What, I suppose, might set that work apart is that it is filtered through my thoughts and influences and experiences as a person. Not in any specific way, but passed through a sort of cumulative filter of all those things. Thus, the whole redefinition and reinterpretation happens at a more subconscious level as opposed to an intentional one.

Bikramjit Bose
The Ballerina, Personal Work

From ‘Spring Rebellion’ to ‘Girls’ and ‘Women’, you have captured the female experience through rather diverse and rich perspectives.  Looking at these works, one might be tempted to observe that women are often the subject and the target of your insistent, albeit empathetic gaze. And yet works like ‘Changing Lanes’ and ‘Ungender’ dispute the fact. For you, how do gender norms affect the perception and assimilation of beauty?

My intent is not to necessarily capture beauty. Beauty, I feel, is a by-product of what I do, but seldom the intention. The intention is to create an image or put forth an idea through an image or series of images that resonate with me. The inspiration could come from anywhere – an image, a film, a passage in a book, a recurring thought, or a nagging feeling. It is just a need to put it out there. Photography, for better or for worse, is the only way I know how to communicate that. So I simply assimilate the elements that best communicate that idea in a visual form – sometimes within the realm of fashion, sometimes via portraiture and sometimes just through a sequence of images. What I’m trying to say is that gender is merely one of those elements, a part of a bigger picture, as it were, to try and bring an idea to fruition. It is like casting for a film – you take actors that you feel are best suited for the role, actors who you feel would do justice to the characters you want to create. But within that, the gaze of which you speak is something that is purely instinctive and not ruled by the gender of the subject, but the idea of the subject.

Bikramjit Bose
From the Photo essay Don’t Believe the Hype! commissioned by Marie Claire, India

You have said before that you have always been interested in the idea of deconstruction. The series ‘Don’t Believe the Hype’ and ‘Cmon Charlie Cmon’ take the romanticised notions of high fashion and the child-like wonder of the circus and turn them over their heads. Can you elaborate on the artistic process that allows you this unique insight?

I don’t think I’ve ever taken on a project with a pre-existing insight on the subject. Preconceived notions about a subject can prejudice your mind, creating a sort of veneer that is counter-productive to the essence of what you are trying to achieve. This makes it hard to document something truthfully or faithfully. Sometimes I choose a subject because it interests or intrigues me (Cmon Charlie Cmon was my design school diploma project), and sometimes it is born out of a commissioned project (Don’t Believe the Hype started out as a commissioned photo essay for Marie Claire magazine).

I really enjoy the process of discovering a subject as I go along. I feel the insight only comes when you’ve immersed yourself in the subject for a considerable amount of time – when you have gone as deep as you possibly can – only then can you see it from the inside out. The whole idea of deconstruction, of stripping something bare to reveal what lies beneath the surface, again, harks back to my desire of bringing things down from that certain pedestal – to reveal the true nature of things as it is without any external or superficial artifice – banal, even boring. There is a joy in discovering that realness and subsequently sharing that with others – showing them something old, but in a new way.

Bikramjit Bose
From the photo essay Cmon Charlie Cmon, Personal Work

Your works display a marked inclination towards black and white as a medium. Do you choose this intuitively – as and when you feel it is the best way to capture an image? Or is it intentional? What I mean is: is the choice part of the process; or is there no choice at all? You just know it when you see the subject?

Although I am more inclined towards black and white as a medium, it is something I decide depending on what I’m doing. For portraits, I usually prefer doing them in black and white. I feel colour distracts the eye when the focus of the image is a person. Colour, for me, sometimes gets in the way of what I want to say and how I want to say it. I like using colour only when the colours add to the story I want to tell, or the story demands the use of a certain colour palette.

Bikramjit Bose
Changing Lanes for the ‘Mastered’ course with Nick Knight, Styled by Rahul Vijay, Hair and Makeup by Santwana Vishwakarma and Anand Kaira

Be it fashion or editorial photography (or even Instagram, for that matter) a lot of importance is laid on perfection. What I am getting to here is: how important is the said perfection or, rather, what does it mean to you and your craft?

Perfection of one’s craft is different from perfection at a more superficial level (like skin retouching and airbrushing). As far as one’s craft goes, I’m all for striving towards perfection in that realm. It is important to have a sound knowledge of the craft, even perfect knowledge, but the idea is to take that knowledge and then go against the grain. Perfection, when it comes to image retouching, is something else altogether.  I’m not big on retouching in general – sure I’ll use Photoshop to clean up here and there, but that’s about it. It is important to take a stand on how far you will go. Some photographers’ images require a lot of retouching for the final product to look the way they envisioned it in the first place. My work doesn’t lend itself too well to a highly retouched end product. It is created keeping in mind the marks and moles and the lines under the eyes. If I were to take all that away, it would look empty.

Bikramjit Bose
The Minimalist for Grazia, India, Styled by Tania Fadte, Hair and makeup by Bianca Hartkopf

Is there a particular subject that inspires you? And if you had to break down that inspiration, would you find a sense of ‘beauty’, however you define it, at the heart of it?

There is no one particular subject that inspires me – but if there is that one thing that I somehow keep going back to, over and over again, it is spaces. Old world spaces from a bygone era, often left in ruins, abandoned, dilapidated and derelict – a ghost of its erstwhile grandeur.  I find an immense sense of beauty and romance in such spaces and they never fail to inspire me. There is often a lingering sense of melancholia in these places that I find so beautiful.

Bikramjit Bose
Bikramjit Bose

And, finally, they say that beauty lies in the eyes of the beholder. As a photographer who is constantly seeing and observing, where does it lie for you – necessarily within the frame or necessarily outside of it?

I think that the beauty that is captured within the frame is nothing but a microcosmic representation of the beauty that one sees outside of it. It is never this or that, one or the other. It is both. The finer nuances of beauty may shift with every frame, but the idea of it remains the same.

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