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“There are some things you just can’t get out of your system”

A continuing strain is Sagar’s work is perhaps loss. Or nostalgia, although nostalgia echoes implications of undue romanticization, which perhaps makes it a limiting explication of the essence behind his work and his choice of subjects. It is closer to a desire to collect memories of things that are disappearing or close to extinction. At one point during the residency, he wanted to shoot images of the veteran among theatres, Regal Cinema, incidentally at a time when it has just been closed from business.

It was not surprising either that he would constantly worry about whether or not celluloid film- his chosen medium to photograph in- would soon become obsolete.

But this is more than an archive of loss, or a simple fetishization of disappearance through monochromatic photography (which is quite possibly the most perfect recipe for nostalgia). Most importantly, Sagar’s work is about people; its impulse is located in building relationships with communities and individuals in unconventional ways, ways that are more than one-directional, artist-subject relationships.

Sagar’s photo series at Khoj was shot at varying locations in and around Urdu Bazaar, and at Mohammad Ghalib’s house in Okhla. A katib is a glorified scribe of the past, a calligrapher for the Islamic royalty.

In other words, a katib in India today is a practitioner of a dying art.

The photo series creates a connected narrative of the katib’s life and work through singular images- there is detailing of the katib’s tools, of the area around his workspace, his clientele.

Perhaps at some level it does no go beyond being a photojournalistic essay, but that is also convenient terminology and needs scrutiny. It belies the significance of the process of the project’s formulation and its conglomeration. It belies all the ancillary developments that are significant in their own domains, that are revelatory of those parts of the process that do not become perceptible parts of the finished work.

Something that bothers me constantly about photography as a medium is the unquestioned self-assurance and sense of entitlement that accompanies the craft. The ability to freeze and collect a moment with speed and supposed accuracy is one that is mired within a dynamic of power, and a history of often neglected ethical responsibility. Due to my inherent suspicions about the medium, the engagement between the photographer and the subject becomes important to me.

What I therefore appreciate immensely about Sagar’s project is that it is not born of intrusion, of fetishization or objectification. The culminating effect is not one where the subject as a living being has been reduced to mere tokenistic value through a repetition of the image. Somehow, the katib has more than conceptual value in this project, is more than simply being the person on the other side of the lens, incidental to the artist’s larger ideation. Sagar’s willingness to spend hours and days on end just staying around the katib translates into his work as an intimacy, as meticulous labour invested in establishing a relationship.

This is probably why it worried me that there was a Hindi translation of the Urdu poem “ख़्वाब बसेरा” by Faiz Ahmad Faiz. The languages involved in the translation raise another set of discomforts, considering the long and contentious history of linguistic hegemony and dominance that marks the relationship between Urdu and Hindi.

Mohammad Ghalib often quoted Faiz; he is also the practitioner of a largely obsolete craft. To put his handwritten inscription of an Urdu poem with a Hindi translation seemed to be an attempt to simplify things, to enable the viewer to chart a connection between the point of the exhibit and the poem itself.

I do no quite see why that explanation is required. It is true that without the translation, the poem becomes an object, closed within itself, since Urdu is not a language commonly accessed by most people. But translating that object also makes it one-dimensional, leaves it as nothing more than merely a poem, whose only thread of relevance in the exhibit is that the katib loved Faiz’s poetry. It loses its own value as a work of text in an exhibition of photographs, which could have been a test site for the ways in which articulation works through different media. Due to the translation, it just becomes another collectible, a curio served on a platter, oversimplified, and divested of its nuance and subtlety.

But Sagar’s work does not have a singular focal point. It is not only about loss, or incidental relationships, or about the art of Urdu court calligraphy.

This project records an unanticipated relationship in an overwhelming city, which found its ironic inception in a dying craft. The project was initially started on celluloid film, but the sheer difficulty in getting film processed made it impossible for Sagar to continue in the same medium, making the final work an incidental amalgamation of two forms of art that are eroding quietly from their spaces.

Sagar’s work throws into light the lives of people who occupy small spaces in a city where they go largely unnoticed, and his engagement with Delhi as an outsider perhaps allows him an added insight into things that others have long been desensitized to. This project preserves not only the vestiges of an art form but also one of its last remaining practitioners; it may be an archive of loss, but it is also the preservation of a relationship that will outlive the loss. Perhaps it is not an archive at all, but something less methodological and more intimate. 

Which is perhaps why my favourite photograph from the series is one that had initially been rejected. In it, the katib stands, leaning forward on the railing of his balcony, smiling broadly at an ill-lit, ill-kept street, a street fallen out of care, just like the lives that inhabit it. The photograph is out of focus and the lighting is flawed. It is the image of a man in a position of both vulnerability and intimacy, the icon of an unexpected relationship with a stranger with a camera who the katib had no incentive to allow into his home and his life, but he did anyway. It is a beautiful record of an imperfect life reflected in an imperfect image, starkly different from the other aesthetic and technically balanced ones in the series.

But technical perfection is not the only reason to appreciate something.