A photographer’s epic journey across India

“This story you cannot tell, only recording the work as it is,” says photographer Vasantha Yogananthan.

In a black blazer, black jeans, black cardigan and a floral shirt, Vasantha Yogananthan is as mellifluous as his photography. Scans of these – slate and rainbow squares on cream paper – lie fanned on the table.

The 29-year-old Paris-based photographer has just gained the resources to develop his epic seven-book project, A Myth of Two Souls, which we discuss at the BJP office in Old Street, London.

He’s won a £5,000 grant in the international category of the IdeasTap and Magnum Photographic Award, after finishing in the top three of 823 applicants. He is in a good mood.

“The challenge is: how do you tell this story for people in the West?” says Yogananthan, whose mother is French and father is Sri-Lankan. “People will see the pictures and miss what the project is about. We are working on finding an editorial strategy where we can invite the audience to discover India the same way I am discovering it.”

The project is to reinterpret, with book designers Kummer and Herrmann, the seven-chapter journey of the epic Indian poem the Ramayana.

The story of Ramayana were first recorded in 24,000 stanzas by the Hindu sage and Sanskrit poet Valmiki around 300 BC. It is constantly rewritten and reinterpreted, continuing to evolve today. In 1987 the Ramayana TV-series became the most-watched mythological series ever.

The first expedition was in February 2013 and the last is planned for January 2018. Vasantha is able to geographically follow the characters’ journey in the poem, for the mythical-sounding place names – Ayodha, Hampi, Chitrakoot – still exist today.

In his artist statement, Vasantha writes: “It will be a personal allegory of the Ramayana. The goal is to create an online community – both in India and Europe – to share and exchange personal stories along with various interpretations of the Ramayana.

“Seven photobooks – one per chapter – will be published from 2016 to 2019. They will be available in both French and English editions. Two travelling exhibitions will be produced for India and Europe. A special photobook will also be published in Hindi in 2019 in a format and production allowing a low price to make it available to the widest possible audience in India.”

On top of this, in March last year Magnum named him as one of the top 30 photographers under 30. He has also co-founded an independent publishing house, Chose Commune, in France, which will publish his Ramayana project.

The editor of IdeasTap, James Hopkirk, says: “The three international finalists were all outstanding – but Vasantha was the clear winner. His project was so ambitious, so huge – and yet the judges felt certain that he could deliver it.

“The judges loved the fact he was using local people to illustrate stories from the Ramayana, and also that a traditional Indian artist was hand painting all of his black and white images. Ultimately, we all wanted to see the project unfold – it has a long, exciting road ahead of it.”

The project schedule is ambitious to say the least – spanning over 3500 miles overall from Dunagari in north India, to Nepal, to Mumbai, to the south tip of India in Trivandrum, and further south to Sri Lanka. There are fifteen separate trips in total. He has already been four times, trekking with a translator across a different state each visit, across the plains of Tamil Nadu, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Maharashta.

Valérie Fougeirol, the former cultural project manager at Magnum France, has followed the project since it began two years ago. “Vasantha has gone deeply in the subject and found a way to express it which is formally very interesting,” she says. “Ramayana is a fundamental text for the Indian people. It is also an oral knowledge. The project is more than experiencing and creating: it is also sharing.”

“The text is very detailed so the itinerary is very precise,” Vasantha says, “ but it still took me three trips to figure out the way to do the project. At first I was thinking of documentary photography but I was missing something – how to translate the intimacy into the story. You have to go closer to people.”

To achieve the project, Vasantha must navigate the social-conservative mores that still exist in many regions of India. To gain trust requires social immersion. “Taking pictures of women outside Bombay and New Delhi is very difficult. If you go into the rural areas you can get into a lot of trouble, so the only way is to live with people.

“You stay in a small village for a week and they start to engage with you – not only as a photographer but something else. You make friends with the families. You can’t just ask: ‘Can I take a picture of you alone without your husband?’” Vasantha is wide-eyed with incredulity at this idea. He picks up a picture of a woman asleep on a bed.

“This picture is usually impossible. It’s not normal – it took me a week. For the first four days I didn’t do anything, and then on the fifth day I did a very classic formal picture with her partner, and then on the sixth day I went further.”

The prize was won because of such tenacity, with one competition judge and senior lecturer at the University of Westminster, Harry Hardie, saying: “What impressed us so much about him and his work was his considered commitment to the project, which is large and would take up a lot of time over the next few years. He also talked articulately and showed passion about how his concept has become more refined as the work has progressed.”

It will be classed in the West as conceptual photography, but the implied artifice in this definition is not how Vasantha believes it will be understood in India. “It’s definitely not reality, that’s for sure. But it is close to the Indian reality.” This poses unique existential questions about where his photographs exists, in a kind of myth/reality limbo that visualises an essential mystery within Indian culture.

Painting is the most salient influence on Vasantha’s work. After shooting the pictures solely on black-and-white large format film, an Indian photograph-painter tints a selection of the pictures with watercolours.

The painter himself, Jay Kumar, took six months to find. Kumar follows in the profession of his father, who worked for a Delhi studio called Mahatta and Co. Vasantha gave Kumar no direction other than “don’t go crazy”, allowing him significant artistic freedom, reworking the images.

“It’s very precise, but if you get closer to it you will see little mistakes”, Vasantha says of a photograph called Luv and Kush (see above) that depicts a scene in which the sons of the sage Valmiki are leading a sacred jewel-adorned horse. Some original grey lurks underneath, like exposed bone.

He traces some green vines with a fingertip: “These flora are not in the [original] picture. The colour of their clothes were also different, the horse was not gold as here and it was photographed in the middle of the day so the sky was blue [not peach].”

The extent of embellishment differs between pictures. “In some pictures, black-and-white elements are left. In some colour elements were added – they will all look different. It will confuse the viewer; and this is really something I am looking for.” Such an amorphous definition is an effort to make the West grasp visually how the myth of Ramayana is woven deep into the everyday fabric of reality for Indian society.

The Ramayana characters who populate his photographs are strangers met on his travels. Vasantha often uses the term “playing” when speaking about the shoots; he does not direct his shoots using actors, but lets the subjects naturally react to his lens. “The way they relate to the large format camera is very different to a lady from the Bombay acting industry [Bollywood],” he says.

The project is a progression in the history of photography painting. Photography was introduced to India in the 19th century by the ruling British. There was no Indian style – composition was restricted to formal domestic portraits as taught by the orientalists.

However, artists discovered they could use the skill of miniature painting, developed in the state of Rajasthan since the 10th century, upon these photographs. Vasantha describes painting as enabling “the Indian touch”.

Vasantha’s work forges an entirely new form, a sign of formal progression for the 21st century. Deepali Dewan described in her 2012 book Embellished Reality: Indian Painted Photographs how painting is: “Part of a larger practice of photo manipulation and of the inter-ocular world of photo-based image production that can be said to be a marker of modernity”.

“The artists have appropriated the look and technique of the painted photographs as a way to explore a sense of the past and to push the boundaries between mediums in the present.”

Painted photograph exhibitions have taken place relatively recently: an exhibition at SOAS in London called Painted Photographs in 2009 and a show at Paris Photo last year. The curator of these exhibitions, Rahaab Allana, is the director of the Alkazi Foundation, which has the largest collection of hand-painted photographs in South-Asia.

Allana mentored Vasantha, introducing him to the staging and painting of photographs at his 2014 Delhi exhibition Drawn from Light: Early Photography and the Indian Subcontinent. “We met before his trip to Bihar last year, as he was trying to find a connection between the epic and everyday life,” Allana tells BJP. “The work now stands between reality and fiction – as the myth does for Indians.”

“One of the earliest depictions of the Ramayana featuring 400 paintings was made around 1649 for Jagat Singh [a maharana – king] of Mewar at Udaipur in Rajasthan. The seven books of the Sanskrit epic were each illustrated on the grandest scale, with the paintings occupying the whole page in four different styles of Mewar painting.

“Changes in media become ways of interrogating cultural history. The ability to adapt and morph with changing art forms shows the idea of assimilation of Indian culture as part of its evolution. A culture made of hybrid forms.”

He believes Vasantha will accomplish his goal of creating an online community, saying: “It is essential in order to look at the photographs not just as aesthetic objects, but raw data for anthropological research. Then it’s essential to consider the visual with the oral history. The website is a format to outreach in both ways.”

The ongoing evolution of Ramayana means there are hooks to explore contemporary Indian issues, which may help stir online interaction. These include the enduring debate in India about the fatal gang rape of a 23-year-old woman on a Delhi bus in 2012, which went unpunished. In one chapter, Trial by Fire, the pregnant queen is exiled into a forest because society deems her impure.

The depiction of the Ramayana has not been done before in Vasantha’s photographic style, meaning he does not know the artistic effect of representing it in this way. He aims to confuse, and in doing so share something of the consciousness of Indian society, within which the fables of characters such as Luv and Kush are deeply intertwined.

Ramayana has been visualised countless times in other forms. Vasantha pulls out some wafer-thin pictures from a folder. “Gold leaf,” he says. “These are pages from a kind of ancestor of comic books. I found them in the oldest market of Mumbai – Chor Bazaar.”

Quotes lifted from a modern edition of Ramayana will be used to tell the story in Vasantha’s books and galleries. The mythologist Devdutt Pattanaik is now involved in the project – his 2013 book Sita: Ramayana provides short quotes, which will appear every 10 to 15 photographs in the book, for the narrative thread. The philosophy of Vasantha is echoed in one of Pattanaik’s 2014 blog posts.

“To appreciate Hindu mythology, we have to agree to Hindu assumptions” he said. “That is difficult since the modern world is firmly based on Western assumptions. The Hindu assumption is one of rebirth.

“Such paradigm challenging conversation are [sic] rare because we have been conditioned to receive and digest only simple, or rather simplistic, explanations that simply reaffirm our firmly held assumptions.”

I ask Vasantha of his work: “Is it magical realism?” Vasantha settles back in his chair and looks into the distance. “Good question. I don’t think I can answer all the questions right now.”

For more of Vasantha’s work see here.