Sikka has challenged stereotypes of his home country for much of his career. A new project focused on his ex-army dad carries on this ideal, but also turned into a rewarding personal adventure for both father and son
A sapper is a soldier who performs engineering duties, such as building or breaching bridges, laying or clearing fortifications, repairing or destroying roads. Bharat Sikka’s father, Suresh, was a sapper with the Engineer Corps of the Indian Army, which meant he was regularly posted around the huge country. The family travelled with him for a while, then settled in New Delhi while Suresh kepton working; this meant that Sikka was primarily brought up by his mother, but he maintained his connection with his dad. “We are very open and friendly, I can talk to him about pretty much anything, whether it’s personal or my work,” he says. “I was always a bit intrigued by my father.”
His father “belonged to this slightly conventional norm of the Indian middle-class family, but he was very eccentric,” Sikka explains. “He had these strong points of view on what he believed in, and he didn’t give a shit about what people would say. He was like ‘This is the way I want to be’.”
This eccentric streak meant Suresh was supportive when Sikka said he wanted to become a photographer, though it was an unconventional choice for an army man’s son. Studying at New York’s Parsons School of Design, Sikka has gone on to forge a successful career which includes shooting for clients such as M, Le magazine du Monde, The New York Times Magazine and Gucci. He also shoots personal work, and in 2013 found himself photographing his father on his phone – images which initially lived only within the memory of the device. He realised he wanted to do more, to ultimately create a project with a focus on Suresh and his life.
Sikka’s first shots of his father were in documentary style, but as the series evolved, and as Suresh became more comfortable in front of the lens, it evolved into something much more collaborative. The final dummy of The Sapper, which was shortlisted for the 2019 Unseen Dummy Book Award, includes images in which Suresh performs for the camera, as well as shots of the constructions he made, or which he and Sikka made together, plus collages the pair co-created. In fact, as The Sapper ballooned into a three-year collaboration, it “helped make a strange bond between us,” says Sikka.
“I would make him remember things and he’d tell me about his life, or we’d discuss some philosophy, or just do some origami”
“Somewhere I realised I didn’t want to make a documentary-style project on my father, just photographing and capturing him,” he says. “For my first project [Indian Men], I photographed a lot of middle-class Indian men, and I included a lot of photographs of him. This time I wanted it to be much more playful, to break the rules a bit. It was about involving him in those things where we could do something more.
“My father had no connection to art but he’s a really creative person,” Sikka continues. “When I was growing up he would tell me what are the weak points of a bridge, how do you bring it down or make it stay up, and he would make these little sculptures with wooden pieces, tell me how to balance them and play with that. He was also a draughtsman, making these very linear drawings, and I wanted to include them by making the collages. We just played, we added another layer to this whole experience of doing the project.”
And that experience wasn’t just making the project. Sikka and his father worked on The Sapper in four locations – at home in New Delhi, in a house by the sea in Goa, in another house in north-eastern India near Darjeeling, and in Leh, Ladakh, which borders China and where Suresh was frequently posted for his work. And these trips were part of the adventure. “Leh is at really high altitude, and it’s a sketchy place [owing to border disputes],” says Sikka. “My father was 79 when we went there, so I was really scared. But he was fitter than I was.”
When Sikka showed a selection of the work at Unseen Amsterdam last year with his gallery, Nature Morte, his father came along. “He loved the adventure,” Sikka laughs. “There were so many different things that just came up as fun. Just imagine, your kid is older and he wants to spend time with you, you’re going to be really flattered. And it was interesting in our relationship because I would make him remember things and he’d tell me about his life, or we’d discuss some philosophy, or just do some origami.”
Sikka says he respects his father and avoided making images that would portray him negatively in any way. He adds that this respect is mutual, with Suresh happy to take direction from his son. For Sikka this was rewarding on a personal level, helping him get to know his father as an adult, but it was also an important part of the work. He’s keen to make images that fight back against stereotypes of India, from the outsiders’ idea that everyone lives in slums to the homegrown kitsch of Bollywood, and subverting the cliché of the strict Indian parent was part of it this time. “I wanted to show an Indian man in a different way,” he says. “Not go back to this really hierarchical world.”
This quietly radical approach has underlined Sikka’s work from the start, because he focuses on the middle class in his first project, Indian Men, partly just to show it exists. He also deliberately avoids the bright aesthetic of Bollywood in favour of a pared-down colour palette – his series Matter etched out in either muted whites or inky darkness, for example, while Waiting for Midnight uses washed-out Polaroid tones. The Sapper is cast in natural, neutral tones, often lit by a strong sun. “I like to make these rules for myself [in each project] – now I just want to shoot digitally, now I want to mix things up,” he says. “For The Sapper I shot on 4×5 and digital and I included collages and scans of photocopies. I broke all the rules! That was the rule.
“I’m not a photographer who just makes an image, I like the process of making images,” he adds. “Once I’m in that process, I think of it in terms of making movies – I don’t want to make every picture beautiful, it’s more like a flow of thoughts or energy, what I’m talking about or what I’m thinking about.”
And if there’s a kind of creative anarchy about Sikka, a desire to play with the rules and break them, as well as breaking established structures and hierarchies, it’s something that informs his approach to fatherhood too. Sikka has three children and he’s spent much more time with them in lockdown than he would have had the chance to in normal circumstances; that family time has been something he’s relished, he says, and also something he’s learned from. “You know I’ve always been a terrible reader, but my daughter is a very keen reader and writer,” he says. “I was seeing her and I started reading.”
Beginning with a book by the popular Japanese author, Haruki Murakami, Sikka is now an avid reader of his bestselling stories. “The more I think about [reading], the more I think it’s really important,” he says. “It’s something I missed out in my photography before, but now I think the words can be a very important aspect of how you express yourself, which can change how you think about your work. That’s exciting, it’s refreshing.
Diane Smyth is a freelance journalist who contributes to publications such as The Guardian, The Observer, The FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, The Calvert Journal, Aperture, FOAM, IMA, Aesthetica and Apollo Magazine. Prior to going freelance, she wrote and edited at BJP for 15 years. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy