Through performance and docu-fiction, Abhishek Khedekar ruminates on life within community

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The young Indian photographer combines archive, sketches, still life and more, to illustrate hidden truths from his home country’s complex past

Whenever the circus came to town – or a dance troupe, or the travelling cinema for that matter – a young Abhishek Khedekar was enthralled. He was a lover of dramatic expression from an early age, and these wandering spectacles brought further vivid colour to the rural landscapes of his native Maharashtra state. But when the Tamasha came along, Khedekar’s mother was less enthusiastic. Concerned about adult themes in the theatre group’s repertoire of jokes and sketches, as well as the supposed prevalence of alcohol consumption at their shows, she prohibited her son from attending, although he “desperately wanted to see them perform,” he recalls solemnly.

The Tamasha is a network of over 100 nomadic folk performers whose shows since the 19th century have incorporated an evolving display of dance, song, prayer, comedy and theatre. Once the preserve of royalty, their craft found a broader following after Indian independence. By 2016, with an extensive education in photography, culminating in a master’s from India’s National Institute of Design, Khedekar saw a chance to embed himself within this community, capturing the magic of life on the road and backstage preparations for each dazzling show.

Across his various bodies of work, Khedekar aspires to tell human stories while blurring the boundaries of reality and fiction. In the context of the Tamasha project, this approach reflects his own position: far from being an objective documentarian, the artist soon became an active participant in Tamasha community life, travelling from village to village and forming lasting ties with a host of unforgettable characters en route. Photography combined with archival material, sketches and mediated images conjure a more holistic essence of the Tamasha way. “When I’m working, sometimes what I feel is difficult to convey directly in my pictures,” Khedekar explains of his docu-fiction path.

© Abhishek Khedekar.
© Abhishek Khedekar.
From the series Tamasha © Abhishek Khedekar.

Khedekar’s work also explores the whispered half-truths of local histories, in which India is richly steeped. Uncovering such hidden tales was a cornerstone of his Dapoli series, named after the artist’s hometown – a city some 200km south of Mumbai. Stemming from a university assignment, the project began when Khedekar discovered an elderly gentleman, Mr Subhash Kolekar, whose decades-long photographic repertoire ranged from shooting weddings to local crime scenes. Despite Kolekar’s initial resistance, a fruitful collaboration ensued, during which Khedekar refined a range of analogue processing techniques under the stewardship of his new mentor. The resulting series (a work-in-progress) is a shared ode to Dapoli – its smells, sounds and sights captured between eras in the two photographers’ images.

“Abhishek’s striking and unconventional approach to India weaves an ambitious set of techniques together – still life, reappropriation, performance – alongside an incredible eye for the visually stunning, all carried off with ease as he bounces between different styles,” says nominator Sarah Piegay Espenon, an artist and co-founder of publishing/design house Loose Joints, which will publish Tamasha in book form next year. “Abhishek was the unanimous winner of our Publishing Performance Residency 2022, an annual artists’ book award and residency programme.” 

Looking to the future, Khedekar remains open-minded, with India’s spectrum of fascinating cultures – “both the places I know and those I want to visit” – offering alluring prospects for investigation. “I have an idea for a small project in Meghalaya, a state in north-east India,” he explains, referencing a distinct identity embodied in the region’s food, fashion and traditional craftsmanship.