Indian masculinity is complex – how can it be photographed?

All images from the series Playbook for Masculinity © Devashish Gaur

One to Watch Devashish Gaur combines analogue and digital methods, stretch conventions to create a ‘dreamy isolation’

“There is a duality to the culture in India,” says Delhi-based Devashish Gaur. “It is often hyper-masculine but there exist these moments of softness. I am always on the lookout for such moments.” In his latest series, Playbook for Masculinity, Gaur brings together some of these often-marginalised realities, instances of tenderness, care and joy set against the more conventional sensibilities of a patriarchal society. He relays his observations in a grainy, almost opaque style, freely mixing his own work with archive images. Beginning his practice aged 16, Gaur has developed an instinctive approach, documenting aspects of people and places that grab his attention.

Gaur studied journalism and communication in Delhi, but realised afterwards he was “often interested in fiction rather than facts”. “I was always intrigued by photographs in the newspaper,” he continues, “family albums of my parents’ marriage and those of others.” Over the years, his practice has been led by an interrogation of personal histories, and the memories associated with banal yet sentimental objects.

“In my work, old and anonymous photographs exist alongside new photographs that I create to build up personal stories and dynamics”

Gaur works with various media including digital formats, paint and analogue photography, as well as collage. Series such as This is the Closest We Will Get and Notes on Meaning demonstrate his breadth and fondness for experimentation, utilising mediums from iPhone screenshots to wax crayons and a photocopier.

“Over time, I started experimenting and mixing different forms and appropriating narratives,” he explains, adding he loves to imagine the social connections underpinning long-gone scenes. “In my work, old and anonymous photographs exist alongside new photographs that I create to build up personal stories and dynamics,” he continues; blurring the flow and meaning of his story, he encourages his viewers to apply their own interpretations.

Playbook for Masculinity is joined by a single connecting thread; the photographs are organic moments Gaur shot during other projects. Gravitating towards “instances of tenderness… that defy the notions of identity and expectations”, he took the earliest image in the series in 2018. He is still adding to the collection and expects to do so indefinitely.

“I like to have a dreamy isolation in photographs,” he says. “Observing the details and textures has a meditative quality for me – it makes me feel synchronised with my surroundings, as well as isolated from them at the same time. It gave me a way to reflect upon the general social constructs of being. Masculinity, for me, boils down to how people interact with each other, how they function in different environments, and how they try to uphold standards they think they should exhibit. Any idea that challenges this ‘manliness’ has always been interesting to me.”

The men at the heart of these images complicate ideals of masculinity in a country still grappling with what that term means; some of those depicted are strangers, while others are Gaur’s acquaintances. One warm, orange-hued image shows a young man’s arms as he hugs his chest in an act both expressively self-soothing and restricting. The man is a friend, and their closeness was key to capturing a moment with “no fear of vulnerability or hiding emotions”.

Another image shows a necklace on a man’s neck, his back covered in sand from the calm, empty beach beyond. Gaur caught this subject in a moment of play on the coast of Kerala. Throughout the series, he shows individuals who are playful and loving, unthreatening and unintimidating.

Gaur was nominated for Ones to Watch by Sarah Piegay Espenon and Lewis Chaplin, the co-founders of Loose Joints Publishing. “We think Devashish’s modern approach to merged personal narratives, archival documents, the past and the present is a fascinating way to examine our contemporary moment,” they say, “particularly in regard to notions of masculinity and intimacy.” They add he is part of an “excellent rising wave of Indian photographers, using the deep visual roots of photography in the subcontinent to reflect identity and culture in a modern and exciting way.”

Gaur is currently experimenting with film-making, and collecting archival photographs from various parts of India. He hopes to continue exploring youth culture, the meaning of ‘home’, and how our identities connect to these ideas.