At the Delhi Photo Festival, Mahendra Sinh on His Beginnings in Photography

Mahendra Sinh
22 November, 2015

On 1 November 2015, the biennial Delhi Photo Festival—a non-profit initiative of Nazar Foundation—hosted a series of artist talks. One of these was conducted by Mahendra Sinh, a photographer based in Mumbai. Sinh elaborated on what prompted him to join the field, before moving on to the journey he charted from his hometown, Ujjain, in Madhya Pradesh, to Mumbai. He spoke of the years he spent in editorial photography, and concluded by explaining his decision to move away from commercial work to making pictures for himself. In this interview with Sukruti Anah Staneley, the assistant photo editor at The Caravan, Sinh tells Staneley about his foray into photography, his editorial work and the impact of music on the images he creates.

On his foray into photography:

MS: I had no clue what I’ll do, honestly. Luckily in the last two years of my being in MSc, I had got very excellently involved in photography because fine arts I used to like—I had this temperament. Classical music I used to listen through my father, I got this thing of listening to classical music, Indian classical music. And then I was interested, I was also in a fine arts school and I used to play violin. I went to, couple of years, I learnt violin you know, classical music and violin. So some pictures that I took with my father’s box camera and my cousin’s professional camera—35 millimeter—so those first few rolls, I mean, stunned lot of my friends and people that I could shoot like that. So obviously you feel good about it, so that kind of encouraged me to shoot more and more, and one thing more I must tell you, before that I hated to study in academics. So often, I’ll—instead of going to my university to attend the classes—I’ll cycle down—I used to cycle to my university—and I was like kind of daydreaming person, so I’ll see the beautiful landscape and I would just, university was on the outskirts, so I will get into a very different mood and instead go to the university library, sit there to browse through Life magazine. They used to get there, and it is very surprising that in a small town like mine and in a university that limited, they had Life magazine coming there.

So the moment I finished my masters, I suddenly declared to my father that I want to go to Bombay and do photography. So my father, parents, they were all horrified that I have no experience in photography and how can I suddenly go and do photography in a city like Bombay, where I had no contacts, no one. I had one friend though, with whom I stayed for a month.

So in Bombay, I had no camera also that time. I did weird things; I didn't want to take much money from the house or no money at all. So I used to paint also—so you know I told you—so I painted a miniature. I used to love miniatures, Indian miniatures very much. So you know whatever I had planned, what I’d planned is that I reproduce and make greeting cards out of it and go door to door and sell those greeting cards and raise money for camera. It was a crazy idea, but yes I did that. I went door to door selling those cards and some people were very impressed, some didn't quite understand. So half of the money I raised, for a camera, to buy a camera—those times the cameras were very cheap. So that’s how I got into photography and JS [The Junior Statesman] magazine. I chased JS magazine editor, Desmond Doig, which was phenomenal versatile editor and mountaineer and naturalist and authority on Himalayan art. And I did lot of work which he liked, Desmond Doig, so that’s how it started.

On his beginnings as an editorial photographer:

MS: Editorial work I did was seldom satisfying, but you see, I enjoyed doing it because I had real love for picture-making process. And whether it was editorial assignment for a serious, thinking article, or I did a lot of work which was—it’s considered till today—very, very good work for Taj Magazine which was house magazine of Taj Mahal hotel. But they were very quality-conscious and very encouraging, and they always looked for things more sophisticated and better. So I used to put all my might and efforts and handwork and I used to do pictures, which, I think I can, I'm very proud to say, they still stand the test of time. So those were very good experience. Then I did news photography through my agency in Paris—Sipa Press, for almost over ten years.

So often in those days in the late 70s and 80s, any news which India will be in news for would be bad news. Like things like floods and I’ll get there when no email, internet, so I’ll get these messages through tel ex [telephone exchange] or fax and they'll be like, we believe there are human bodies floating and pigs eating them—no, I mean they didn't have common sense that pigs never eat human bodies, you know.

So if the floods in India and the one or two bodies floating, I mean that will be international news. But then there were some very serious happenings in India, like 1984, Mrs Gandhi’s assassination, the Sikh riots that followed, and Rajiv Gandhi—Sanjeev, Sanjay Gandhi dying and Bhopal gas tragedy, stuff like that. So I enjoyed doing that, best I could, and as I was telling you that news photography is, crux of the thing is that it’s being present at the right moment at the right time. Your picture may not be that great, depending on how much you time you got and how fast you grabbed it. So I had a cover for the Newsweek in Bhopal. And there were twelve photographers shooting from all over the world for Newsweek for that story, I had the cover. I am very, I was very happy, and there were eight pictures inside in the whole spread, so it was virtually, entirely my story you know.

Time magazine had more photographers shooting and so, and then, yeah, and then I did some other non-news-y stuff also occasionally, it was, like, I made a cover for Time magazine also with Sachin Tendulkar on the cover, yeah. So that kind of stuff. Then you know the work was published in Paris Match and other big magazines like Stern. And then other work like in German magazine Geo—Thar Desert story. That was different kind of work, not journalism. By mid 80s I totally stopped doing any kind of commercial work. I consider even editorial work commercial work because it is commercial. You ask me that I have magazine, go and shoot it and I’ll pay you money, that’s commercial. It’s more dignified, but it’s commercial. Yeah so, mid 80’s, I think, I veered totally, more or less, towards, more and more towards shooting for myself.

On the influence of music on his work:

MS: One thing which people don't realise is, especially the younger photographers who are in the process, and that is not on photography alone which you should be pursuing, I mean alongside you should cultivate or develop interest in other disciplines as well, like good cinema, good literature, poetry, paintings, you know, architecture, whatever you know.

So influences from these fields are always will help you in your own growth in total because you just can't just go in one channel and close your eyes to what is happening on the flanks. I mean it’s well known, I mean but people don't realise that.

Then there comes moments in any music which often delight you, your soul, your mind your heart, you know like moments of rapture, and that’s beautiful. That can only happen if you're 100 per cent there, because that music is very serious and sophisticated. And these kind of experiences in music in my case in photography overlaps my work as well. Nowadays I'm very much into shooting nature, and when I walk in a thick forest or jungle or a natural habitat, you know like some bush or thicket which has no pattern, all chaos, you know how undergrowth sometimes looks. So if I'm not there again like listening to music 100 percent, I may have passed something which was wonderful or which was very nice I should've taken a picture of, so it’s exactly like listening to music, and music doesn’t have to be literally music. When you really get into that groove of enjoying what you’re seeing around you, there’s a kind of music play starts playing inside you because it’s being in a happy state of synchronicity with nature.

This interview has been edited and condensed.