INTERVIEW: Anshika Varma

Fòcas Programme Director Katherine Parhar interviews Fòcas India shortlisted artist Anshika Varma, a freelance photographer based in Delhi, about her project Urur Olcott Kuppam, and her developing role as both an artist and a curator.

© Anshika Varma

F: Anshika, Olcott Kuppam is one of the oldest fishing villages in Chennai. What drew you to make a project about it?

A: Our sense of self is deeply connected to where we come from, where we belong. I am convinced that who we are is rooted to our relationship with our land. In Chennai, I was curious to know how the relationship between the fishermen and the sea has altered as a result of our changing landscape. Last year I did a residency with the Chennai Photo Biennale looking at the impact of water on our lives in the aftermath of the floods last year. I wondered what such a situation might mean to the people whose sense of identity is linked to the sea. What started out as a weeklong project has continued now for over a year. For the meenakar (fishermen) living along this village, the sea is a source of faith and livelihood. Their rituals, customs and patterns of everyday life are dictated by this strong force of nature that seemed, after the floods, to be entering our lives and concerns only now. I began conversing with the inhabitants of the village and found them negotiating this faith with the idea of a developed India that, as a nation, we aspire towards. Most of the people photographed still practice fishing; many have changed professions, some have left the village and new migrant labour has come in. They work as guards in banks or contracted manual labour, sell trinkets along the beach and view the sea as an offensive smell they have to live with. Some from the younger generation have moved away from fishing, not wanting to be connected to it but are instead working as swimming instructors in private pools in the city. They are unable to stay away from the water even if they want to.

F: It’s so old, but the village looks almost provisional now – temporary, even; yet your pastel tones give a tender sense of the place. It’s both celebratory and surreal; carnivalesque is the word, I think, for some of your images. This palette, what does it mean to you?

A: I made these photographs while the people were engaged with their morning rituals. The start of the day seemed almost celebratory, infused with an enthusiasm for what could come ahead. It allowed for me to show these people with agency and will. The warm tones of the images were important to me for that reason. It expressed a certain intimacy I shared.

 © Anshika Varma

F: What about the memory boxes that go with the project? There are party masks, urchins, dried seahorses, fishing net… How – and why – did you gather it all?

The objects you mention come from a very personal space in my relationship with the people of the village. I have been going to Chennai to meet and photograph them over 18 months. Most of these objects were gifted to me by the children and women of the house during our conversations. The shells of sea urchins and dried seahorses are painted and used for décor in their homes. An older fisherman had given up his practise – he gave me his old fishing hooks and mending tools for his net. Once I had a pain in my back while in a house, the grandmother prayed on a black thread and tied it to my ankle to soothe the pain. These objects are all intricately connected to their lives and became important identifiers for me in understanding who they are. I preserve them in a sandook, a tin box found in most Indian homes for keeping everyday things. I am keen to know if I look at this box 50 years down the line, will these objects still be relevant to the fisherman then.

F: You’ve just curated a show for Ffotogallery in Wales with Bhooma Padmanabhan called Dreamtigers: A Million Mutinies Later as part of the British Council’s UK India Year of Culture 2017. There are 14 artists, from Bharat Sikka to Aishwarya Arumbakkam; it’s such a dynamic mix – I felt it said ‘To every eye, its own India.’ Is that what you set out to say?

A: A Million Mutinies Later is a collaboration with the Nazar Foundation in Delhi and Ffotogallery in Cardiff. It connects with the Diffusion Photo Festival theme for 2017: Revolution. We were keen to explore the theme for ourselves in the context of where India stood today. The idea of a liminal space, still moving furiously towards a transformation resonated with all of us. Questions of identity, gender, politics and socio-cultural change are being expressed by photographers whose unique voices allow for engaging questions about who we are as a collective community. The show looks at India through the prism of their work in varied lens-based media. From films, videos, installations and books, A Million Mutinies also offers a perspective on the changing nature of authorship over the visual language.

© Anshika Varma

F: How – if at all – do you feel your curatorial and your photographic work inform one another?

A: The curatorial process is still very new to me but is greatly helped by my primary engagement with the visual space as a photographer. Having worked in journalism and then moving into personal documentary, I am now interested in a multi disciplinary approach to the visual space. I am able to look at artists’ work from the creators’ point of view and also have a curatorial conversation with them about how one can develop and engage with the subject in alternative ways. As someone who comes from the photographic community, also, I can bring forward work by practitioners that might not be widely accessible yet. This is great, because I feel a strong voice from the region is being developed by both students and emerging artists for the future.

Dreamtigers: A Million Mutinies later is showing from 2nd – 22nd July at Cardiff’s Ffotogallery and is produced for as one of 11 projects supported by British Council Wales for the UK India Year of Culture 2017 in partnership with Delhi Photo Festival and the Nazar Foundation. 

Anshika Varma is a freelance documentary photographer. Her works have been shown at the Chennai Photo Festival (2016), Kochi Biennale 2014, New York Biennale for Contemporary Art 2013, India Art Fair and the Florence Biennial in 2009.

Her works have been published by national and international media such as The Sunday Guardian, National Geographic, Time Out, Tehelka and People Magazine. She has also worked on book projects with the HCL Foundation, Mahindra Rise, Vodafone Foundation, Roli Books, Hachette Publishing (India), Random House(India) and The Tehelka Foundation.