INTERVIEW: Prarthna Singh

Fòcas Programme Director Katherine Parhar interviews Fòcas India exhibitor Prarthna Singh, a photographer based in Mumbai about her project ‘The Wrestlers’.

F: Your project The Wrestlers documents India’s community of young female wrestlers. They live outside a range of social ‘norms’ – is that what attracted you to them, as a subject?

P: Absolutely! That and the fact that these girls are breaking barriers every day! They are training and competing internationally in wrestling, a sport that has been dominated by men for centuries. I have to admit being a bit in awe of them when we first met. It was an extraordinary feeling observing them fight each other on the mat.

Most girls join camp in their late teens early-twenties and as fierce and ruthless as they come across on the mat, there are instances where you catch a glimpse of their childlikeness. They embody an incredible combination of strength and vulnerability. Of course the most inspiring part was hearing their individual stories of triumph. A majority of the wrestlers come from states like Punjab and Haryana where the female feticide rate is amongst the highest in the country. A boy is always given preference over a girl. This makes their harder fight lie outside the sport altogether, in inhabiting the social in a way that challenges fixed ideas of gender and fighting family pressure to eventually rise above all social and cultural barriers. They are the perfect role models for generations of girls to follow.

F: A few of your portraits remind me a little of August Sander – that quiet way he had of studying the unique in the ordinary; is that the effect you were looking for?

It’s funny you say that, my early introduction to portraiture was through the work of Sander. I was completely taken by “Citizens of the Twentieth Century” and the empathy he displayed through his lens for his subjects. What I admire most about Sander’s powerful yet subtly composed imagery is the honesty in both thought and approach. Even today when I am looking for inspiration I revisit it and it affirms my belief that a compelling portrait is an invitation to envision. In Sander’s depictions of the everyday there was kindness. With a lot being left unsaid his portraits invoke our curiosity and encourage us to imagine the stories of the people we have just encountered. Whether it was a peasant family, a taxi driver or a German soldier there was no judgment in his depictions. I was hoping to imbibe some of that democratic approach he carried. I was also hoping for my portraits to be a starting point for deeper engagement. I wanted the wrestlers to be able to communicate the boldness of their aspiration and the rigor of their daily labor. Above all- their capacity to live with a body that society may not necessarily affirm.

© Prarthna Singh

F: You studied at Rhode Island School of Design. When did you return to India and how do you feel your practice has developed since then?

P: The wonderful thing about being at an art school is the freedom it gives you. You are constantly working on multiple projects, critiquing and learning from your peers, experimenting and exploring different aspects of your craft. Most importantly you are challenged to discover your boundaries and find innovative ways to cross them. There couldn’t be a more ideal time for you to discover yourself as an artist. For four years you are surrounded by boundless energy and enthusiasm, which you often find hard to replicate once you step out. But what RISD does best is that it cultivates rigor and makes you a thinker within and beyond a particular artistic medium. That is something I try and carry with me even today while approaching both professional and personal projects.

Thinking back to the time when I returned to India in 2008 I was more naive. I didn’t entirely grasp what it took to survive as a photographer, especially in a city like Bombay. My first instinct was- I need to pay my rent! At that point I did a lot of fashion and advertising jobs, a few years later when I paused to look back at my body of work I didn’t feel satisfied. I was now financially stable but I had neglected doing what I felt was my job as an artist. I wasn’t asking any questions and more importantly I wasn’t going and seeking out answers. Now was the time I needed to steer myself towards making work I was genuinely invested in.

I think once you are outside the structure of an institution you have to try and build some structures of your own. All my years of work have been a necessary learning curve but once I had some clarity about the direction I wanted my photography to go in, it came with the ability to move forward in a more focused manner.

I also consciously tried to build a visual language for myself. The more I worked in the industry the more I realized the value of having a voice A voice that so was unique to me that it could be heard above all the noise.

Prarthna’s work is concerned with India’s transitional nature; that of contrast, fragility and abundance. Her images have a recognisable language, revealing the human condition and capturing design through minimal intervention. Observing the banality of everyday, she often photographs subjects in the context of modern India; people appear in their natural environment speaking certain truths and raising questions of a larger narrative. Singh is a graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design with a BFA in photography. Working across digital, film and video, her images have appeared in the Sunday Guardian, Wallpaper City Guide, Vogue India, ELLE, Architectural Digest and CNN. Previously based in New York, she currently resides in Mumbai, India.