INTERVIEW: Sandeep Dhopate

Fòcas Programme Director Katherine Parhar interviews Fòcas commissioned artist Sandeep Dhopate, a photographer based in Mumbai about his project Elysium. 

© Sandeep Dhopate

F: Elysium is about how we search (even battle) for – and find or do not find – spiritual paradise. Your subjects are all male; did you set out, with this project, to address the relationship between gender, sex, and religion?  

S: Elysium is a series I produced to express our fixation with religion to be the foundation of our identity. Everything associated with religion is a myth. Maybe created by people to dictate righteous behaviour in a time when science had yet to unlock the many mysteries of the world. And so, humans resorted to believing in the existence of a divine power that needed to be impressed in order to maintain order in their lives.

We used to have a collective identity like all other creatures and our individuality was built on how we managed to fend for ourselves and our loved ones. Duties were divided based on how we were created, and we adapted to the forces of nature like any other creature.

Religion seems to have made us lose our way, to a point that we can kill to uphold a mythical belief of some sort of a promised heaven after death. The gods shall invite us there if we please them. And to please them we shall not hesitate to destroy all that we’ve got. Our planet which is the real promised land, the real elysian field, is being destroyed bit by bit in hope to selfishly gain something no one has seen or been to.

A desire to build some supreme identity for ourselves has led some of us down a path were, instead of harmony, there seems to be more discord.

Through this series I aim to invite viewers to think about the following idea – Wouldn’t it be nice to just hit a reset button and start again with a new and improved us? Use what we know today to build a new identity that accommodates for how we feel today and accept  a belief in the new realities that we experience  today.

As for the use of male subjects, I used what was available locally. Since this was done in a very remote rural village I collaborated with people who were willing to be part of the project. To me gender did not matter since the project talks about the impact of religion over humanity. Given the minimal styling i had in mind and the body painting involved, I could not convince women in the village to be this bold. As such, I went with only men 🙂

F: You stage your images, with a keen awareness of colour that seems to belong to Indian visual tradition, but departs significantly from it, also; is that intentional?

S: The message I attempt to convey is a universal one. There is not a single place on this planet where people are not divided based on caste, creed, colour or ethnicity. In India, I experience these discriminations in a way that’s unique to India. They are bold and in your face. In the western world these issues form an undercurrent to daily living. The entire world has evolved into learning how to discriminate and religious biases have a big role to play.

© Sandeep Dhopate

I am extremely interested in ancient Indian history. The various arts of India have a common root in the spiritual quest for the “meaning of life and its oneness with the universe”. Over the years with the rise and fall of empires both within the country and of foreign invasions, the notion of this simple quest has transformed into a giant called “religion” eventually giving rise to differences causing communal discord. I draw my inspiration from this history of India to express a universal truth.

In terms of the visuals, the styling is rather Indian, evident from the “Dhoti” which is the traditional Indian outfit for men. The use of colours both in the styling and the lighting are symbolisms frequently used in ancient Indian arts to represent emotions. The lack of depth in some of the frames is another feature thats reminiscent of Indian paintings. People in my images are everyday people from the rural villages as opposed to more progressive city folk. All props, including materials required for the makeup are locally sourced Indian products. So, the authenticity of the execution is what makes this project Indian.

Over all, the aesthetic I use in all my projects, draws inspiration from an appreciation of all kinds of arts of India. From sculptures, to paintings, to architecture, to dance and drama and finally from a context that is always grounded in Indian traditions and rituals, I am constantly learning how to express myself in a format that is native to me. There is a great amount of refreshing and unique artistic expression that India has to offer to the world which is currently being either highly underrated or extremely misrepresented and generally misunderstood. Given the rate at which India is growing economically, I see this trend reversing in the coming years where appreciation for Indian art shall have its own reform.

The idea I had was to create a collective identity of humans as a species, which although being unique individually is also part of a larger cohesive group. The colors are symbolic of the human emotions. The glitter represents greed, the jewellery symbolises a lust for power, a crown to make oneself supreme and better than the rest. What appears surreal is a sarcastic remark on society today which in essence is as real as these surreal looking people. We are not real. The attitude humans have towards each other and this planet is not real. It can’t be real because none of us were born to be this reckless and thoughtless. As a species we fed ourselves these selfish attributes by gorging on fellow humans. Hence the surreal looks. The setting is realistic because the world is what it is and shall remain the same long after we are gone. Its the only stage provided to us and is the real heaven.

© Sandeep Dhopate

F: Your work has been shown at top festivals around the world – including last year’s Addis Fest, I think; what’s next for your work and your practice?

S: I continue to work on creating personal statements on many contemporary issues and challenging perceptions by referencing historical parallels on those topics. I have a new exhibition coming up in November in Delhi and the new series sheds light on the “Maihar Gharana” a house of hindustani classical music that included stalwarts such as Pt. Ravi Shankar and Ustad Ali Akbar Khan.

As for my practice, I am involved with an NGO called Lensational in the capacity of Creative Head, developing strategies to empower rural women through photography.

I am also the founder of a business venture called “Sulkhama” (currently in its nascent stages) through which I intend to market less known traditional Indian handicrafts through an innovative presentation model that develops a wholistic document of the place and the people that make the product. Through this venture I also intend to reduce village migrations by empowering the youth to manage their own businesses.

Sandeep’s works explore the intersections between religion, spirituality and sexuality often questioning our current moral values system established through a mass blind acceptance of a generalised truth.
His unique visual style, Indian in its aesthetics, uses colours and symbolisms to further his stories. His approach towards staged portraiture creates a tension between what is real and what is fiction. By challenging widely held understandings of Indian culture, he employs a narrative style that blurs the lines between reality and fiction often forcing the viewer to think about parallel interpretations of contemporary beliefs.

A recipient of several awards, he has regularly displayed his works at exhibitions and photo festivals both in India and internationally.