India is, in a word, overwhelming: 1.3 billion people, 29 states, 7 “union territories,” 22 official languages—but not a single national tongue to bind the country together. Despite its lack of linguistic unity, the country is linked by something perhaps more fundamental: a national epic, the Ramayana.
The epic poem—passed on by an oral tradition for thousands of years—recounts the life of Rama, the legendary prince of Kosala Kingdom. The narrative recounts Rama’s childhood, marriage and exile as well as moments of love, loss and warfare. It offers philosophy, instruction on the proper way to live, and meditations on family and the afterlife. Its stories are retold and performed in religious festivals and annual ceremonies all over India. In the West, it can be likened to the Bible for its omnipresent cultural impact, but many believe that the Ramayana’s ubiquitous presence in mainstream media and its influence on the contemporary lives of Indian citizens surpasses even the Bible’s impact on the West. In the past few years, the Ramayana has been presented in such diverse adaptations as television shows, animated movies, video games, and even on social media…
But perhaps most importantly for photographer Vasantha Yogananthan, the story also offers a cross-(sub)continental itinerary: it tracks the prince’s life from his birth in the foothills of the Himalayas to his banishment in the south and his adventures in between. Beginning in 2013, the Franco-Tamil photographer began retracing the legendary prince’s journey and capturing what he saw along the way as a means to better understand Indian society today.
From his first trip to Ayodhya, both the historical site of Rama’s birth and also a modern-day beacon for Hindu pilgrims, Yogananthan came face-to-face with the epic’s continuing relevance. Everywhere he looked, he saw evidence of the tale in his surroundings, manifest in the built environment of the city, but even more so in the hearts and minds of the pilgrims and local inhabitants.
Yogananthan is a laureate of the Prix Levallois 2016; his work is currently on view alongside the other winners at Galerie de l’Escale in Levallois. LensCulture Managing Editor Alexander Strecker sat down with the young photographer to discuss his work and find out more about this epic, multi-year project.
LC: At first glance, these look like classic documentary/landscape photographs. But eventually we discover human figures—even portraits—in your pictures, and we realize something else is happening. Can you say more about the aesthetic development of your project?
VY: During my first three trips, I was driven by a documentary approach—I would shoot landscapes and small moments of everyday life. My aim was to make these scenes connect together and tell a story. But after two trips, I wasn’t happy with the results: the Ramayana is a complex, dramatic, epic story, and I wasn’t able to convey its narrative solely through found moments.
The breakthrough came on my third journey, when I brought a large-format camera with me. Although I’m not overly interested in technical questions, working with such an apparatus really changed everything. First of all, I began to shoot very slowly. It also gave me the time and space to ask people to participate. They would perform for the camera.
The very first staged picture I did was so successful that I knew I was on to something. It was a breakthrough: I discovered how to put both fiction and reality inside one image.
This question gets to the heart of the matter, as the separation between fantasy and truth in India is not as distinct as it is in the West. For example, when you ask Indian people the simple question, “Is the Ramayana a true story?” you never get a straight answer. The narratives are so embedded in the culture and everyone knows the tales so well that it has gone beyond fact or fiction. Mothers tell the stories to their children, the country’s biggest festivals reenact scenes from the book—depictions of it are everywhere. So it was essential for me to produce pictures that balanced on the line between “staged” and “documentary.” At the start, I was producing poetic documents, but now I could capture the real spirit of the story itself.
Now when I travel to the country to produce my work, I look for a balance between intention and accident. On the one hand, I now have a storyboard: a list of things I would like to find or shoot. For example, maybe I need an 18-year old boy who looks a bit like a soldier—so I walk the streets looking for someone like him. It’s a bit like casting a movie, except I don’t want actors, I want real people.
The idea is to carefully play on the illusion and the ambiguity of the photograph. I shoot local people who live in these ancient, historical places. I never ask them to wear props—but since the country’s traditions are so strong, it can be hard for viewers to understand whether the work was taken yesterday or 100 years ago.
Young warriors, Sitamarhi, 2015 (Black and white C-print, hand-painted by Jaykumar Shankar).
Even with these preparations, there are moments when reality intervenes: sometimes the world exceeds my capacity for planning. I am happy to open myself to these moments. If I were solely staging pictures, my sought-after ambiguity would not be as strong. In any case, I exclusively use natural light—no flash, no fabricated studio elements. All of my pictures have the feeling that I captured a fleeting moment, an instant that is right on the edge of “reality” and “fiction.”
I also work with other Indian artists to add further layers of artifice. In the picture above, you see a black-and-white photograph hand-painted by an Indian artist. Or, in the image below, I made a black-and-white picture of a white wall and then gave a print of it to a couple of artists who work in the local Madhubani tradition. As illustrators, they drew in black over the print, which added another layer of meaning to the original documentary photograph.
Installation shot from Yogananthan’s exhibition at Galerie de l’Escale in Levallois, France.
I suppose there’s also a time-traveling element alongside the physical displacements I’m making across the country. But given the Ramayana’s continuing relevance to the inhabitants of the land, it feels right.
LC: One of the most impressive aspects of this project is its grand nature—your ultimate aim is to produce a seven-part photobook series to convey the story. On the book’s dedicated website, you have laid out a timeline for publication dates all the way to July 2019. Can you talk about how this enormous undertaking came into being?
VY: I started my project with the intent to tell the story of the Ramayana through books. After all, the source material is a work of epic literature, so it seemed like the most fitting medium to convey my photographic interpretation.
To find the best way to tell this story, I looked at a lot of photobooks. I wanted to understand how other photographers have communicated complex ideas and narratives through sequences of pictures. I was always intent on producing an object that could evoke something in the reader’s mind. My aim is to leave each person with their own possibilities of imagination when they flip through the pages of my book. I wanted to strike a balance between keeping the viewer engaged while leaving ample room for subjective interpretation.
This openness has its roots in the Ramayana itself. Unlike the Bible, there is no singular, definitive text of the poem. There are hundreds of Ramayanas that correspond to different regions, traditions, languages and more.
One recent adaptation that has become deeply meaningful for me is a project undertaken by a group of female Indian writers. Their aim is to retell the story from a woman’s point of view, specifically Sita—the heroine—rather than from Rama’s. It is fascinating to read a completely opposite view of something so familiar.
A spread from Yogananthan’s book A Myth of Two Souls
On each journey I make to India, I reconstruct my own re-telling of the tale: I too partake in the tradition of reimagining the narrative from new points of view. As I travel and shoot, I am always thinking about several points: what I need for the book, how it’s going to look in the book and which sequences I am building. In creating my own narrative, I am following in the footsteps of the prince and the princess; they have taken me from deep in the country to the mountains and then to the heart of India’s biggest, most modern cities. Ultimately, I hope my books can convey the diversity of modern India: in attending to this dizzying variety, they will tell the story of the land in the same way the Ramayana captured the essence of ancient India.
LC: I imagine that the prospect of finishing six books in the next three years is daunting but also motivating. What have the advantages been to your structured approach, and have there been any significant challenges?
VY: When I started the project, I could not have imagined doing seven books. I was just shooting and thinking and collecting material. Still, early on I saw how the Ramayana is divided into seven chapters and how each chapter is very different: childhood, marriage, politics, exile, jungle, etc. I thought to myself, “What do I do—wait seven years ‘til I am done with all the pictures and then publish one big book?” The result would be 500 pages long, and no one would want to open it, let alone read it. Although I knew it sounded crazy, I felt that producing seven books, one for each chapter, seemed like the only way forward.
The plan at the moment is for each book [one has been published to date] to have the same external format and the same physical dimensions, so that at the end, they will make a set. Within each volume, though, everything will be different: the design, the typography, the materials used, the way the text and the images relate. I want to keep each chapter fresh and distinctive since the subjects are so different from one another.
We’re approaching it in the same way you’d approach a TV series: you produce one series, capture an audience, and then they’re eager for season two and beyond. This is why we’ve announced on the website that chapter two is coming in June 2017—it’s a way to tell the readers, “Coming Soon.”
From the book project’s dedicated website, which has already announced a release date for all seven books in the series.
That said, yes, in some ways it would have been much easier to wait until the end—to have all the material and edit a single body of work from the pictures I had made. But even in the midst of it, I find that producing the books as I am shooting is a fascinating, open and evolving process, much like what Rama undergoes in the epic. For example, maybe on my next trip, I’ll meet another Indian artist whose work I can include in a future volume.
In my mind, the biggest challenge for me is to do justice to the project: to do it the right way and reach beneath the surface of things. For example, every time I go to a small village, I stay for at least one or two weeks. In that time, there are two or three days where I don’t make any pictures: I mainly meet locals and try to understand how things work. This is a slow process, but ultimately it opens up a deeper, more meaningful world.
Many photographers have produced historic bodies of work by going on a road trip—one or two days in each location, moving quickly and covering large distances. That wouldn’t work here. India is a slow country and I travel through it slowly. But I couldn’t rush anyway—it would be impossible to produce this series all in one go.
LC: What are you hoping people will get out of the book?
VY: People have said that the Ramayana is the soul of India. There is even a saying that if you are a foreigner, you can travel across India all your life—but if you haven’t read the Ramayana, you won’t truly know the country.
Now, I am not trying to say anything about the “truth” of Indian society: how things work, castes, or family relations. Rather, I am raising questions and examining the ways that reality and fiction merge together in the country. I think this is the greatest thing about India and the element that sets it apart from every other place in the world. The faculty of everyday people to dream up stories in their daily life; their ability to see gods and epics in the world around them.
LC: Finally: I was fascinated to learn that the first book in the series was published by Chose Commune—a publishing house you helped start! [Chose Commune will also publish all subsequent books]. Tell us more about this decision. I imagine you thought, “Let me just found a publisher, as if I don’t have enough work to do already…”
VY: I started Chose Commune three years ago with Cécile Poimboeuf-Koizumi, my partner. The initial motivation was that I wanted to self-publish my books and retain complete control over their production—but then we realized we could also publish other photographers’ work!
Astres Noirs (with work from Sarker Protick and Katrin Koenning) and Shōji Ueda
We only focus on projects that we really like, so we don’t make many books a year. Last year, we published a book about Shoji Ueda, which was a big hit—now in its second edition. This year, we published a book with the work of Katrin Koenning and Sarker Protick. That came together because we were following both of their Instagram accounts, and it just felt like the two had some underlying connection. We sent them each an email out of the blue and they were interested. It’s been shortlisted for the Paris Photo-Aperture Foundation PhotoBook Awards which is a pleasant surprise. So yes, we work very organically. We’re guided by passion.
I think what I enjoy so much about publishing is that it feels like the only space where I have complete control. In photography, so much depends on external factors. And it’s true that in publishing, we work with a team of other people—writers, translators, printers and other photographers. But there is a sense of creativity and precision involved, and we’re able to make each publication exactly as we want it. In the small universe of each book, we are able to follow our vision faithfully. That is a rare gift.
—Vasantha Yogananthan, interviewed by Alexander Strecker