A man stands at the edge of a concrete dock. He is balanced on one spindly leg, his aging chest thrust forward in a posture of strength. Over the water behind him, a flock of birds agitates the clear sky. At any moment, he will break this pose and jump into the water for his bath. A young woman turns her head to her right, a look of calm contentment on her round face. It is her wedding day. She is wrapped in an intricately embroidered sari, whose length covers her hair and edges her forehead, marked with a prominent bindi. These are two among the thousands of silver gelatin photographs that Saibal Das has produced over nearly three decades. An artist and photojournalist, he travels throughout his native India on assignment and for his own work, capturing the character of the nation’s people, customs, and culture, as well as its sociopolitical tensions—as expressed in grand events, great upheavals, and the smallest moments of daily life.
Das once said,—in reference to a particular series of his photographs focused on Chitpur, Kolkata, but applicable to the spirit animating all of his work—“I am like a transfixed observer of a narrative uncoiling before me which promises never to end.” Such curiosity, and the drive to quench it through photography, is in the artist’s blood. He started taking pictures at a young age, having inherited his love of the medium from his father. In 1986, he began his photojournalism career at The Telegraph, and has gone on to work for Outlook and India Today, shooting paroxysms in and outside of India, including the Taliban’s invasion of Afghanistan, cultural unrest in northeast India, and political upheavals in the neighboring countries of Nepal, Bangladesh, and Bhutan.
People are at the heart of every one of Das’s photographs, even when they don’t appear in them. In A Washed Threshold, Varanasi (2013), he frames the freshly scrubbed stucco of an entry way’s wall and floor. The space itself implies the presence of the human beings who have passed through it. So does the pair of sandals propped neatly against the wall and molded by the feet of their wearer, a set of footprints that appears as a portrait of the person who made them, caught by the sensitive eye of a photographer skilled at the art of seeing.
Recent works from Das’s “Before the Birth of Time” series—which chronicles religious rituals in India—currently form a traveling exhibition of the same name in India. “Before the Birth of Time” heads to Delhi in January 2015 and is presented by Tasveer and sponsored by Vacheron Constantin and The Singleton of Glen Ord.