Retouch Me Not


Retouch Me Not

Photographer Prabuddha Dasgupta’s body of work tells a black and white story about his life

Thoughtless intimacy or pushy networking never charmed photographer Prabuddha Dasgupta. When a sudden, brutal heart attack took him away this Sunday in Alibaug — while he was in his early fifties — his friends, peers, admirers and students were at a loss for words, also because only a few knew him intimately. How old was he? Was this his first heart attack? Many questions shrouded his death. Now, as obituaries begin to deconstruct the monochromatic reality of Prabuddha’s premature death, it is his body of work that may tell us about his life. His photographs speak for themselves, in colour also but mostly in black and white.

His provocative 1996 book Women would come later, but in the early ’90s, it was Prabuddha who shot India’s first “sexy” campaign for Kamasutra condoms with models Pooja Bedi and Marc Robinson, interpreting sexuality as freedom. Also for the controversial Tuff shoes commercial, for which he dressed models Madhu Sapre and Milind Soman in a flaming attraction for each other and a python around their bare waists. Before these two assignments, it was an ad he shot for Blue Lagoon Jeans that he remembered as his first real fashion shoot. In an interview, Prabuddha said he had borrowed a Volkswagen from a friend in Bengaluru, tousled the hair of the model himself and did her make-up.

He may be remembered as the man who famously photographed nudes, but that’s only a perception. His Women were mostly covered, the undressed one was an odd photograph. His pursuit was sensuality, even androgyny, not nudity. A sense of adventure, excitement and a rare storytelling skill made Prabuddha distinct as a self-taught photographer. His book Ladakh was born from a similar questioning without an attempt to find absolute answers. He remained on the Edge of Faith, never curled up in its womb.

What he did consistently though was to document the interplay of his subject with its context. A female body part with its surrounding or with the rest of the body. The interplay between a costume and a model. An overthrown chair’s communication with a tiled floor in an old Goan home. Many books tumbled out of his impassioned relationship with life, many national and international exhibitions, memorable campaigns all over the world and so on.

He lived life on his own terms, looking through his lens at the world riddled by cultural clashes, capitalism and commerce — his disappointments never Photoshopped. Model Lakshmi Menon became his muse and partner, and also his frequent subject and experimental classroom. He had little use for the pretty photograph or the retouched image. “Photoshop is a redundant debate. I think we have been culturally compromised by corporations and brands dictating the idea of beauty. A plasticised, silicone-enhanced impossibly perfect Barbie doll has been successfully planted on billboards and covers,” he had told The Indian Express. He found perfection boring, saying “human beings are not supposed to be perfect”. Despite a strong sense of individualism, he always worked within the context of the photographic legacy — both national and international. He would quote, never copy.

Recently though, it seems his relationship with his own self had become deep enough for him to allow the camera to zoom into himself — he became a model too, some of his photographs appeared in Vogue India.

But even as he sought freedom for his ideas and style while collaborating with fashion stylists, campaign directors and models, what remains unanswered is how free he really was. In my few conversations with him, I did get a sneaking sense of his artistic frustration. A karmic Longing waiting for release.