'Remains of the Day' | An Interview with Shahid Datawala

Posted on Jul 28, 2017

As told to and written by Kaveri Acharya  

(originally published in the exhibition catalogue) 


Chance occurrences and the right time of day; when the tide went out and the weather turned foul; when prospects looked bleak and the meaning of words took on a wounding bite. It is somewhere between these phases of the moon that the maverick Shahid Datawala, an artist of many lives and many hats, found his “Remains of the Day”.

What took you to the debris on the beach?

I’ve lived in Bombay for over fifteen years and I know its garbage-choked beaches very well. But a series of events took place, as it often does with my work, which led me to what has now become the ‘Half Naked Nude’ series. It took an extraordinary trip to see my friend and fellow partner/photographer in crime, Joy Datta, for this junk to come alive. Joy at that point was living in Vaitarna, outside Bombay. He insisted I come see him, a trip I’d been putting off for a while. He swore I’d find inspiration there. So I decided to make the trip one weekend, taking my camera along with no real intention to create a serious body of work. There was one particular day during that weekend, where a bizarre series of events took place. I experienced a clarity, which I hadn’t in a while. We were walking along the shoreline on a very rainy evening and reached a point where the beach curved into a bay. The thick sand, blackened by oil spills over the years, had trapped random objects that the sea had spat out. The rain and tide had washed away the top layer of sand to reveal these stunning colours and forms. It was a revelation and how! I was looking at this garbage and all I could see were these incredibly sensual forms and textures. It was an orgasmic epiphany. I instinctively knew something was going on here and I needed to capture it.

So how did you go about capturing this epiphany?

I almost didn’t actually! Because Joy and I decided that we would come back the next day and of course, as it always does, the rain was pelting down exceptionally viciously the next day. A bad situation for lens-based activities! But Joy would hear none of it. He said - “Bhai, this is right up your alley, you have to do this.” So we headed out the next day, a couple of soggy samosas in our bags, my camera lens protected as much as it possibly could be in layers of plastic and Joy holding a flimsy umbrella over my head. It was a madcap plan born out of a deep conviction.

Does your work often follow this spontaneous approach?

Absolutely. I follow a very organic, spontaneous approach to things. I don’t have elaborate equipment when I shoot and my method is very instinctive. There is a memory bank, a ‘Data-base’ where things and occurrences have been stored away. And when the right moment appears – it could be the light on a certain day – the right file in the memory banks gets accessed. I don’t entangle myself in trying to frame a series or develop concepts while I’m in the flow of shooting. The concept and series reveal themselves to me during the process.

 I also follow an economical approach to shooting. Maybe it’s my analog roots, but I can’t be trigger-happy. I used to be a hardcore purist – no post-production on my images. But I’ve realised that digital manipulations in ‘Post’ aren’t necessarily blasphemous. We did it when we worked with photographic film, so why the resistance now? I never compromise on the integrity and original identity of the film though.

“Unstill Life” has an entirely different texture – premeditated, measured and I daresay, sanitized. What’s the story behind these whimsical compositions?

I began working on this series a couple of months after “Half Naked Nude”. I was in a state of complete inner turbulence. This project of putting together objects that surrounded me everyday began as a coping mechanism. But I’m an obsessive-compulsive personality so it soon turned into a full-on obsession. I spent hours putting together the compositions with the perfect backdrop. I was forming a new relationship with my environment to rid myself of the old one. The compositions are carefully calibrated, but there is nothing sanitized about them.  They’re loaded with double-meaning and puns…a psychoanalyst would have so much fun with this! There is an element of humour, but it’s quite dark and sarcastic. It comes from a very particular state of mind, a tumultuous state, which is not necessarily the same as sadness or melancholia. Again, it was Joy who saw the potential in these images that I was obsessively capturing to make sense of all the confusion. He egged me on and I kept at it.

The two series are visually so different and stem from such different conceptual and emotional spaces. What made you bring them together in this show?

Both the series were responses to what was happening around me. They are strong on their own, but as we started to put this exhibition together, I realised there was an interesting interplay taking place between the two. They’ve manifested from powerful emotional registers – love, loss, clarity, confusion. Both the series are visceral responses. A lot of the process, particularly with “Half Naked Nude” has been about watching out for that moment that triggers an idea which turns into a full-blown concept. Organic responses are always uncanny and bizarre.

And the unexpected revelations keep coming - quite recently, it struck me that there is also a literal material connect between the two series. “Tellyfish” from the “Unstill Life” series has the fish bone I has picked up while scavenging around the beach at Vaitarna. Tomorrow, we may well find another interesting angle. The digging continues!

You’ve used excerpts from John Berger’s “Ways of Seeing” in the audio piece that accompanies the show. Were you influenced by his work while working on these series?

“Ways of Seeing” wasn’t a conscious part of the framework. The framework, if you want to call it so, was organic and evolving. I happened to be listening to John Berger and he appealed to me because in so many ways, I’m constantly playing with the idea of alternate ways of viewing and making sense of my world. The “Half Naked Nude” is a new perspective on sexuality and sensuality for me. Nakedness and nudity is associated with the simultaneous act of revelation and conceal; a game played by bodies that are alive, tactile and responsive. As I photographed the debris on the beach, something entirely new began to occur – I was entering into a game with these decaying objects. I was responding to their tease.

How did the title of “Remains of the Day” come about?

I initially called the “Half Naked Nude” series “Remains of the Day”. But as the show began coming together and when I decided that it should carry both bodies of work, I realised the later formed an interesting connect between the two. The images are a bit like the post-mortem of objects that are signifiers of lived experiences. With the “Half Naked Nude” series, the objects had a past life and the images carry fragmented stories, most of which I’ve probably concocted in my head. And this fabrication of past lives goes on with every viewing. I like to crack open the possibility of a rebirth, of a renewed meaning in things that are discarded. Alternate possibilities and double meanings fascinate me. Perhaps it’s the baggage of my years as a designer, but I don’t see anything as ‘waste’. Everything carries the possibility of reuse, rebirth, reinterpretation.

How much do collaborations influence your work? Are you usually a lone-wolf photographer?

Collaborations, conscious or subconscious, are constantly happening everywhere. My life and the characters in it influence my work, so how can it not be the product of multiple creative energies? A collaboration is always taking place – be it with a model I’m shooting for a fashion story or me walking around the city, capturing the stories of spaces and objects. Nothing happens in complete isolation.

In some sense, I see this show as a homage to the spirit of collaboration. I began this journey in 2015, with Joy by my side, pushing me to follow through with my vision. Another chapter of this story began in 2016 with “Unstill Life”, with a few another characters in the mix. Joy was a constant, featuring in this chapter as a sounding board and friendly critic. And then he was gone. “Remains of the Day” has become a tribute to his memory because it is what’s remained of our days.

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