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We’ve all heard that “a picture speaks a thousand words,” but Rohit Chawla believes that a good picture hides a story. Unfiltered, untouched, unhesitant, he is the photographer behind 168 India Today cover photos, the haunting image of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei lying face down on the beach as a tribute to the Syrian child refugee Aylan Kurdi, and an impressive body of work that includes portraits of Narendra Modi, Sachin Tendulkar, and over 200 authors from the Jaipur Literature Festival.
As plain-spoken in his words as he is in his images, Rohit Chawla has, over his dynamic career, made a name for himself as one of India’s leading contemporary photographers, constantly pushing himself and challenging the boundaries of his creativity.
(Chinese artist Ai-Weiwei's controversial tribute to 3 year old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi, photographed by Rohit Chawla, Image Source: India Today)
A Means to An End
While many artists would tell you that they had a creative calling or an inspired moment that drove them to their profession, Rohit says he had none. “I come from a middle-class family, and our generation did not have the choices that exist today, where a vocation was a form of creative expression,” he says. “For me, photography started as a means to an end; it was a way of making money. I sold my first photograph when I was 16, for just Rs. 10.”
Straight after college, Rohit landed in advertising, where he was asked if he wanted to be in client servicing or on the creative side. Always driven by practicality, he chose the creative department and photography, only because it paid more.
(Politician P. Chidambaram photographed by Rohit Chawla; Image Source: tehelka.com)
The India Today Days
After spending 20 years in advertising, and rising to the top as the Creative Director and National Film Chief of JW Thompson, Rohit called it quits as he was ‘bored with advertising’. He ventured forth to set up his own design and film production company, and also became the Creative Head of India Today. “I always had a media fetish and had grown up under the influence of photojournalism from the 80s and 90s,” says Rohit. “I used to wait for the India Today every fortnight. After I started working with them, I was thrilled when I first got my copy two days before release! Moreover, politics is my drug, and I got to meet all the politicians I wanted to, by taking their portraits for the magazine.”
(Author Vikram Seth on an iconic cover of India Today, photographed by Rohit Chawla; Image Source: India Today)
Recreating Paintings as Photographs
Of the different photographic experiments Rohit Chawla has done over the years, one that stands out for its uniqueness, is his idea of recreating artworks by seminal artists such as Raja Ravi Varma, Gustav Klimt and Frida Kahlo, as photographs.
The idea first took birth in 2009, when Rohit Chawla was commissioned to create an art calendar. He observed that fashion photography of the day abhorred Indian aesthetics, and had become about reaction clothes and creating shock value. “I chose to recreate Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings as an act of inverted snobbery,” says Rohit. “Ravi Varma is the John Sargent of India. He documented Indian aesthetics so beautifully, and I wanted to celebrate his paintings while contradicting the style of the day.”
Collaborating with acclaimed designer Tarun Tahiliani, Rohit shot famous women from contemporary India who would normally don Christian Dior outfits, in elegant sarees that captured Indian splendor. A high point for Rohit Chawla, was to see images from this collection splashed across six pages of the completely western Vogue magazine!
(Rohit Chawla's 'Tribute to Raja Ravi Varma', featured in Vogue India, April 2009)
Two years later, Rohit recreated Austrian artist Gustav Klimt’s paintings for the next calendar. “Klimt wasn’t my first choice, but when I saw his Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer, I knew I wanted to recreate it. But it was a task to capture the rich tapestry and layers of his paintings in a 3D format,” he admits.
Committed to the art, Rohit and craftsman Manoranjan Mukherjee painstakingly recreated every aspect of Klimt’s paintings. Dresses constructed with plaster of Paris, hundreds of flowers, and other handcrafted motifs, were intricately positioned to create depth and perspective in photos that took 10 days each to shoot!
(Left: 'The Kiss' by Gustav Klimt, oil and gold leaf on canvas; Right: 'The Kiss' photographed by Rohit Chawla featuring Ayesha Thapar Arora and Anoop Magu)
With Frida Kahlo, Rohit says it was the artist’s story, which he believes is more powerful than her paintings, and her iconic headband, that attracted him to do a series with her artworks, and photos of her. Rohit’s uni-browed ‘Free-das’, donning stunning clothes by Sabyasachi Mukerjee, bring to each image, a certain character and strength that elevate the original works of art.
(Left: A Photograph of Frida Kahlo by Nickolas Muray, 1939; Right: 'A Photograph of Frida Kahlo' photographed by Rohit Chawla featuring actress Neha Dhupia)
The one commonality between the different series, besides the fact that they are Rohit’s reimaginations of iconic works of art, is that they feature strong contemporary female personalities from different walks of life as models - Anjolie Ela Menon to Anoushka Shankar, Sonal Mansingh to Feroze Gujral, Neha Dhupia to Lisa Haydon, and many others.
The ‘Fine Art’ of Photography
If one looks at Rohit Chawla’s entire body of work, what stands out is the stark difference between his original works and the recreated paintings. “My style is about subtracting things from the image, it’s minimalistic. I undertook Klimt as a challenge to see if I could achieve the excess in his images,” says Rohit.
(Photograph of Amitabh Bachchan taken by Rohit Chawla as part of his 'Out of The Box' series; Image Source: rohitchawlaphotography.com)
The photographer, who counts Irving Penn, Raghu Rai, and Charles Correa as his inspirations, has strong opinions about what he believes photography should be. “Today, imagery is easy. Anyone can take a photo, and everyone is!” points out Rohit. “Contemporary art can’t be about taking a rickshawallah’s photo with a filter, or a shot of the lamp post, just to document banality. That is lazy photography; it leaves me cold.” Instead, Rohit believes that professional photographers need to focus on fine art photography, and the art of creating staged images.
(Photograph by Rohit Chawla, taken as part of his 'World of Wearable Art' series; Image Source: rohitchawlaphotography.com)
Beyond the Edges of the Frame
With his strong opinions and brutal honesty, Rohit Chawla has achieved much during his illustrious photography career. Having taken a break from India Today, he is now working on his first feature film and as Creative Director at Open Magazine, while continuing independent photography. And as with everything he has done till now, we can be assured that his future experiments will also be spectacular, and true to his signature style.
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