After a year’s hiatus, photographer Shibu Arakkal returns with 21 photographs that capture the natural beauty and the simple lifestyle of Bhutan

Bhutan, Druk Yul or Land of the Dragon, may no doubt be a landlocked country but within, the vista is heartbreakingly panoramic. Time seems to have stood still in this country where people are still not much exposed to western influences. Tourists come back from Bhutan trying to comprehend the enormous beauty of the land and the simple lifestyle of its people. Some write down notes and some capture the scenes on camers – as Shibu Arakkal did.

Passing By is Shibu’s latest exhibition of photographs after a year’s hiatus from the scene which saw his visit Bhutan in order to re-energise and discover himself. “Last year had been hectic with lots of shows and the fact that my daughter was born. So, this trip was about reenergizing myself,” Noted Shibu. A retreat that saw him traversing almost the entire length of Bhutan, from east to west, served the dual purpose of becoming a travel project to record images as he was passing by.

“It has been a long time since I did something like this. The last travel project I did was of Hampi in 2002. There are about 21 images that are in three different sizes, 12″ X 12″, 15″ X 15″ and two panoramic images of 5′ each. The images are about the landscapes, architecture and culture of Bhutan. People do not feature much as I am not too much into capturing them,” explaining Shibu.

As a travelogue, Passing By has been divided into two parts. “I have shot one half of the show on digital camera and the other half on film. The digital part, about 10 images, was shot in just one day as I was descending from Bumthang. The photographs shot on film are of places where I stopped for a while to take in the beauty up close. These were wayside altars, waterfall and so on. These photographs have been developed to give the Eastman Colour effect of the seventies,” said Shibu.

Since he is keen student of various faiths, Shibu found Buddhism very interesting. “I have recorded the different kinds of prayer flags that were there on the roadside, from colourful flags strung across roads to vertical stumps. It was amazing to see how they have built Dzongs or monasteries on inaccessible hills,” he said. Shibu and his assistant visited about 20 Dzongs along the way with their local guide Kinley Dorji who taught them the Bhutanese way of prayers. “Dorji taught us how to bow correctly in the sancta sanctorum of the fortress-like Dzongs. We soon became accomplished in it. The inner-most shrines are totally unexpected and divine with so much detailing that I wish I could have taken some photographs – photography inside the Dzongs is strictly prohibited.The sancta sanctorum are usually designed to replicate the Buddhist idea of heaven and some of the Thangka paintings there would have taken ages to complete,” said Shibu. But if one can’t go see a Dzong, catch Passing By to see if this traveller got it right in his attempt to capture the beauty of a land where the people keep the faith and good cheer.

(Passing By was on display at Sublime The Collection, UB City, From Sept 20 to Oct 2.)

Jayanthi Madhukar

Get a glimpse of the raw and earthy Bhutan, right here in Bangalore. It’s not the monasteries, young lamas walking on steep mountains, or an aerial shot of Thimpu, Bhutan’s capital city, that you will see. Yes, there’s much spirituality in these places, too. But photographer Shibu Arakkal chose to, instead, capture the spirituality trapped in the “other” Bhutan. The olive foliage and their sepia barks, the constant aquamarine sky and a lush tranquil land.

Bangalore-based Arakkal shot these images while passing by the country in May. “That’s how the title of the show emerged, too. ‘Passing By’ has several meanings. It is literal because my assistant and I hired a four-wheel drive and covered almost the entire length of the country by road. I stuck the camera out of the window and kept clicking. Some of these images, therefore, have the feel of you zipping past Bhutan’s countryside. The other reason is more philosophical. After my daughter was born, I felt the need to pause, to think of the life that is passing me by,” says Arakkal.

For Arakkal, it was as much a journey of personal rediscovery as it was an exploration of technique used in clicking the photographs. Being a photographer who loves a good challenge, Arakkal swapped his digital camera for the now-almost-obsolete traditional film camera halfway through the journey. “A friend got this camera from Dubai. It’s got a mind of its own. It allows you to do stuff like pinhole photography, etc, but you can’t control much of how the photos turn out,” he says.

He is, however, proud of the results. “Pictures taken with a film camera have a soul. Digital photos somehow lack that,” Arakkal says. He has also taken the liberty of terming some of his images as ‘photoimpressionist’. “It’s this vague new term people have been playing around with. But they have not been able to nail it with the actual description. To put quite simply, it has to do with the blurs in the photos that look like brush strokes,” he says.

Technically, Arakkal says he had the most fun in “going back to the basics of photography”. “Pouring your heart out into the pictures at the level of simplicity is the challenge. And doing that using a film camera is a bigger challenge. These days, you have other problems. You don’t find a film very easily. While having a process done, you have to wait up to a month. But I enjoyed it all. It gave me the kick of rediscovering the knowledge all over again'” he says.

While in Bhutan, he experienced how the natives are rooted by their faith in god and the king in the typical manner of the old-world charm. “This kind of journey helps one rediscover things in a very short span of time. For me, it might also have been because I was taking on a travel project after 7-8 years,” says Arakkal. Bhutan has reinforced everything that he ever believed in, he says.

(Passing By was on display at Sublime The Collection, UB City, From Sept 20 to Oct 2.)

Photo-artist Shibu Arakkal uses physical images of skin to tell a graphic, socio-political story, finds Nicole Dastur

How often have you actually observed the skin on your feet? Or any other part of your body? Looked at it, re-structured it in your mind? Not too often, right? In fact, not even once in your life?

Photo-artist Shibu Arakkal’s ongoing exhibition ‘Skin’ seems simple on the outset, but a closer look at the images and a deeper understanding of them reveals much more. The black and white images of various body parts – the focus, of course, being skin – are not complex to look at, but are indeed multifarious to understand. “Skin covers all of us, it is something we all have. Yet, it is the very same thing that divides us. On one level, the colour of our skin is so superficial, yet, on another, it is something that is embedded so deep in our society. We can love it or hate it, but we can’t ignore it,” says Shibu.

No, Shibu has not gone around India or the world shooting people with different colours and texturs. On the contrary, he has got his message across sitting right at home, for his subjects are none other than his wife and his grandmother – the two extremes as far as ‘skin’ is concerned, says Shibu. “I don’t know if I have a message for the viewer, but I have lots of questions,” he corrects, “But then, I am an abstractionist at heart. My images may not look abstract, but they are abstract in thought and interpretation. “So is that his style in this show too? “The works are minimalist with strong spiritual overtones; graphic, simple, yet hard-hitting.”

The landscape of the body as seen through Shibu’s black and white lens opens up the mind’s eye, and makes you take a second look. A deeper gaze at something you thought you knew so well. And that’s the kind of reaction Shibu wanted from the audience. “When I opened the exhibition in Bangalore, I found people standing in front of the photographs and staring at their own skin. Our notions of beauty are restricted to our socio-political upbringing. We consider just the face, hands, breasts, buttocks and legs to be sensuous. But what about the rest of the body? If looked at in a different light, even the feet can be objects of beauty! Every part of the human body has a character of its own,” states Shibu, whose images bring to life the essence of skin, its pores, wrinkles, imperfections and the sensation of touch. Shibu has often been described as one who has the heart of a painter and the mind of a photographer. “Because art in any form, is still art. A painting or a photograph has to connect with the receiver at some level, for it to be called art; the meaning is irrelevant,” feels Shibu, content with the fact that photography is now gaining acceptance as an art form. “Photography is a more approachable art form for the common man, as compared to painting and sculpting. There is a certain connection the viewer shares with photographs that is lacking in paintings; the common man has used a camera but hasn’t always held a paintbrush. We often criticize photographs, but how often do we voice our opinions on art? Photography should not be looked upon as elitist, that would defeat its purpose. It is, after all, the most realistic, relatable art form,” concludes Shibu.

Nicole Dastur

Shibu Arakkal doesn’t just think in black and white, but in forms and shapes, says art critic Reema Moudgil in Arakkal’s website. He is also known to have a “the heart of a painter and the mind of a photographer’ as his mentor Rafique Sayyed says of him .Arakkal’s black and white photo graphs on display at Gallery Beyond are proof to these comments. Arakkal goes beyond the obvious influences of his mentor in terms of lighting, composition, form and texture. He is fascinated by how the human body parts behave in front of his Canon 2.8 series lenses. His subjects don’t even know which part of their anatomy is being focused upon.

“I chose to shoot my wife Sabah and my granny Katherine for this entire series. I decided to focus on people I knew well so that I could related to them better and know exactly what I was looking for,” said Arakkal introducing his exhibition.

Close-ups of less-featured body parts like the hand, forehead, torso, neck and the spine interest Arakkal more than buttocks, breasts or legs. He focuses on skin patches that are taken for granted like those on the back of the forehand, on the forehead and the skin of an aged neck. For this exhibition which is on till September 28, he has been shooting skin for nearly eight months.

He’s fond of multiplying his images and watching its graphic interplay using Photoshop. “I’m totally for photographs being manipulated by software,” he emphasizes. Two images are blended to create a new ‘whole’ image that is quasi realistic; even poetic. “The idea came to me when I thought of it as our ‘packaging’, so to speak. We get judged by it, it is as personal to me as it is political,” says Arakkal in conclusion.

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