Khayali Pulao Becomes Real Good Biryani!

Prashant Panjiar Photo: Rohan Panjiar - Livewire Images

Featured in the July 2015 issue of Better Photography

That time of the year is back. The time when I am deeply and fully involved with the Delhi Photo Festival which will take place this year from 30 October–8 November, 2015 at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, New Delhi. Asked by Better Photography to contribute to the Visual Musings column, this is a good time as any to ask myself the million dollar question— Why the f… do I do this?!

It doesn’t pay, in fact it takes me away from my rozi-roti, which comes from my photography assignments, and this year, it is also keeping me away from spending time with my wife at my new home in Goa. I must be nuts.

I should have known better when back in 2009 at a stag gettogether of photographers (should have smelled trouble right then) at Neeraj Priyadarshi’s home in Delhi. Here, he, Sohrab Hura, Vidura Jang Bahadur, Ajay Hirani, Sudhanshu Malhotra and Tashi Tobgyal complained about the lack of democratic, non-commercial public spaces to show work, and how the more established names in Indian photography had done little to promote it, how Bangladesh had such a great photo festival and how we, in India, had zilch. National pride stung, tail up, chest swelled up (not 56-inches though) and with a sense of purpose, I narrated all this to fellow photographer Dinesh Khanna, with whom I had recently collaborated for an exhibition and had started an informal monthly beer-and-gupshup gathering of photographers. Being the typical Punjabi that he is, his immediate response was, “Kyon nahi, kaarte hain na”. And that is how we two got suckered into this venture, the Delhi Photo Festival (DPF). And, that is why I am sitting here in Delhi, in the heat, with sweat soaking the bottom of my pants, writing this column!

In 2009, when we started cooking our khayali pulao of a noncommercial photo festival in public spaces—nothing short of the India Gate lawns would do. This was the time that Delhi was preparing for the Commonwealth Games (and there was a lot of common wealth going around) and there were quite a few takers for the idea of a mega photography show to coincide with the Games. Luckily better sense prevailed, once we discovered that the civic and government authorities’ idea of a photo festival to coincide with the games was purely decorative. Sensibly, we decided to sit that one out.

Nevertheless, having already embarked on this suicidal path, it was necessary first to have an organisation, a non-profit trust. At an appointed time in the summer of 2010, not unlike the enthu-cutlet photographer pair from Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron, Dinesh and I rolled up before a magistrate, signed a deed, swore an oath, were photographed with some very suspicious looking characters, and the Nazar Foundation was born. One fine day, I bumped into Alka Pande, Art Advisor of the India Habitat Centre (IHC). I told her about our plans, the desire to start a photo festival and she proposed the idea of IHC as the venue and partner and some negotiations later we had an MOU signed for the first edition, Delhi Photo Festival 2011! Since there was no DIY handbook for photo festivals, Dinesh and I decided to visit Chobi Mela (held every two years in Dhaka) in early 2011.

The fog that engulfed the overnight celebratory boat ride of Chobi Mela should have been enough of a warning that organising a festival is no smooth sailing. But what we did learn at Chobi Mela was that the real engine, the life force of a photo festival is its community. So it was back to Delhi on Kingfisher Airlines (another omen ignored) and the launch of Nazar-ka-Adda, a monthly interaction of photographers. An instant success, the Adda gave us the community and the confidence we needed, as well as the core team of the DPF. And the rest is (or is it was?) history!

After two very successful editions at IHC in 2011 and 2013, this year the Delhi Photo Festival moves to the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts (IGNCA). Curious about what happened with IHC? Well, we aren’t telling, except to say that someone said, “Naheeeeeen…… ye shaadi nahi ho sakti!” Nevermind we say, “Chalo Jaane Bhi Do Yaaron.”

So after this long kissa, back to the original question—Why the f… am I doing this? Well, honestly, I believe that the pleasure is really in the act! It is the same feeling I had in my days as a photojournalist. I loved chasing the story, the thrill, the danger, the excitement and the great sense of achievement when one saw one’s pictures in print. The hardship, the long hours, the frayed nerves that is all part of the territory and is to be enjoyed as much as the appreciation and accolades that one got. So it is with the Delhi Photo Festival, for me.

And then, there is this great sense of discovery. Almost all of the DPF team, almost all of who are photographers volunteering their time, were unknown to me. We all came together for a purpose and in the process have become friends, and, I hope, the start of a community. It is the same with the photographers whose works we show at the festival and the large number of brilliant photo practitioners who come to DPF in order to share their experiences and knowledge.

The third edition of the Festival, DPF2015, will have a substantial number of 45 print exhibitions and an equal number of works to be shown as projections in the Evening Screening program. There will be a vibrant program of talks, lectures, seminars, workshops and even a Photo Mela! But equally important, we are taking the first real steps to creating a new leadership for the Festival, so that it is actually sustainable and keeps renewing itself. As an institution, or venture, becomes efficient, successful and older, it also tends to become hierarchical, stodgy and prone to forms of corruption. In the years to come, for the new leadership the hardest work and the most painful task will be to maintain a balance between openness and efficiency. That will be my revenge for having suckered Dinesh and I into creating the Delhi Photo Festival! Serves you buggers right!

And to all you readers of Better Photography, come to the Delhi Photo Festival 2015 at IGNCA from 30 October–8 November , 2015. The biryani is real, not some khayali pulao!

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