At First Sight:
A photographic chronicle of love in India today
Text by Sukruti Staneley
First published in The Caravan, India, August 2014
In February last year, the Belgian photographer Max Pinckers and his girlfriend arrived in a Delhi engulfed in fog. They were not on a romantic vacation, or headed to see the Taj Mahal. In a few hours, they were in Paharganj, Delhi’s backpacker ghetto, hauling bundles of photographic equipment—cameras, tripods, wires and lights. They headed to a small house in the neighbourhood’s maze of backstreets—the headquarters of the Love Commandos, a voluntary organisation that helps lovers escape familial oppression. Inside, the pair sat down to rest in a blue-walled room, on a cot covered with a faded sheet. A while later, an anxious young couple came in, flanked by a few volunteers, or “commandos.”
The two young lovers Pinky and Sachin, had just gotten married against the will of their families. Like thousands of other couples fearing retribution for having transgressed prevalent notions of honour, they turned to the Love Commandos for help. The newlyweds were soaked in sweat, and “shaking from the stress that they would have been caught,” Pinckers told me over a recent Skype conversation.
With Pinky and Sachin still in disbelief, trying to make sense of events they could only dream about earlier, Pinckers took in the theatrics of the whole operation. He wanted to use the work of the Love Commandos as a starting point from which to explore the notions and realities of love in India. Over the following year, he documented the everyday drama at the Love Commandos’ shelter, and travelled across the country to capture images of love and longing in a land where these emotions are often laden with risk. In Will They Sing Like Raindrops or Leave Me Thirsty, a self-published book of photographs that came out in June, Pinckers plays with a diverse set of elements—letters, newspaper clippings, both candid and staged images of people, objects and locations— to create a visual language that evokes the complexities of love in India.
Since the group was revamped in 2010 by Sanjoy Sachdev and Harsh Malhotra (it was earlier called the Valentine Peace Commandos), Love Commandos has drawn a lot of attention in both the local and international media. In 2012, it was featured on the superstar Aamir Khan’s television talk show Satyamev Jayate. Before a nationwide audience, Sachdev posed a question that went to the heart of the initiative: “When 18-year-olds can vote, why can’t they decide who they want to marry?”
Pinckers isn’t the first foreigner to be struck by the visual appeal of the Love Commandos’ work. Lovebirds— Rebel Lovers in India, a 2011 documentary by the Italian filmmaker Gianpaolo Bigoli, combines interviews of couples at Love Commandos shelters with clips of Delhi’s cramped lanes. Work on the organisation by the photographers Pietro Chelli and Gethin Chamberlain’s takes takes a similarly linear approach. Both have taken portraits, of runaway couples and of commandos, to capture love amid anxiety and fear.
Will They Sing Like Raindrops looks at its grim subject with a more imaginative and cinematic eye. Pinckers presents 140 photographs, running across 232 pages, in what at first seems a whimsical sequence. The book opens with abstract images—a tower of ice blocks, young men idling away an afternoon—before moving on to filmstrip-like sequences of couples inside the Love Commandos shelter. Some pages reproduce letters the commandos have received from panicked lovers all over the country. Deeper into the book, the photographs are interspersed with newspaper clippings coldly describing incidents of honour killing. Pinckers also includes images of computer-generated backdrops of a kind that are ubiquitous in Indian wedding photography, which contrast with the natural backgrounds in shots of wedding functions, and of honeymooners in the snow-covered hills of Manali. There are also staged photographs, where Pinckers has couples recreate moments from their romantic journeys, or arranges objects and images in configurations that signify love and desire.
Pinckers is interested in the impact of popular cinema, and has an eye for moments of life that imitate film, and vice versa. In one shot, he references several tropes that Indian films employ to suggest sexual climax. A mirror rests on a table placed against a wall. An off-white telephone set stands at the table’s edge, next to a folded newspaper that shows a seductive photo of a woman. The photo is reflected in the mirror, and the viewer’s gaze drifts back and forth between the printed and reflected image of the woman. Between the telephone and the newspaper is an overturned glass of milk. The milk streams over the table and drips over the edge. The elaborate arrangement hints, perhaps, at the awkwardness with which sex is presented in Indian popular culture.
Every image in the book is a comment on love, marriage or sex. By choosing not to caption any of the photographs, Pinckers ensures these thematic connections are not immediately obvious, but rather emerge gradually in viewers’ minds as they take in the photographs and reproduced texts. This may seem antithetical to common expectations of documentary photography—for instance, the book does not reveal the names or specific stories of the couples photographed—but allows the viewer’s imagination to wander off and create broad impressions and meanings on its own. Taken together, the photographs and texts comment on the shortage of investigation into popular Indian ideas about romance and sensuality. The greatest value of Pinckers’s work lies, perhaps, in the way he shows these natural human impulses to be both liberating and oppressive in shifting contexts.
Pinckers told me he took the title of Will They Sing Like Raindrops from the English subtitles in a 2011 documentary on Hindi cinema, titled Bollywood: The Greatest Love Story Ever Told. The words are a translation of “Rimjhim si gunganayegi ya pyaas adhuri reh jaayegi,” from a sher leading up to the song ‘Guzaarish’ from the 2008 film Ghajini, which is featured in the documentary. For him, Pinckers said, the words symbolise classic Bollywood scenes of lovers singing and dancing in the rain, which continue to titillate audiences today.
By using this and other cinematic references, Pinckers explained, he wants to contrast the celebration of love on Indian cinema screens with its demonisation in real life. The United Nations Population Fund estimates that of the five thousand women killed all over the world in honour-based crimes every year, almost a fifth occur in India. The Indian government has no official count of honour killings as the country’s constitution does not categorise them as a specific type of murder.
Public awareness of the scale of such crimes isn’t very high either. Newspaper reports on honour killings are often less than fifty words long, and rarely appear on front pages. While working on this project, Pinckers documented every news report he saw that had anything to do with love and its repercussions. The cuttings that feature in the book point to a gruesome reality—“Bro Beheads Sister,” one headline reads; “For honour, man kills pregnant daughter,” says another. The Love Commandos run seven shelters in and around Delhi, and a total of over two hundred across the country. The group claims to receive an average of three hundred calls per day, and to have helped 26,000 couples to date.
Pinckers’s photos from the Love Commandos shelter are almost voyeuristic, as he enters what is clearly a private space. The couples hold and touch each other with a freedom that is rarely seen in India’s public spaces. Though stark and sometimes crowded, the rooms in the shelter allow the couples a sense of intimacy that even many married couples struggle to find inside their homes. These images are bunched together using Japanese binding and laid out like filmstrips, one moment leading to the next, and are lit by the glare of white tube-lights bouncing off the bright blue shelter walls.
Scattered throughout the book, in deep blue print on dull green paper, are letters pleading for help, reproduced from the Love Commandos’ blog. These reveal the urgent desperation of troubled lovers who often pin all their hopes and dreams on the Love Commandos.
February 22nd, 2013 11:14 am
hello me and my lover in a relationship with last 10 years. now i completed my master degree and i m looking for a job. my lover is now engaged by force. i thought that my parents are not ready to accept us that’s y i never promise her for marriage, from last one month i try to convince my parents and now they r ready but they put one condition that once my elder brother get married than they agree to accept my love marriage but now condition is that she is engaged. i try to make her parents understand but they are not ready. my lover is in my support, we decided not run away from house and we married by getting permission. her parents are not ready with us. they arranged her marriage month of may. i m confuse what to do. we are not able to live without each other. please suggest some way.
Over the four months Pinckers and his girlfriend spent on the project, they found many runaway couples at the Love Commandos shelter as curious about them as they were about the runaway couples. As ?Westerners, they were frequently questioned about their relationship, and about how love and courtship worked in their home country, Belgium.
Max Pinckers was born in Belgium in 1988 and raised in various parts of Asia, occasionally visiting India. He returned to Belgium in 2008 to study fine arts and photography at the School of Arts in Ghent. He soon began working with a classmate and friend, Quinten De Bruyn, on a project about transsexuals in Thailand, titled Lotus. In the course of this work, Pinckers started developing his particular style. Over the following years, he gradually moved away from the structural framework of documentary photography. In a major departure from his earlier approach, he began lighting his photographs in ways that created a faint sense of artificiality.
Pinckers developed that style further in his subsequent work. In October 2012, he published The Fourth Wall, his first solo book project. In it, he presents the dour streets of Mumbai as if they were film sets. Pinckers lights up dark alleys and gaping potholes, and asks passers-by to re-enact their favourite scenes from Bollywood films of the 1970s. Three months later, the Europalia International Arts Festival commissioned him to create a body of work on India, for an exhibition on the country’s cultural heritage held in Brussels between October 2013 and January of this year. This was an open commission, giving Pinckers the freedom to choose a subject and approach it in any way he liked. Will They Sing Like Raindrops grew out of the work Pinckers did for the exhibition.
In the book, Pinckers works with a medium-format camera, and designs the lighting of each shot to achieve a cinematic feel. “The beautifully lit photographs,” the Belgian curator and art director Hans Theys writes in an afterword, “contain an extra, unneeded reflecting flash, as a foot note, a signature but also as a spatial photographic intervention.”
This lighting sometimes makes Pinckers’s subjects look slightly mannequin-like, especially when he captures them looking straight into the camera. The resulting effect reminds viewers of how marriage is often a deliberate show, an act of public display. This theme reoccurs in Pinckers’s photographs of faceless, life-size cut-outs of idealised couples of the kind common in photo studios across the country. In one, the groom stands on the left, dressed in a crisp grey suit, with a gold bracelet around his right wrist and an engagement ring adorning one finger. The wife stands beside him, in a shockingly pink ghagra, with sequin work so heavy that the viewer can almost feel it on the page. She wears heavy necklaces, and gold bangles on her arms that seem to have stopped clanking for just a moment, to allow for the click of the camera. Perhaps to heighten their artificial showiness, these photographs appear on glossy sheets conspicuously different from the matte paper used in the rest of the book. All of this highlights the fact that in countless Indian homes today, married couples cherish images of their own faces joined virtually to the bodies of strangers.
Also on glossy paper, and to similarly ostentatious effect, Pinckers presents computer-generated backdrops from a Mumbai photo studio. He seems fascinated by the idea that couples can simply step inside a studio and, in seconds, arrive at some fantasy location. Cherry-blossom trees tower overhead in one such image, with pruned grass, greener than green, in the foreground. Cobblestones emerge from nowhere, and drop off abruptly into a lake beyond which lies a garden that leads into a dense forest, with the tops of the trees fading into a blue sky. These idealised backdrops, also common in wedding photography, also seem to symbolise hopes of a lifetime of happiness.
Of course, some couples can afford to go in search of actual idyllic backdrops instead of digital substitutes. Pinckers also includes images of honeymooning couples in Manali in Himachal Pradesh. He captures one couple perched upon majestic white mules, and others revelling in the silliness of their alpine costumes. In one spread, a wide-angle shot of a long line of tourist vans and cars snaking along a mountain road is juxtaposed with a portrait of a woman in sunglasses with red sindoor streaking her forehead. Pinckers’s subjects seem gleeful in these images as they celebrate their marriages.
Pinckers also documents visual declarations of love wherever he finds them: names, initials and hearts etched into bamboo stumps, into the wooden benches at the back of a classroom, painted on the wall of train stations, sometimes even scraped into skin.
In the middle of the book, against a black background, Pinckers presents a small, pear-shaped, cut-glass bottle placed on a stand draped in a black cloth. Pinckers had asked a perfume shop in a Delhi market to create the fragrance of true love, and was given the vial in the photograph. This is one of Pinckers’s shots of products commonly marketed as symbols of love. He also includes images, taken against black backdrops,of such things as a withered rose, a marble statuette of a man holding a bouquet of flowers, and a photo frame holding an image of a couple. Pinckers seems to question both the economic and emotional worth of these objects. Perhaps the only one of them capable of provoking deep emotion is the photo frame, though only by protecting and presenting an image symbolising love.
Photo frames are especially valuable for couples in the Love Commandos shelter, who keep images of their lovers for fear of separation or loss. Pinckers’s book captures many of these—propped against a wall, lying flat on a bed, held up in two hands or glued to furniture. There is even one he found discarded on the banks of the Ganga in Varanasi, showing an old black-and-white image of a married couple, whose ashes were presumably scattered into the sacred waters. Often in such shots, when Pinckers takes photographs of photographs, it’s hard to tell whose gaze and whose memory the image in the book is actually presenting.
“Most of the photographs that surround us,” the curator David Campany wrote in his book Photography and Cinema in 2008, “operate between fact and fiction, between history and memory, between the objective and the subjective.” Pinckers’s work, with its carefully constructed interplay of reality and artifice, channels this hazy nature of photography, and uses it to its advantage.
There are moments in the book where the lines between the staged and the spontaneous begin to blur. In one photograph, he has actors recreate a moment from the love story of Aarti and Sanjay, one of the couples he met and photographed in the Love Commandos shelter in Delhi. The actors stand on corrugated-sheet roofs above a quiet spot on a Mumbai beach. The woman throws a paper airplane to the man, who is standing some distance away. The back of her embroidered peach kurta rises a little in the direction of the wind. We see the plane going down shortly just after taking flight, still far from the man. This, perhaps, is an uncanny and sobering metaphor for the harsh realities facing lovers in India, and especially for the tragic story of Aarti and Sanjay: they both died from tuberculosis about a year after Pinckers photographed them. Theatrical documentary or documented theatre, Campany might ask.