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Vol. XXVIII No. 21, February 16-28, 2019

Eyes of Madras 2.0

– Vijaysree Venkatraman

Some of the exhibits.

There was not a cloud in the January sky when I stepped into the C.P. Art Centre, the venue of the photo exhibition Eyes of Madras 2.0. But thanks to a few vivid streetscapes in display, it soon felt like monsoon. There was a photograph of a tar road glistening with rain. Would the passing autorickshaw, featured in the same frame, soak me with water? I waited in delicious anticipation. The very air seemed to grow cooler.

Have you heard that tired old joke on the three seasons of Madras? Hot, Hotter and Hottest, goes the punchline. A series of images served as a wonderful rebuttal to that cliché. An autorickshaw emerging like a barge from a flooded street. A scooter making a gleeful splash and boys dancing in the resultant spray. A dutiful mailman walking through the knee-deep water to deliver letters. Familiar scenes that recalled gentle rains, devastating cyclones and, ultimately, how the people of the city bounce back from their travails.

Chennai Photo Walkers will have you convinced that there is never a dull moment in the city, rain or shine. Since 2007, this band of amateur photographers has documented scenes, featuring people and buildings, ranging from the quotidian to the classic. There is no dearth of subjects in this metropolis with a population close to ten million. In the eyes of the camera, as in the eyes of the law, all of us are equal. Whether it is the sparkling Aruna Sairam sitting on a colourful striped dhurrie at the Music Academy or the vegetable vendor who has set up her stall under a plastic umbrella, both impress with their dignified miens.

Since ours is a city by the sea, the camera-toting group has captured some of the best images right by the shore. A few seashore shots which grabbed attention: The pair of white bulls reluctantly bathing at the Marina, a hand from a giant clay statue bidding the city one final goodbye, a group of girls from a dance class leaping high on the sandy beach.

Then there was this image of men turning work into play while unloading the catch of the day. “This was at Kasimedu, where unloading big fish was done as a ‘catch-the-ball act,’ says the photographer Naveen Kumar, a chartered accountant, one of the four organisers behind the show. He realised that a call for photos under the usual themes of Architecture, Landscape, and Natural Heritage of Chennai would only lead to submissions of repeat images of the LIC, catamarans, banyan trees of Adyar and so on. “I wanted every theme to have a story, or some drama and hope we achieved what was intended,” he says modestly.

The eight broad themes, which made for witty and memorable pictures, were: Chennai Does Not Only Have Summer, What does Chennai Celebrate, Passion at Work, Madrasa Suthi Pakka Porom, Storytelling through Mobile, Chennai in Black and White, Palavannagalil Paravaigal Poochigal and Chennai Rich in Arts. Much thought went into the captioning as well. “If the captions were inappropriate or if they lacked punch or drama, we went in and made changes,” says Kumar.

Veteran BBC correspondent, Andrew Whitehead, who is in the city to teach at the Asian School of Journalism, says the images were of exceptional quality. Some of them made him laugh out loud. His favourite from the two hundred plus images was that of a beaming small store holder checking out images of himself and his storefront, taken only a few minutes ago. “People are always keen to see how their photos turn out,” he says. This is, perhaps, a universal phenomenon.

An estimated two thousand people dropped in to see the three-day show, which, the organisers say, was an event to encourage passionate amateur photographers. Will it inspire its members to explore this “wildly photogenic city” as Londoner Whitehead calls Chennai? At present, the Chennai Photowalk Group has over 16,700 members on its rolls in Facebook. They go out as a group, in and around Chennai, on the first and third Sundays of each month. “All Are Welcome,” meaning, of course, the membership is free of charge.

What will a newly-inspired bunch of weekend photographers focus their lens on? We’ll know when the next edition of this exhibition comes out. The first edition was held in August 2017 during Madras Week. Hopefully, the next edition won’t be another two years in the making. I can’t wait for Eyes of Madras 3.0.

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