Rohit Chawla’s new exhibition showcases 70 design-led photographs

Twenty months after the pandemic forced him to pause his mid-career retrospective, photographer Rohit Chawla pulls out all the stops with an exhibition that merges art, design and portraiture

“I can’t get carried away by the banality of documenting the everyday. The digital paradigm is increasingly about the staged image that a professional photographer creates from scratch, much like an artist of yore,” he says over a call from Delhi. “Instead of taking the picture I see, I go and make the image I want.”

His frank-speak translates into highly-conceptual frames: from telling portraits of famous personalities to fine art and fashion photographs. There’s an evocative one where a solitary tree dwarfs actor Nafisa Ali — to depict loss — in his 1994 tribute series to the vanguard designer Rohit Khosla, or that of a rectangular box which frames thought leaders in his Out of the Box series.

Now, 70 such design-led photographs, curated from his 40-year journey, feature in a new exhibition. Titled The Design Eye, it’s being held at furniture brand Spin’s 8,000-sq-ft experience store in New Delhi. The space, says Chawla, complements his design aesthetic and helps reach out to newer audiences beyond the usual gallery crowds.

Chawla’s tryst with photography dates back to his teenage years when he bought a Canon AE-1 camera from photographer Raghu Rai’s brother. His first photograph, shot at Delhi’s Jantar Mantar in 1981, is also part of the show. “I’ve always loved the symmetry of form. A certain graphic minimalism and an interplay with space defines my style; that hasn’t changed till date,” says Chawla, who spent two decades in advertising, including a long stint at J Walter Thompson, before veering towards editorial photography.

This show also marks the launch of Design Edit, a platform curated by him in collaboration with Spin. “Social media has democratised design, and India is going through a design revolution of sorts. The idea is to put the spotlight on all areas of design through events, exhibitions and talks,” says Chawla, who plans to travel with it to Goa and Puducherry next. He’s also keen to revisit The Quiet Portrait, his mid-career retrospective that was put on hold due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Here, he picks out six photographs that cut through art, design and portraiture.

Naseeruddin Shah

The actor’s portrait was part of a series Chawla shot for Tehelka in 2013. “Photoshop wasn’t used at all. Instead, we created a box set with fibre-glass crows attached to the ceiling by strings. The set had a stark tunnel-like feel and to bring out the contrast, I would pull the strings of the birds to create a sense of movement and drama. Perhaps, I was inspired by Hitchcock’s The Birds,” he chuckles. “The most important aspect of being a photographer is that there are no happy coincidences. Each aspect is planned and I learnt this discipline through advertising.”

Atul Dodiya

“He’s one of my favourite artists and design is a strong element in everything he does,” says Chawla, who photographed Dodiya as part of his ongoing series on Indian masters in their sacred space — the studio. “I went to his studio with a clear idea of creating a diptych, but in a way that it looked like a seamless, single image.” A feat he achieved by using props available in the studio.

Amy Tan

Having photographed 300 of the world’s greatest authors, Chawla considers Tan as “the most impeccably dressed”. The portrait, an ode to her style, was made in 2018 at Jaipur Literature Festival. “She embraces the Japanese designer [Issey] Miyake in full glory, and his signature pleated fabric added that graphic texture and geometry that I seek in my images.”

Ai Weiwei

In 2016, Chawla travelled to the Greek island of Lesbos with a single-minded focus — to recreate with the Chinese artist the haunting image of three-year-old Syrian refugee Aylan Kurdi, whose dead body was found washed up on a beach. “My editor Aroon Purie wasn’t sure he’d agree but I was very convincing. The sun was low and I only got a minute to take the shot.” The photograph soon went viral. “It focussed the world’s attention back to a flagging [reportage of the] refugee crisis in mainstream media. So, it served the purpose. Political art can only make sense when it’s not restricted to the incestuous vanity projects at most art biennales.”

Robert De Niro

Chawla, who shuffles between Delhi and Goa, met the American actor-producer in the sunshine state. “We went for a drive in a Mini Cooper and it was the stuff of my dreams. His laughter, his mole, the way he closes his hands… They are such important parts of his personality and I wanted to highlight them,” says the photographer, who planned this design grid with four images to do justice to his portrait. “It’s the only portrait that’s up on a wall in my house.”

Vikram Seth

Chawla conceptualised this image in 2013, as the reticent author’s (and his own) angry response to the then-Supreme Court judgement upholding Section 377, a law criminalising homosexuality. “I arrived at his home at 7 am and he’d just woken up. His hair was dishevelled. He was going to fix it to become presentable, but I managed to convince him to shoot as is. So, we shot a few images with the directional window light highlighting the imperfections further harshly. After I shared the image with him, he called to say that he wasn’t comfortable with it and his mother felt that he looked a bit like a ruffian. He came over to my house in the evening and we did a fresh shoot. When he saw the new manicured images, he realised the first image worked better. At a time when the country hadn’t quite come out of the closet, it was incredibly brave of him to agree to do this shoot for the cover of India Today.”

The Design Eye is on from November 20 to December 5 at Spin Experience Store, Chattarpur, New Delhi. Design Edit dialogues will be held at 2 pm on November 28 at Spin.

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