Like cricket, religion and faith in India is a national obsession; it's ubiquitous, makes the country tick and refuses to go away. Religious faith dictates a lot of private and public behaviour in India, and along with poverty, has been an immensely photographed subject. From hip, young, urban Indians to unpretentious ruralfolk, almost everyone believes.
To tackle the weighty topic of ‘faith’ across the length and breadth of a country filled with myriad intersecting, opposing religions in increasingly communal times is a dicey venture indeed. To present a much-captured subject in any original light is an exacting aesthetic challenge to be sure. This is especially true because religious passions often run high, and to be in such potentially volatile spaces is to risk personal safety. Yet this is what photojournalist and documentary photographer Fawzan Hussain does in his ambitious show, simply and succinctly titled 'Faith.’
Brought on by a crisis when he turned forty and asked to 'go on a pilgrimage, perform Haj, pray', Husain decided to explore this ever-present, fantastically visible facet of Indian public and private life, and yet one so hidden, personal and mysterious. Thus began his journey over the next two years, documenting ‘mankind’s association with faith,’ capturing moments in both public and private space that revealed how people wore their faith, what it meant to them personally, what they were willing to do for it and in a larger social context, how religious faith often kept alive community ties.
Shot in 'religious' spaces that are loud and public, as well as those intensely private and sacred, Husain's images depict a range of moods, ways of being, and expressions of faith spanning geographic region and religion, and ranging from the contemplative to the frenzied. The most striking thing about them is that they are not the clichéd, familiar images of religious faith we recognise, but are instead what can be best described as ‘indirect’ compositions of display of faith. The images examine the various forms this faith takes: through pictures captured from the sidelines, at the margins of the main activity where the eye rarely dwells; looking not at the idols but at people engaging with them, ‘at people’s association with faith’ as Husain puts it.
And by catching the sidelines and the shadows, Husain captures that very difficult thing: atmosphere, the above and the beyond of a scene. To see his image of a large looming priest in red performing arati to the goddess with his back to us and the flames of several lamps is to feel their smoke, the heat, the smell, the claustrophobia of the space around the idol, to hear the loud clanging bells and absorb the fervour of the moment. A man celebrating holi rolling on a floor awash with lush wet shades of red and orange is visual overload. Or Husain’s image of a violent, frenzied tussle of men trying to pull away a man cowering over and clinging to a stone lingam is to feel the fear, the agitated faces and the unbearable suffocation of that cramped place. In contrast, the ‘calm’ image of three Jain women initiates, saadhvis, reading from their scripture in an all-white composition suggests the response of non-violence. Yet the image’s peaceful air is belied by the faraway look of the young child-initiate— poignantly evoking another kind of response to faith: the life of an ascetic, which in this case cannot appear to have been a vocation of her choosing.
Ranging from quotidian to strange, Husain’s images carry a remarkable air of candour and timelessness. Actors dressed as gods, people paying their respects to a passing procession, posters of goddesses and filmstars on the same wall and others reveal the enduring presence of faith in popular culture, forming a collection that’s eclectic, touching, gentle, fierce. What appears to be effortlessly shot at first, can only be anything but—the moment when his subjects finally forget his presence and unconsciously offer themselves to being photographed is the moment Husain catches them, revealing a private glimpse of themselves. This consistent ability to take ‘candid’ pictures stems from Husain’s background and long experience as a photojournalist and documentary photographer. His training allows him the patience and special ability to wait, and melt into the background in anticipation of the right moment— a rigorous practice that lends these images their immediacy and an instant power to connect.
While the show captures a very wide range of faith’s expressions, some of the extreme acts that faith drives people to, such as the self-inflicted pain seen at goddess festivals in the south or the Muharram processions, the phenomena of Godmen and their cults, or even the political, divisive uses that organised faith and religion have been put to are are subjects missing here and might have been additional interesting areas to explore, but perhaps hopefully, they can be another show.’
Subtle, inspired and mature in tone and content, Husain’s work exemplifies his own wish ‘to be known as the guy who never let anybody know when he shot the frame.’ Going by these images, he sure will.
-- Shruti Parthasarathy
(Images, from top to bottom: A woman changes after purifying in the holy pond of Trimbakeshwar, Maharashtra; Women dance to the songs of Lord Krishna at an Ashram in Brindavan, Uttar Pradesh; An old devotee in a frenzied state before a Shivling at the Ellora Temple in Maharashtra; A young girl turns Sadhvi in Poona. All images courtesy of Tasveer, Gallery Art Motif, and the artist.)