2 Bharatiyaars - 2010
Saraswati 1, 2008
Disillusioned 1, 2003
Effervescent 1, 2003
Petals on the Ground, 2010
Wings of Destiny, 2010
Nandini Valli makes staged photographs constructing intricate narratives related to home, family, dreams and desire. Her work, highly coloured and visually striking, frequently takes aspects of traditional Indian society and turns them on their head creating stories with a contemporary perspective, often playful, sometimes questioning.
She started the Definitive Re-incarnate series at the end of 2003, while she was still studying photography and completed it in 2006. This work led onto a further series working with the Krishna character started in 2010, The Visitor.
In 2008 Valli was awarded the Tierney Foundation Fellowship and started to make the Remembering to Forget project, a body of work made with children costumed for their annual school dressing up day; she has returned to shoot this every year. The outfits, created or hired by the parents, seem to endorse the hopes and dreams of families wishing successful lives for their children.
The Hair project, a series of images of the backs of women displaying jasmine flowers decorating their hair, came about when in 2009 the curator Kavita Balakrishnan sent Valli a brief asking her to produce new work for a show in Cochin. Hair, a series of painterly portraits, looks at the way in which Indian women use flowers as a kind of sign language to tell the world about their fertility and their traditional dress to accentuate their femininity.
Nandini Valli interviewed by Anna Fox
Anna Fox: Looking at your biography you got into photography when you were quite young; you were assisting a professional photographer – how did this come about?
Nandini Valli: I wouldn’t say I was young, I was already 23 years old. I spent a lot of time wondering what to do, I was kind of lost and I did not know what I wanted to do firstly. When I was offered the job of assistant, I had finished my MA in French translation, what I wanted was to create a portfolio to apply for a college to study film photography and a family friend put me on to a cinematographer. I soon realized I was not suited to the team effort necessary to work in film, because it’s more of a team effort, so I decided to change my ambition and move to photography. So after this trial session with the cinematographer, another person I knew put me on to a commercial photographer and I worked as an apprentice for him for two years. A few months into the apprenticeship, I realized I had an eye for image composition and colour composition that seemed to just happen without much effort and I decided I liked it and so stuck on. I learnt everything I know about photography from this photographer and his assistants.
AF: What drew your attention to photography, I mean it was not a popular art form in India at the time?
NV: I saw something other people didn’t see. I had a point of view and something to say with my pictures and that’s what drew me to it. I started with a Nikon F3. 2 years after my MA I went to Bournemouth to study photography.
AF: Why did you choose Bournemouth as a place to study photography?
NV: They were polite and responded quickly, in fact they were the only ones who corresponded with me and they sounded genuine and they sounded like they were interested in me.
AF: Had you been to the UK before this?
NV: I had been with my family earlier but this was the first time I had been on my own.The day I landed, my bag with camera equipment ended up being left behind at the National Express airport bus terminal and I spent my first day going to Bournemouth and then back to Heathrow to get my bag back which luckily was not stolen and was with lost and found . The first month at Bournemouth was the hardest. It is not easy to make friends with English people, I am not an extrovert so that made it harder for me to talk to new people. I was at least 4 years older than most of the students in my class. Even at the end of my three years at Bournemouth, I hadn’t really made any close friends. I almost never came back for the second year because I found the system so isolating. Eventually, I got used to the situation, as one had to.
AF: Was it because you were coming out of a totally different education system?
NV: Yes definitely, and also because I was older than the rest of the class. There were a few older people but I found it very hard to make friends.
AF: What was the education like?
NV: I didn’t learn much technically, in fact I feel that I unlearnt all that I had learnt as an assistant which was valuable studio skills. But creativity wise it was completely different: they made you look at photography from a different perspective and at the time in India I could not have learnt that. I started with a Foundation degree and then I switched to the BA program for the final year. In the BA the thought process was completely different again; it was more cerebral and linked to conceptual work, which again I was not used to. So it was a complete eye opener for me but I feel that there was not that much focus on learning technical skills on the course.
AF: Were your peers an influence on you?
NV: Now when I look back, half my classmates are doing other things, only 10 % are doing things to do with photography, everybody else has moved on. At the time I don’t remember anything influential. The tutors were always so busy, they could give you 10 minutes for a one on one session and there was always someone peering in waiting for their turn, everyone just seem so overworked in the UK. The main thing I gained was how to think about ideas and we were constantly encouraged to go and see exhibitions and look at other photographers work and do research. Even get in touch with the photographers you admired – they told us to push as hard as we could to get what we wanted.
AF: So were there any Indian photographers that you really admired?
NV: There was this guy, Bharat Sikka. I really wanted to work with him, I really liked his work at that time, he worked more in fashion, more like portrait fashion. And then I just lost interest in it. I believe he edits a magazine called Motherland now also.
AF: So you came back to India after your studies. How did you carry on in Photography?
NV: It was 2005; when I went back I didn’t know whether to go the commercial route or just to carry on and do my own stuff. So I worked with my father, helping him in his office and then he passed away in 2006. I finished the Definitive Re-incarnate project, just before he passed away. Then someone introduced me to the Director of the Alliance Française in Chennai, she liked my work and offered me the AF gallery space to show my work, in 2007 – I thought what have I got to lose so I did it.
AF: Can we track back a bit and look at that first body of work that you started in Bournemouth – it was called The Family I think?
NV: I started out photographing my mother’s family- her several sisters- and I wanted to create a modern day version of 19th century Indian portraits (but with a twist), portraits of rich people, Maharajas and all, from the 1900’s. Unfortunately it went wrong. It looked like it should have, but it didn’t have a heart. So I decided to photograph instead all the people who worked in my family’s house, and also my immediate family. I shot all the people who worked for my family in the house. In the background photos of my family-my sister, my mother and my father, there would be another family member, such as my sister in the foreground, with myself in the deep background; or my father in the background with my mother in the foreground. But in the photos of the servants they were on their own – there was no family in the background. I wanted to represent how servants sometimes are closer to us than our own blood relations such as uncles or aunts because these people see us everyday as we are. I thought this way, I could convey this through how I photographed my family and these people. I was very pleased with what I had shot but I scored very badly on the project at college because I did not stick to my original brief, they didn’t like that. The influence for the family project was mainly Tina Barney, her series The Europeans. I always construct the picture, even if it is a “reality” based project; I set it up to look the way I want it to look. Most people know my work is constructed in some way or another, even if it is a reality-based project like this family work there is always something I have done to it. Sometimes the real scene works for me and sometimes it doesn’t, I even changed the wall colour for the room in my family pictures; it was a very dull yellow and I convinced my father to have the room painted a Henna green. My Family series came to be of use to me later on in my photography career. I got a private commission to photograph a wealthy person’s family in Chennai, through the Vadhera Gallery in New Delhi. I used my Family series as the ‘inspiration’ for that commission. I got some pretty good shots of this person and his family.
AF: What led you from the relatively straightforward family portraits to the more complex project Definitive Re-incarnate?
NV: It was actually something Joe (my husband) said that set this idea for the Definitive Re-incarnate off in my head. Right from day one Joe has helped me: we used to carry the equipment together and he would help set up and do the shoot. Joe has a production team since he works as a commercial photographer. Right from the start we worked together, the ideas are all mine and then he helps me set it up. Joe shoots on a weekly basis whereas I shoot maybe twice a year, he’s in touch with all the latest equipment, lighting etc., he’s more “with it” on the technical side, he’s faster than me because he is working all the time on commercial jobs.
AF: One of the first things that struck me, when I saw the work was your handling of colour and light in the work. I also understand that you are working with the idea of Indian calendar art?
NV: With the Definitive Re-incarnate I feel like my way of working with colour comes naturally. I see different colours, I just put it together. I don’t think about it, it all just comes together when I am shooting. Obviously I chose the costumes, the fabric and the location and decide on all this and Joe helps with the lighting.
AF: So where does this character in the Definitive Re-incarnate series come from?
NV: I wouldn’t say it (the character) was post-apocalyptic, it’s the present day situation in India and we have Krishna descending upon us and he is regular as in he doesn’t seem out of place – he is everyday. In India gods are never out of place because they are omnipresent: we have them in our cars, in our wallets and purses, we have them everywhere. Krishna is there, in the pictures as a god just using modern things and in a modern location.
AF: So have you brought him to life?
AF: Why did you chose Krishna?
NV: Krishna is a much loved god, easy to bring to life and he’s supposedly a Casanova; he is revered and loved and he’s also playful – so he’s good to work with.
AF: Where does the idea for the lighting come from? It’s very theatrical.
NV: Yes that is the intention. I like drama in my lighting, I don’t like flat lighting too much and if I am telling a story there has to be some theatricality to it. I want it to look almost like a movie.
AF: Are there any painters that have inspired you?
NV: No, I can’t say so. I don’t know too much about fine art apart from liking the works of painters such as Frida Kahlo, Edward Hopper, Richter, Mondrian… But as I am a photographer, I find inspiration from works by other photographers.
In 2005 I interviewed the photographer Catherine Yass, she had made a photograph of Hema Malini, the Indian Actress/Director, dressed as a goddess – this picture really influenced me. Yass made 2 large format frames at the same time then in the production she overlaid one on the other with a slight shift so the final image appears blurry or shaky – it is a strange effect that has a 3D feel to it.
I will show you the first pictures that I started with, this is Krishna sitting on a white bed in a hotel, and this is where it all started. I thought it was a one off shoot in the hotel. When we processed the film the contact sheets blew my mind and Joe was surprised also. Then we found this house, which no longer exists, the house with the faded blue wall and brown floor. This was my lighting on this one.
AF: How do you find the locations?
NV: I asked a friend of my Father to help me and we just found it – he knew someone who knew someone else and that’s how it works. I am generally looking around for locations and asking people all the time what they have seen. The walls drew me to this house, and the statue. With the hotel this was inspired by Gregory Crewdson, in fact his work influenced the whole project – especially the bedroom scenes. The shoot in the hotel took 5 hrs instead of the 2hrs we expected, by the time we were shooting the daylight had all gone. There is also an influence coming from Indian mythological movies, god movies! The colour in the photographs is very influenced by these movies – movies such as Thiruvilaiyaadal, Maya Bazaar, Sri Krishna Vijayam, and many similar. You also see god pictures in Indian homes everywhere and these are colourful and staged like my photographs.
AF: Is Krishna always blue?
NV: Krishna is dark skinned so he is always painted blue or green as Indians don’t generally like to think he is dark.
AF: In The Visitor you went back to the Krishna figure. Why was this?
NV: I had more to say. I wanted to pay tribute to the Crewdson photograph of the woman in the water – this image had played on my mind for a long time, I wanted to shoot it the same way. It took me ages to find the right pool, I tried it in 2006 with a shallow pool and it didn’t work. In 2009 I found the right hotel and pool in Madurai and I got permission to shoot. Crewdson’s work appeals to me because of the cinematic style and the eeriness of the story. I like movies and stories that don’t necessarily have a happy ending and Crewdson is all that and more.
AF: In The Visitor you explore different viewpoints on the same subject – what is it that makes you want these different views of the same thing?
NV: This approach comes from my education in Bournemouth. When we did assignments, such as fashion shoots, they insisted that we did a variety of shots at different distances and from different angles. Each picture in The Visitor is its own story. I found this young man when I was shooting something else, he looked like he would make a really nice Krishna. I took his number down and then waited 6 or 7 months before I finally called him and he did a test shoot for me. In the test I used him and the model from before (Definitive Re-incarnate) and I built a parallel Universe with a Krishna in each one. You think it’s the same Krishna but it is not, they are in the same place at the same time but they are 2 different Krishna’s. This idea comes from a movie called The One, it’s a Jet Li film where he goes on killing all his own alter egos in various Universes, the work stemmed from that movie. In The Visitor I used a lot of digital construction to merge the images.
AF: Do you want to say anything about masculinity in The Visitor?
NV: Its not about masculinity – Krishna has a feminine and a masculine side but this is not vital to the project. But Krishna is a beautiful man and is wonderful to photograph because of this.
AF: Why are most of the photographs in The Visitor at night?
NV: In daylight the images look too stark, Indian light is too harsh – I am using the night to bring out the colour in the subjects rather than have it run away in the daylight.
AF: In 2008 you did Remembering to Forget – was this a commission?
NV: Yes it was a commission for the Tierney Foundation. I gave them several ideas and they liked all of them. So I did the project with children in various backgrounds over 3 different years, the last set from 2011 I have not yet edited. The idea behind the project comes from formal studio portraits from the 1900s – then there were these interesting backdrops in studios. In the 1900s when they shot you it tended to be a vertical shot with less of the backdrop included – the feel was more realistic – more believable. I used this idea to frame the Remembering to Forget series photographing these children. I didn’t want to simply have a plain cloth background, I wanted something of interest in the background to emphasize the child and the costume. Every year I changed the backdrop to represent a different year and to make the work look more interesting. All the backdrops represent idealized romanticized landscapes: an Arcadian garden, a rural farmland and a town landscape. The costumes were chosen by the children and their parents. I turned up at the school to photograph the annual fancy dress competition (this happens every year in many Indian schools on the day of Nehru’s birthday as a celebration). The costumes represent a fantasy idea, coming largely from the parents. God costumes are very popular but also they like to dress the children as politicians, poets and sometimes in the costume of a possible future career. The costumes come from fancy dress hire shops. Sometimes several kids come in the same costume.
AF: Do you think there is any comment on Indian society present in the Remembering to Forget series?
NV: There is a comment in a sense – about nostalgia more than anything else and about how as a child we can imagine that we can be anyone. Fancy Dress competitions seem to be an integral part of primary school life in India. I remember going to a fancy dress competition as a child, not in school but nevertheless I did it as a child! During the time I have shot this project, I’ve seen a child come as a newspaper and another as a drop of water – it’s an incredible range. Sweet and sometimes so so funny to watch this competition! I shoot this project every year but I think I will wrap it up this year.
A lot of my projects overlap and I just continue them for as long as a project interests me.
AF: Moving on to Hair – I saw these in a big contemporary show at KNMA (Kiran Nadar Museum of Art, Gurgaon) in Delhi – how did this work start?
NV: A woman curator, Kavitia BalaKrishnan, was curating for a gallery in Cochin and wanted something based on sexuality. She sent me the brief, which loosely said you can do what you want, but she wanted a reference to sexuality – or femininity, she mentioned skin too, I think and I was interested in working on an idea related to pornography but felt this was too risky. So I thought I would talk about sexuality and the Indian woman and how sexuality may be represented here. Indian women wear flowers in their hair. Not many people will realize the significance of this. It is meant as an ornament to beautify the woman but it also is a symbol of fertility. Why I say this is because in India, a widow will never wear flowers. It just is not done. So what does that mean then- that flowers are a sign of fertility? – At least that is what I feel. It is a very subtle sign no doubt, but a sign nonetheless. In this series I deliberately crossed class boundaries and the women come from very different backgrounds, from the woman who works as a maid in my house to the young woman who is a friend. Very strangely enough I saw some work last year (2012) when I was in Denmark on a fellowship, by this top Danish woman photographer who has shot women and young girls, seated, with only their back and head showing. Very similar to my Hair series. But her focus was on the Danish costume which had a head piece like a scarf in it. Her name is Trine Sondergaard. This series of hers has a very Vermeer look and feel to it.
AF: The prints for Hair seem very deliberately made – almost life size and beautiful colour – how important is this to you?
NV: Very important. I do all the printing myself, I have someone assisting me with colour correction and the rest I do myself. I won’t let anyone else do my prints. This work is shot on medium format digital camera, all my work is digital now – I hated making the change to digital – the medium format digital is too heavy and one can’t move around the same way one does, with an analogue camera. If I have to hand hold the camera then someone has to be with me holding me so I don’t shake the camera.
AF: Why don’t you try 35mm digital?
NV: I need the quality of the medium format as for large scale prints it is definitely best.
AF: You have done a lot of work since leaving college.
NV: I should be shooting more. I spend far too much time thinking of ideas and then shooting them down! Like any art form you need to practice constantly or else you lose touch. And trust me, if you don’t keep putting work out you get forgotten very quickly. I have been thinking about a new project work for a while, its based on something that women in the south practice. I won’t say anything more!
AF: Did you grow up surrounded by photography?
NV: No not photos but Indian art. My parents liked to buy Indian art. Not a very common Indian practice while I was growing up in the late 70’s and 80’s. Recently she took down all the old photos in my house as they were beautiful old photos of my father’s ancestors and she really didn’t want to be looking at them anymore!
AF: Where were her ancestors from?
NV: They are from Karachi.
AF: Does photography make you happy?
NV: Yes! I love shooting. I get an adrenalin rush when I click and I get such a huge kick when I have a new idea for a project but sometimes that idea loses steam within 24 hours. I sometimes shoot on my own and I do like it but the work is very different from when I shoot with a team. But any day I prefer shooting on my own. Most often that is not possible if I want to make the work look professional and mature.
AF: This has been a wonderful journey through your work – thanks.
Nandini Valli was born in Mumbai, India in 1976 and grew up in Chennai. She studied English Literature at BA level and then French Translation at MA in India before travelling to the UK to study photography at Bournemouth College of Art from 2003 to 2005. Nandini has exhibited her work widely and was shortlisted for the Grange Prize, Canada in 2011. Her work featured in the international touring show, Where Three Dreams Cross, and she is currently developing new work around local Indian themes.