By The Portret Project

The aim of The Portret Project is to explore important questions of how the self is represented and defined, as well as the means through which this commemoration takes place. TPP’s curatorial team conceptualised an idea – to explore a layman’s perception of a portrait, as well as analyse and observe different portrait sitters.

In this, the second curatorial project, TPP looks at the historical area around old Delhi’s Chandni Chowk and Chawri Bazaar, which has been a hub of human activity since Mughal times. Using a vintage box camera that employs the traditional dark room method, and antique frames, we intended to capture the visages, which are as much a part of the place’s charm as its spaces, sounds and smells. Frames have always been considered an adjunct to a work of art. Frequently discarded when a painting changes hands or is damaged, they convey a great deal about the object they contained.

We found a comfortable spot near Sitaram Bazaar to set shop and click portraits. Our sitters were to be the people who lived their lives there. Once they agreed to be a part of our project, we photographed them in antique frames. The frames were our window into their world.

62-year-old Ram Naresh had been a manager in a school nearby, now retired. He is a man who doesn’t like to sit idle. He now sings bhajans at the Lakshminarayan mandir nearby. He is used to attention, as many have come to record his songs. Ram Naresh has had his pictures taken, but never with a 100-year-old camera.

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We wanted Shanti to be our first woman portrait sitter. But, being 82 years old and in charge of a paan shop, she didn’t want to move. Moving about, she said, caused her legs to ache. “I’m from Benaras,” said Shanti, who waits for her grandson to come in the evening to take her back home. She has been in Delhi for more than 70 years and has been with the shop the entire time.

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Anuradha was our woman of grit. She has lost her husband and has a daughter to take care of. She lived in a 6ft by 4ft room, just across from where we had set up our camera. “I cook in houses nearby to earn a living. It helped me raise my daughter and marry her off too,” says Anuradha with pride in hervoice. Now, she lives alone and looks forward to her daughter’s visits.

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40-year-old Ramesh and 7-year-old Bhanu were the first father-son duo that shyly agreed to be photographed, enquiring earnestly whether they would get the photographs. “It is our first photograph. We’d like to have it,” said Ramesh mildly. Living near Ajmeri Gate, the father and son were out on Sunday to buy vegetables for the day. Ramesh, who is a welder, is particular his son goes to school so that he has a chance at a better future.

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For Usharani, it was a weekly Sunday trip to Sitaram Bazaar. She has lived in old Delhi all her life. “Mei Sadar Bazaar ki beti hoon,” said Usharani, adding that she had been married off to a guy in Ajmeri Gate. This 58-year-old has five children – three girls and two boys. Revealing her creative streak, she said she loves to make envelopes. Depending on the design, she sells them for INR 30, INR 50 or INR 100. “It’s not a business, but I do it because I like it,” said Usharani.

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Dandiest of them all, was 56-year-old Anil Kumar. Freshly shaved and with a sharp frenchie, he was more than willing to be a part of our project. He wanted a black and white portrait of himself because he has never had one. This wholesale clothes tradesman lives in Jethwada Gali and has lived there all his life.

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Of those who agreed to be portrait sitters, 15-year-old Rahul has the kindest eyes. This Agra-born boy came to Delhi as a 10-year-old. He lives in Hauz Kazi and can’t afford to go to school. Rahul works with a halwai in the bylanes of Chandni Chowk to survive .

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Gaurdas, 50, and his 20-year-old nephew, Rakesh, have never had a photograph taken together. This black and white photograph was going to be framed, they said. Selfies don’t exist in their world. They work as daily-wage labourers and it was Gaurdas who helped his nephew find work to sustain their families.

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Our first family portrait was with Nalin and Ekta Mehta, along with their daughter Vratha. This businessman was going out to spend some time with his family on a Sunday. Perched on their Bajaj Chetak, they were on their way to the market up ahead when they agreed to sit for us.

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Kanika is your usual teenager. But being in Chandni Chowk, it has become her identity. This student of Ramjas College was on her way to finish some chores when we came across her striding confidently across the lane. It was her nonchalance that urged us to ask her to sit for a portrait. Selfies are her thing, but the concept of an original black and white photograph intrigued her to pose for us.

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All the negatives that were developed during this excursion will be on display at the second exhibition of the The Portret Project at Bakheda, Saidulajab, New Delhi, from October 30 to November 3. Titled, ‘Dialogues with the Self’, the show explores the form of the psychological image of the sometimes non-objective reality of the sitter and his or her personality. Find out more, here.