A tale of twisted and battered earlobes – A candid conversation with photographer Pavan KJ

Pavan K J Profile Pic 2

Pavan KJ

Image Credits – Pavan KJ

‘Kusti’ is a traditional style of wrestling in India, which takes place in clay or a dirt pit, which is mixed with ghee and other things and is cultivated before each practice. ‘Kusti’ is an ancient culture where wrestlers live and train together and follow stern rules, with principal focus on leading a clean life, and whetting their wrestling skills.

Pavan KJ, a freelance photographer showcased this fading art in his photo series ‘Kusti’, which is shot in Mysore. In 2013, ‘Kusti’, was first published in an online photography magazine, Tasveer Journal. His work was recently exhibited at the Kala Ghoda Art Festival in Mumbai.

Pavan shot over three years at ‘Mithaai Gaar Garadi’, a pre-independence age ‘akhada’ (wrestling ground) in Mysore, and his work captures the true spirit and strength of the sport and the wrestlers; he says, “This akhada is over 100 years old. Earlier, there were around 120, akhadas here. Now the number has come down to 15-16. This is mostly because the money from the local municipal corporation doesn’t reach the trainers, all thanks to corruption.”

The editorial team of APEX sat with him and posed a few questions –

  • How did you get your start into photography and tell us about your journey as a photographer?

My introduction to Photography happened when I was 7-8 years. My father Mr. K.R.S. Jagannath an amateur photographer had two SLR cameras, Reiko and Zenith and he was more than happy to lend it to me to explore and experiment. So I had my hands on camera at a very young age. The whole idea of freezing an image fascinated me. Post pre-university my mother wanted me to pursue engineering. By then my brother was already a graduate in painting. So my mother didn’t want both of her children to be artists. So I had to struggle hard to convince her to allow me to read photography. So I joined Chamarajendra Academy of Visual Arts (CAVA), affiliated to Mysore University. It’s a 5 years graduation course in fine art. Though I had decided to pursue photography, at the end of my 2nd year foundation I got really interested in painting. It became tough for me to choose between photography and painting for specialization and after much thought I decided to pick a camera and paint with it. CAVA is the only institute in India, which offers Bachelor of Fine Art degree in photography. My approach towards image making is more like a painter than a photographer. This happened mostly because of the endless discussions I would have with Mr. Ullas, HOD of Painting dept. at CAVA and also interactions with my brother K J Sachidanand, who is a painter.

We would discuss a lot about art, music, theatre, history, etc. After my graduation I worked as an assistant photographer for one and half years at Ideogram, a fashion and advertising enterprise in Bangalore. I started freelancing from 2007. I focused mainly on art projects though I had to do commercial photography for my bread and butter.

In 2008 I received the best ‘still life’ award by Better Photography for my work. The same year a few of my works from the series ‘Traces’ (which I am still working on) were exhibited at Harmony art show in Mumbai. My first solo exhibition titled ‘Junkyard’ happened at gallery Sumukha, Bangalore in 2009.

In between these I have taken workshops and given lectures on Photography at colleges and photography associations in Mysore.

From 2010 onwards I started to work on ‘Kusti’

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  • These seemingly normal people with battered earlobes, which are a silent reminder of their passion. What are these people like off the pitch/pit?

They are very much normal people off the pitch. What I have observed is that the wrestlers mostly come from the lower middle class or poor families. It is their passion and love towards Kusti that pushes them to practice. Wrestler Athar is a taxi driver, Santosh is a butcher, Keshav is a auto-rickshaw driver, Ahmed is a traditional bone setter. They need to drink minimum 3 litres of milk daily, consume meat, fruits, dry fruits, eggs etc to keep their body strong. It’s expensive to maintain this diet nowadays. Though their economic conditions aren’t great, their passion and love towards kusti remains whole.

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  • Your work ‘Kusti’ showcases the perseverance and fortitude of these wrestlers in the ‘akhadas’ and you worked closely with them for three years, anything in particular that you’d like to share with our readers?

One of the main reasons that enthralled me about these wrestlers is their humility, childlike character, love and respect for each other. When they tussle, they do it really hard. It looks like they are enemies fighting against each other. But moments after the fight they embrace each other like siblings. Unlike what we see in society when people say they like each other but there is hatred inside. This really fascinated me as to what pushes them to be aggressive when they like each other so much.

Another interesting fact is this particular akhada, ‘Mithaai Gaar Garadi’, which is at Mandi mohalla in Mysore. It is a very sensitive area with respect to Hindu-Muslim riots. There was a major riot that had happened in the nineties in this area. But there is no sign of discrimination in this akhada. Both hindus and muslims come together and fight to love one another!

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  • ‘Kusti’ isn’t only just a game in India, the sport is rich in tradition and people from India have made history both internationally and in India. Do you think that this sport gets the recognition it deserves?

If we look at our history there are a very few sports which has been part of our culture and tradition. And ‘Kusti’ is one among them. One of the reasons for the akhadas to vanish is because of the lack of recognition it gets. It’s extremely sad to see the state of infrastructure for Kusti in India despite wrestlers making their mark internationally. It’s heartbreaking to see that wrestlers put in their hard earned money to run the akhadas. It’s high time that government bodies show some concern and interest towards Kusti and keep it alive for the future generations to experience it.

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  • Any other stories that you’re working on?

As an artist and musician, at some point I wanted to converge both mediums in one project.

I am hoping to do that with my next project. I haven’t yet titled it. I will be working with the classical musicians both ‘carnatic and ‘hindustani who have inspired me. The idea is we generally see the musicians on stage as larger than life, rock-stars. But most of them are simple, down to earth humans. So I will be spending time with them in their own space and capture the transition from being a simple person to being a rock-star on stage. A lot of groundwork has to happen before the project takes off. For me the real art lies in the experiences, which happens before shooting. Richer the experiences, better the art. This happened to me in ‘Kusti’ also. I love the process, which slowly evolves into images.

‘Traces’ is another project that I am working on from the past 6 years. This project started with a simple idea of capturing doors. The idea grew with each question and thought- “Why doors, why not something else…Who resides behind these doors…What is the story of these walls?” and so on. While the subject matter allowed wide possibilities, I was particularly drawn to those spaces that caught and heightened my curiosity – spaces that were abandoned by its inhabitants, for instance. What traces did they leave behind?

The photographs seek to capture these stories of human existence while consciously excluding people from the frames. Hence the images are of doors, walls and windows that hold a history in them. The idea is to keep the elements in the image to a strong minimum, yet play with texture and colors to paint a story of the space.

  • There has been a talk of scrapping wrestling from the Olympic games. Your views relating to this?

I was shocked when I heard this news. Since Olympic games has its own history and tradition. They should make sure the traditional sports remain part of it in order to keep its richness intact.

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  • Besides being a photographer, we hear that you have also been a Vocalist and a percussionist in a band… Tell us a little about that?

Music was there by default at home. My parents were serious connoisseurs of ‘carnatic’ classical music. I would wake up to music on radio. Later in my high school I started learning Tabla and passed my juniors from ‘Prayag Sangeet Samiti’, Allahabad. I would learn ‘carnatic’ vocals occasionally along with my mother during her classes.

My band Swarathma, an Indian folk fusion band was formed while I was studying photography at CAVA in 2002. I am one of the founding members of ‘Swarathma’. I play percussions and sing in the band. We have come a long way as a band. We have released two albums (Swarathma and Topiwalleh) and also a compilation album (Soundpad) produced by a famous British producer John Leckie. We tour extensively within and outside the country. We have toured UK, Australia, Morocco, Singapore, and Hong Kong. Swarathma has done collaborations with eminent vocalist Shubha Mudgal, musicians from bands like Indian Ocean, Scribe, Bhayanak Maut, Dualist enquiry etc.

We are soon to begin working on our third album. More info about the band on https://www.facebook.com/swarathma

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To know more about Pavan and his work kindly check – pavankj.wordpress.com

Worded and interviewed by Ayush Kant Dutta


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