The camera can tell a story without even having a dialogue: Innee Singh
- Shveta Arora
Photos: Innee Singh
January 7, 2023
Delhi based Innee Singh has been photographing portraits, weddings, Indian classical dances and music for two decades. He speaks to Narthaki about his work and inspiration.
When did you begin working as a photographer? How and why did you take it up, and why classical dance and music photography in particular? Was there any influence or inspiration?
I began photographing dance sometime in 2005, starting with Kathak. At the time, though, I did not share any pictures with anyone, and posted them just a few times on my social media.
I come from a business family that has been making and selling musical instruments since the 1950s. My grandfather started the company, called BINA, and specialized in harmoniums. Since I'd been around musical instruments from the beginning, I used to try and play most of them. I was always interested in the sarod and the tabla. My inspiration was always Ustad Amjad Ali Khan sahab and Ustad Zakir Hussain. I have been learning sarod from the legendary Ustad Amjad Ali Khan sahab for about six to seven years now. I can easily call myself the most disappointing shagird (disciple) Abba ji has ever had. But I feel blessed to be learning from him and being in his presence is a blessing itself.
I learnt tabla initially for around ten years. During this period, I started attending concerts happening in Delhi and started taking pictures after taking permission from organizers and artistes (a practice I still follow). This is how I came to know musicians and developed a keen interest in music photography. Sometimes, I also shot videos of dance on a small handycam I had at that time. But I was never very interested in shooting dance since I did not understand much of it. The only connection I had to dance was music and that is still the case. Music is what makes me see better. Everything around me, not just dance, is somehow connected to music. I enjoy it in every aspect of my life. I was mostly interested in Indian classical, and therefore attended and photographed only classical performances. What inspired me to shoot dance was the performance of the legendary Drs. Raja and Radha Reddy at SaMaPa Sangeet Sammelan in 2010. I was about to leave the auditorium when I saw their performance from the left door of Kamani auditorium. My pictures of that first performance I shot are all from the left side of the stage. I was so mesmerized by the production and the music that I decided then that I wanted to shoot more dance from then on. After that, as they say, the rest is history for me.
Till not very long ago, you were a still photographer only since videos were not always allowed in performing arts. What is the situation now, and was the change only because of the pandemic? What is the change in terms of equipment, technology, skills etc.?
Yes, that is correct. But I would occasionally shoot videos on my camera (even before the pandemic) since digitals (cameras), have been doing both for years. The quality has changed, of course. But yes, due to the pandemic, a lot has changed. Videos have become more important than they were before and even multiple camera setups are being used now. Single camera videos are mostly what people like since most of them don't know what a multiple camera can do and also, it was mostly for documentation purposes. I shoot all my videos on 4k cameras. They provide a crisper and more detailed video with more possibilities in post-production. Technology gets regular upgrades; it is not possible to keep up with it when it comes to dance shoots, unfortunately, because funding is not very good in the performing arts, and therefore you have to keep the costs low. As it is, some think it is a waste to spend on photography and videos here without realizing the fact that this is the only record that will remain of the performance, and hence should be produced in the best possible way.
As for skills - let's not even talk about it. Digital photography has made it easy for most. Like Avinash Pasricha ji says, photographers don't think before taking pictures these days. They just shoot whatever they can and go home and select the good ones. I myself have never practiced this style. Regardless of whether I get good results or not, I limit myself to certain pictures even when shooting digital. I don't want to spend two hours in a performance and then two days selecting which are good and which are not.
What was the reason for opening your new studio? How did that come about?
I have had a studio of my own mostly ever since I started photography. The first one was at my home, the second at my store and now the new one is in Shahpur Jat, Delhi. Having your own studio gives you the freedom to experiment in your free time and also makes it easier to keep whatever equipment you want to have of your own to execute the style of your work. I have ten to twelve different styles of light modifiers and an equal number of lights of different kinds to work with. During the pandemic lockdowns, though, I had closed my store/studio and was working from home. However, once things started to come back to normal, I realized I needed a space of my own since the studios I used to rent to work did not have all the equipment I wanted to work with. My wife and a very dear friend told me to work on it and get my own. You know how it becomes when the husband is sitting at home all the time. I still, however, have my video editing workstation at my little home studio where I also work on music sometimes.
Photos by Innee Singh
What do you feel as a viewer is the difference between still photographs and videos in dance?
I think a video, if shot properly, has more impact than a picture. A picture can speak a thousand words, but you need to have it in you to produce a picture like that. Most photographers have to write those thousand words with the pictures these days to tell the viewer what they want the picture to say. But a very long video can also sometimes be less interesting, especially in the case of social media. So for me, a shorter version is something that keeps my attention for the right span.
What is the professional viability of being a photographer in the performing arts?
The question of the century. If you have a lavish lifestyle, don't even think about it. But then if you have a lavish lifestyle, you are already financially secure and do this as passion or hobby. Payments are not very good in the performing arts. No one has ever had a good budget for photography when it comes to the performing arts, also probably because the artistes are not paid that well either. So you cannot expect high payments like you get in weddings or some other forms or photography (the main reason I don't shoot just performing arts in my studio). People often do not know how to discern the quality of a photographer. Therefore, the comparisons are often unjustified. The amount of work that goes into taking pictures of an event/performance and then post-processing is something that takes a great deal of time and effort, and hence this genre of photography is always underpaid.
Please tell us a little bit about your dance films and your recently released video.
I have done a few shoots of dance during the pandemic which were commissioned. I had a lot of fun shooting these. One performance was with six cameras. That was something. There were also some with moving cameras and various angles. I have been studying filmmaking a lot lately - for almost four years now. It has taught me a lot of things - camera movements, angles, colour grading and editing - and I try to put all this education into the way I perceive dance videos. Since I do most of the editing myself, it gives me more freedom to experiment while filming the live performance or production style shoots. My recent video, Dil-e-Naadaan, that I composed and sang and had Shivani Varma and Vrinda Chadha featured in it, was something I just came up with while doing my riyaz of the sarod. I just wanted to sing a ghazal with a composition that came to my mind. I couldn't find anything so took one of Mirza Ghalib's well-known ghazals. The idea of me being in it came later and I wanted to portray myself as a photographer, just the way I am in my life. No fancy stuff. Just wanted to make sure the video was shot nicely.
However, due to time constraints, I could not do some things we had in the screenplay; will probably do this in the next one, for which I have already started working. I have received a lot of love and blessings for this and hope to do better in the future.
How do you deal with temperamental artistes? Do you get any brief from the dancer before a still or a video?
I have not had any experiences with artists' bad temperaments. I give my 100% to my work so as far as tempers are concerned, I do not give a damn. When the artistes hire me, they have probably seen my work, so they know what they should expect from me. Unless I don't deliver what they were expecting, I don't think there is any reason for me to deal with all that. I give respect to everyone I work with. That is the way I have been raised. My respect for elders is also something I have been raised with, so if anyone thinks that I expect to gain something from that, they are free to enjoy their thought process. I do, however, see foolish comments from other photographers sometimes about my work on social media. These people just have so much time to think and then write all this on their social media to share. Why not use that time to learn and improve your work? Calling yourself a 'DOP' (director of photography) is very easy on social media, but do they know what a DOP actually does? I wonder...
Please describe some of the thematic series you have done - like the Raja Ravi Varma series, the black and white series, saris, retro etc.
My favourite is my Coffee Mug series and I want to start that again sometime soon. Black and whites are my most preferred. By the way, I also read a self-declared photographer in performing arts commenting that black and white is easier than coloured, therefore I do it. The person has become a complete joke to me now. How much time these people have…
The Ravi Varma series was something that Vrinda Chadha wanted to do - recreate the paintings, basically, the essence of the painting, not replicating the whole painting itself. My wife is a makeup artist, so she did her makeup in all the pictures. I really enjoyed doing those. It's always special to do lights in specific ways. Lights have their own language. It speaks the mood of the shot. When you actually study filmmaking and photography, you understand the nuances of these. You understand the movement of the camera has a meaning and does not randomly move anywhere or any way. That is what the camera can do. It can tell a story without even having a dialogue. It's like abhinaya - emotions can be expressed with just a movement. I am studying these at the moment and it has completely changed the way I see a movie now. I love learning… the deeper I go into it, the more fascinating it becomes.
The sari series is also something I recently started. This was inspired by the fascination I have seen for saris among artistes. Like photography, it also seems to have a language of its own. I just flow with the time, whatever comes to my mind, I try to put it on camera, be it photo or video. I try to speak through my camera.
While photographing a programme, do you ever feel the urge to correct a musician if you hear an error, or do you get the feeling that you would want to perform instead of them?
It is true that I used to have this feeling in the earlier phase of my career photographing music. However, now I don't feel it somehow. Everyone performing on stage is operating as per their riyaz and seriousness towards the art, therefore people perform to their abilities. I don't think I have the liberty to judge someone's capacity as an artiste.
Contact Innee Singh: firstname.lastname@example.org
Shveta Arora is a dance-mad writer who chronicles classical dance events in Delhi (and also those online). In 2009, she started the blog Kala Upasana at delhiculturecomment.blogspot.com, where she began posting her own writing along with photographs clicked by Anoop Arora, her husband. She's been dancing all her life as a devotee, but resumed her formal training in Kathak in her 50s and has passed her fifth year Kathak exams.
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