A Quietness in Black and White

Rahul Mahesh

A review of the book Edge of Faith, featuring photographs by Indian photographer Prabuddha Dasgupta and an accompanying essay by historian William Dalrymple.


In the pantheon of Indian photographers who have made a name for themselves, Prabuddha Dasgupta’s name turns heads like no other: be it his swashbuckling glamour images for lifestyle magazines from the 1990s, or the controversies that have followed him through his storied career. But beyond all is a man who thought of photography as a medium of expression that is best expressed through its simplicity. His work extends an inviting glance into the world of a simple and reclusive mind that works beyond what meets the eye. The tasteful yet provocative imagery in his first book Women (1996) focused on femininity and sexuality in a manner that was uncommon for the time. A conversation regarding womanhood, eroticism and sexuality that goes beyond the crass analogies that are often bound to these topics. A tasteful and poignant interpretation of what it means to be yourself in its truest sense of the word is what comes to mind when we look at these images. 

It is his later works like Edge of Faith (2009) that fully expresses the man behind the lens. The focus drifts from the lights and glamour of his glitterati days to the quaintness of humble homes in the Goan families of Portuguese descent. As the subjects envelop themselves within Dasgupta’s black and white frame, there is a melancholy and stillness that is echoed through the visual setting. The personal nature of this journey that Dasgupta has captured makes for an existential harmony that is different from what these themes usually encapsulate. The thematic concerns of this particular work are deeply attached to the loss of identity and the history of Goa as a Portuguese colony for nearly 500 years. The leftovers of a past subjugated under a colonial rule with forced conversions and coerced histories that are embedded in the story of Goa. The pictures focus on this doubt, conflict of identity and solemness that resound in the face of these changing tides of time. In this collaborative venture with William Dalrymple, Edge of Faith intimately explores the history of Goa in a manner that is deeply reflective. What we wish to understand out of this book is beyond what meets the eye: it is an attempt to understand what could be referred to as a colonial hangover.  

Old Lady by Prabuddha Dasgupta, 2006, Archival pigment print, H. 81 cm, W. 111.5 cm, Goa, India, PHY.12289

Dalrymple explores the various families that live along the lines of painful memories of what they claim to be a ‘takeover’ rather than ‘liberation’. The colonial influence is so embedded within these communities that they identify with the Portuguese more than the Indian side of their history. The interesting aspect of this book, for me, revealed itself through the experiences of the locals. Dalrymple’s interactions uncover fascinating interpretations of what colonialism means to communities in this region. The loss of identity where a community goes through life on a cultural island is intriguing in that it is in stark contrast to what we have come to understand of colonialism and its effects. 

When Vasco da Gama arrived on the shores of India in 1498, the intention was just to exploit the spice trade and re-route the Arab dominance in the trade. The Goan lands have forever been an envy to the rest of the country for its abundance of natural resources, “rich red soils and fertile paddy fields, its excellent mangoes and cool breezes”, as Dalrymple likes to describe the region. From being a dreadful garrison, Goa, over a period of time transformed itself to a vast metropolis of over 75,000 people and a swagger of being a capital of the Portuguese empire in the East. Dasgupta’s intimate portraiture of the Portuguese hangover in this community showcases a side of Indian history that has been dismissed carelessly. 

Bedroom of Wendell Rodricks, Colvale by Prabuddha Dasgupta, 2006, Archival pigment print, H. 81 cm, W. 111.5 cm, Goa, India, PHY.12287

Unlike the anglicisation of the Indian subcontinent under British rule, there is a sense of embedding into the local culture that occurred with these Portuguese colonists. The conversation between Dalrymple and Dona Georgina sheds light on the loss of identity and a looming sense of isolation that she and her community felt after the Portuguese left the shores of Goa. The pictures taken by Dasgupta further emotes this sense of isolation and identity crises which has been at the centre of many Portuguese Catholic communities in the region. As Dona Georgina explains to Dalrymple in an emotional rant, “It is my duty towards my ancestors, my society and to myself”, to keep the Portuguese ancestry alive and thriving as long as they are standing. As generations upon generations have come and gone, the influence of Portuguese remnants have been withering away into the background. Dasgupta exposes the quietness of the hallowed grounds where identities were built and now lay in disarray, there is a distant look in the eyes of this generation of people who try to grapple with the idea of being a minority fighting to keep the last embers of a lost lifestyle burning. 

Celina Nazreth and Gertrude Paes in their Living Room, Moira by Prabuddha Dasgupta, 2006, Archival pigment print, H. 81 cm, W. 111.5 cm, Goa, India, PHY.12287

Edge of Faith explores a unique perspective of our understanding of colonial history. The common understanding of tyrannical rulers, although valid and real, ended in creating a sense of cultural assimilation that is very difficult to explain or understand. The complexities of identity that the people in such regions face is quite fascinating to me, in that it sheds light on a facet of humanity’s need for belonging. As the roots of one’s identity lie across far-fetched shores, the people’s struggle takes the front seat in this book where Dasgupta approaches the topic with a subtle delicacy. His pictures and Dalrymple’s accompanying essay made for a reading that takes you through the journeys of many fascinating characters and stories. 

Book Cover of Edge of Faith, featuring images bv Prabuddha Dasgupta and an essay by William Dalrymple.

“The Mandori River is empty now-the docks are deserted, the gallows lay sunk. Of one of the greatest cities of the Renaissance world, almost nothing new remains.” A conversation of liberation that became botheration, portraits of the pomp of the Portuguese court still adorn the abandoned convent of St. Francis of Assisi, a perfect analogy to a generation hanging onto the memories of a beached Mediterranean island lost in the Indian subcontinent. Prabuddha Dasgupta’s haunting imagery still leaves the question of “who are we?” and “where are we now?” unanswered as careless whispers in the hallways of homes and the corridors of the community. In the oldest quarters of Goa, Fontainhas, violinists still practise Vila Lobos; art nouveau balconies still look towards red-tiled piazzas. Time stands still in Fontainhas, but life goes on unmercifully. 


Rahul Mahesh is a Content Writer at MAP. He finds pleasure in reading Russian Literature with metal and punk music in the background.

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