x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 20 September 2017

The big day

The photographer Mahesh Shantaram captures the Great Indian Wedding - the good and the bad - in Matrimania.

An image from Mahesh Shantaram's series about Indian weddings, Matrimania. Courtesy Mahesh Shantaram
An image from Mahesh Shantaram's series about Indian weddings, Matrimania. Courtesy Mahesh Shantaram

“I was so disenchanted by the wedding culture in India that I didn’t attend my own sister’s wedding,” says the 36-year-old Indian photo­journalist Mahesh Shantaram. This was in 2004. Today, Shantaram is among India’s most popular wedding photographers. And Matrimania, his social documentary project based on Indian weddings, has won international acclaim in the four years that he has been working on it.

Shantaram studied photography in Paris after an unsatisfactory stint as an information technology professional. Wedding photo­graphy happened by chance after he returned to India in 2006 when he took his camera to a family wedding. “When I saw the results of my work, I was surprised by how much I had enjoyed the whole thing,” he says. “At an Indian wedding, every situation is a challenge and I am constantly thinking of new ways to solve each of them. So far, I have never been bored.”

He gives an example of a couple who, after exchanging vows at their beach wedding in Goa, wanted to wade into the sea and have the photo­grapher capture those candid moments. “I had to think ahead of all that could go wrong and be ready for it. As I clicked the last shot, my camera shut down because some seawater had got in.” He shows me a photograph of the couple in the waves and says: “But it is moments like these that make it all worth it.”

Shantaram is soft-spoken and reticent, happier to hide behind the camera than pose in front of it. From that vantage point, he found himself capturing several scenes that caught his attention at each wedding. “These were images not necessarily relevant to my clients but I felt had to be seen by the world.” And so Matrimania was born in early 2009.

Shantaram is now a celebrated wedding photographer, and a married man, but retains his scepticism about the Great Indian Wedding. He explains: “A single wedding is a microcosm of India. All that is good, bad and ugly about our culture comes together.” It is also the perfect reflection of the constant changes in India’s ambitious middle class.

Matrimania has been exhibited across the world, including at the Empty Quarter Gallery in Dubai, Photoquai, Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, PhotoPhnomPenh in Cambodia and most recently at GetxoPhoto in Spain. It also won him third place in the Arts & Culture category at the Sony World Photography Awards in 2011.

Perhaps the biggest tribute to Matrimania came from two European filmmakers who found Shantaram’s work at different venues and decided to collaborate on a film about it. And so, Maximilien Van Aertryck and Vincent Bitaud filmed at five weddings across the country for more than six weeks, as Shantaram shot for his clients and his Matrimania project.

According to Van Aertryck, Shantaram’s photographs reveal an India rarely seen in the West. He says: “We were both tired of the same kind of images coming out of India, filtered through a gaze focusing on traditions and spirituality thousands of years old. That is what first drew us to the project.”

Bitaud adds: “We were excited that we could get intimate, real images of modern Indians from the perspective of a modern Indian photographer.”

Van Aertryck and Bitaud are currently editing Matrimania and hope to have it ready by spring. Right now, Shantaram is focused on the Delhi Photo Festival, which runs from Friday until October 11. He will present his Matrimania collection and some clips from the film on Sunday. He eventually sees it taking shape as a book: “That will happen when I find myself at a plateau and I can lock it all away finally in a book.”

artslife@thenational.ae