Shaju John, finding himself as an artist
I have observed Shaju John several times – standing still, lost in thoughts, with a camera raised close to his face, intensely attentive. There is something strange about his gaze – as if fixed simultaneously, on the subject and within himself. Then he clicks….
Almost always, the results are magical. His photos are like paintings, capturing the soul of a face or the glory of a sunset or the pale grayness of a sky laden with clouds. There is life in what he captures, they pulsate with an energy I have rarely encountered in photos. There is a story almost all his frames are bursting out to tell.
I was very keen to talk to him to de-mystify his excellence in painting canvases using his camera.
On Sunday, March 16, I reach his beautiful house, standing against the Perungudi Lake, around 7.30 pm. He takes me to the terrace of his house, carrying a chair with him. The moon is at its full brilliance and there are very few clouds. I am armed with a pen and a notebook. The moon lends its light on my notebook as I ask questions and Shaju answers. How fitting, I think, I listen to this artist in the silence of the night, bathed in moonlight.
I find out, Shaju always had a fascination for arts. He tells me how as a young boy, he used to sit watching the play of light on the surface of the river in his remote village. He loved the huge rock hill, on the other side of the river. He maintains with conviction, we are all part of nature. It gave him immense pleasure to capture the various moods of nature and life in it using a camera. His father allowed him to have a plantation of banana trees and when he had about Rs.2000 from selling the bananas, he bought a manual Minolta camera. That marked the beginning of his journey as an artist.
After graduation and a two-year Fine Arts schooling (he is a very talented painter too), Shaju came to Chennai to study films to become a film maker, recognizing it as the best media to influence the public. He had earlier tried to get admission to FTII, Pune a couple of times. Not successful in his ambition to get to the film institute he stepped into visual journalism, his second choice of medium and joined Mathrubhumi publications in Kerala. Three years later he joined the Hindu group of publications in Chennai.
During this entire period till joining The Hindu in Chennai Shaju lived in the company of struggles and pain. He worked as a staff photographer with The Hindu for 10 years then shifted his career to a creative field, setting out on his own, into visual documentation area.
Since then, it has been an extra-ordinary journey. He toured nationally and internationally for visual documentation on various subjects especially health and environment. His works have been mainly for UNDP, UNICEF, World Bank, States and Central Government for their schemes for the public.
Obsessed with Preserving Life and Beauty – Armed with a Camera
He has vivid memories of his travels through rural India to make a pictorial book, ‘A Positive Journey‘ that narrates the stories of AIDS victims and the triumph of the human spirit in the face of daunting challenges. As an artist, it is impossible for him to stay detached from the pains of his subjects. He feels their pains and partakes of their heroic fightback.
He feels especially for the women who are most often victims of man’s ways. Women are exploited like mother earth is exploited for greed. The ravages on woman’s body and the earth’s body bear the imprint of the same exploitation.
That is also why he ventured out, as if on a personal mission, to do what he could, to save the Pallikaranai marshes in Chennai from man’s recklessness – for thirteen long years. He has seen the beauty of the marshes – from its original water spread of more than 6,000 hectares only three decades ago, reduced to one-tenth its size now, giving way as Chennai’s dump yard. His obsession with saving the marshes has been phenomenal. He has clicked about 25,000 photos during the last 13 years – sometimes his body covered in swarms of flies, at times standing in muck and filth, in the rain, or sweating profusely…..
He has captured the highlights of those 13 years in a beautiful photo essay – all of 150 pages of art and elegance. He shows the first draft copy to me and I am just awed by the beauty of the pictures and the pain it causes within. I admire this man’s losing battle to save nature and beauty.
Shaju’s feelings are reflected in the words of Terry Tempest William, an American environmentalist, of whom I read two days back:
“I saw that art is not peripheral, beauty is not optional, but a strategy for survival. Finding beauty in a broken world is acknowledging that beauty leads us to our deepest and highest selves. It inspires us. We have an innate desire for grace.“
I ask him the obvious question – why photo journalism, which is the least lucrative in financial terms? He tells me, one decision and one turn in his life can land him in a place where he can earn as much as Rs.2 lacs a day. He knows he has what it takes. But that would rob him of his empathy and his soul. He is not prepared to trade that.
Also I ask him about his moments of bliss as a photographer. He says, “I find my happiness in the act of clicking…. As an artist, my orgasm is always in experiencing my creative fulfillment. Similarly, deeply savouring the poignant moments of life is when I feel the happiest. When I happened to be at the UN Centre in New York in 2007 I was thrilled seeing one of my photographs by-lined and hanging there on a wall at the UN. It was not sent by me, but it got there. I got a WHO award that year for that picture shot in the Pallikaranai Marsh.” He makes it a point to tell me, he does not send his photos for award competitions.
He says, he is passionate about the idea of interpreting our times through his lens in today’s idioms and present them to the world, with raw power, brimming with life. It is enough for him that people who see his pictures would partake of their beauty and pain and change from within, even if in small ways….
My next question is, why is he so obsessed? His response is, people like A.R Rahman, Sachin Tendulkar, Mother Theresa and Gandhi have impacted this world so much with their gifts and presence. According to him, he is just not doing enough to make use of the gifts he has been bestowed upon by the Almighty. There is a long way for him to go. Is there a message for me, I wonder!
Then I come to the question that has been waiting to burst out for quite some time. What is happening within himself, as he gazes contemplatively before preparing to click a picture? I am not prepared for this answer. He says, he merges into the subjects to feel their pain and their joys. There are times when he has cried as he clicked. Somehow, those feelings get transported to the frames and have turned out to become masterpieces.
He tells me that is precisely what I am doing as I engage with him in a dialogue to get to know him. He says true listening involves listening with the body. I will never forget this.
Shaju also believes in the power of serendipity. Situations and people arrange themselves before his camera to make the setting absolutely perfect for photos of ethereal quality. He feels it is God working and he is grateful.
The Gallery – Another work of Art
If I have given the impression that Shaju is only a do-gooder saint, that is hardly true. He has done himself proud in material terms. He has a beautiful house on a two-ground land. And, he is in the process of completing an art gallery. He attributes the unfolding of this dream to his wife Nimmy’s and his joint effort. He lives there with her and their 3 lovely children.
The gallery is designed mostly by himself, as is his house. There is play of light, rain, wind and other elements of nature as it is slowly forming as another work of art. He is planning to use it as a fine arts gallery and an institution for teaching the arts. It is going to be a unique adornment to Chennai’s art space.
I press him why not make some serious money – he deserves to be rich. He is toying with the idea of creating ‘Coffee Table Books’ for corporate organizations. His experience in visual journalism and the artist within him can combine to create wonderful art pieces for the corporate sector. Coffee Table Books are not yet in vogue in India, but they have huge possibilities to communicate the core messages of organizations to the world outside.
What else, I ask him. His response is quick. Cinema is the confluence of various art forms. In his heart of hearts, that has been his destination from the time he landed in Chennai.
I leave his house about four hours after I reached his place, thinking there is nothing that will stop Shaju from achieving what he wants.
He will get there, sooner than later.
More of Shaju can be gleaned from his rather outdated website: www.shajujohn.com
He is not too good at promoting himself.
*All the photos used here are from his pictorial book, “A Positive Journey.”