As children, it can be hard to imagine our parents as people with lives beyond their roles as “mother” and “father”. The process of becoming an adult is often intertwined with attempts to establish new bonds with the people who raised us, and to negotiate some form of equality. As part of his own negotiations, Bharat Sikka has produced a series of photographs of his father, creating images that explore the often-challenging dynamics between both parent and child and photographer and subject through performative portraits and collaborative arrangements.
Sikka’s memories of his father have always been coloured by the man’s position in the Madras Sappers, a group of men who operate as both soldiers and military engineers within the Indian Army. Understandably, the realities of this work determined both the identity and lifestyle of the entire family. The Sapper began when the artist became enthralled by some cell phone pictures he’d taken of his father’s belongings, and has evolved into a collaboration between photographer-son and performer-father.
While The Sapper is new territory for Sikka in many ways, it also builds on themes that have been important to his work for a long time. The male gender, for instance, is a thread that runs through many of Sikka’s projects: From Indian Men, a series of portraits taken all over the world, to Where the Flowers Still Grow, which explores the beautiful, but conflicted, mountain region of Kashmir and the men who live there. India itself is a source of inspiration for Sikka, who is driven to portray the contemporary culture and landscape, avoiding the exocitised clichés so often played out in western images of the country.
The Sapper moves between public and private space. We see Sikka’s father bare-chested and wet from the shower. With his hands to his head, one can’t be sure if he’s posing or merely cleaning behind his ears. In another, he stands off to the right, his face obscured by what looks like a large stone tile that blends in with his barren, mountainous surroundings. Throughout the series (which includes landscapes, interiors, and still lifes of the sapper’s constructions) there’s a sense that these images are the result of an active negotiation; one that considers the dynamics of father and adult son, as well as those of photographer and subject.
The relationship between these two men provides a rich backdrop to the work. The photographs are at once intimate and playful, and while Sikka does not appear in any of the images, he feels his role as “son” is reflected through his vision of his father. ‘Some of the pieces remind me of my childhood and take me back to those days,’ Sikka explains. ‘My perception of him is shown in the photographs. I see him as this beautiful man, fractured and flawed, but still the hero of the story.’ A story that is all the more compelling seen, as it is, through the son’s eyes.
Text by Ish Doney, Unseen Platform