A Photographer’s Experience of Jantar Mantar

SLIDESHOW: Chaput portrays the architectural wisdom and vision inherent in Jantar Mantar.

Simon Chaput’s photographic book pays tribute to the power and beauty of the ancient Indian observatory and world’s largest sundial, Jantar Mantar.

Simon Chaput’s recently released book pays tribute to the Indian observatory of Jantar Mantar in Jaipur. Built 300 years ago, the observatory is a collection of 19 architectural astronomical instruments, some of which were built in two versions with different orientations that took into account the two solstices. It was built at the instigation of Maharaja Sawai Jai Singh, head of the Amber State and ally of the Mughal Empire.

Relying primarily on Indian astronomy, the complex was used to predict eclipses and other astronomical events. Back in the 18th century, the observational techniques and instruments used in Jai Singh’s observatories were superior to those known by the European Jesuit astronomers he invited to visit. Through Chaput’s pictures, the legacy of the landmark is kept intact, and a centuries-old astronomical quest revived through abstract forms and geometry.

Chaput portrays the architectural wisdom and vision inherent in Jantar Mantar. It consists of the Ram Yantra, a cylindrical building with an open top and a pillar in its centre; the Jai Prakash, a concave hemisphere; the Samrat Yantra, a huge equinoctial dial; the Digamsha Yantra, a pillar surrounded by two circular walls; and the Narivalaya Yantra, a cylindrical dial. Chaput reinterprets the ensemble through abstraction.“My work has always been about the black part of the photograph. Black is the subject, out of which light areas are drawn out. Focusing on the black surface, I reveal it through an additional element,”he says.

“The moment I got to the observatory, I sensed I could turn the rather small structures into abstract forms, reveal their sculptural dimension. I wanted the viewer to lose the sense of scale, and the notion of time,” adds Chaput, who spent four full days, from sunrise to sunset, shooting the pictures he had in mind.

“All I needed were clear blue skies. Then, I waited for the light to be right, for tourists to be out of the frame. It took a lot of patience and understanding, as the light kept evolving. I had to take notes, come back to the same spot the next day. The sun was playing inside Jantar Mantar like on a giant multi-faceted sundial. I was lost and at the same time intensely connected to the place. I was in extreme control of what I wanted to shoot and, at the same time, some of the best pictures were accidental. I witnessed forms I couldn’t have foreseen; I never knew how the light was going to play,”he says.

That all took place in 1995 and was the conclusion of a fortunate meeting. Living in New York in the 1980s, Chaput was introduced to Isamu Noguchi, the artist and landscape architect. In passing, Noguchi mentioned Jantar Mantar. “Noguchi insisted on the playfulness of the Jantar Mantar structure. I ended up going to Jaipur. I saw Jantar Mantar for the first time and came back to photograph it,” says Chaput. In homage to Noguchi, Chaput decided to “go all black and avoid any straightforward angles”. He even lost consciousness of his own bodily position, crawling on the floor, climbing inside the structures, bending over backwards. He followed the urge of his eye and camera.

Back in New York, Chaput developed the films and produced countless contact sheets. “I had too many photographs on hand; I simply couldn’t choose.” Overwhelmed by the selection process, he put them aside. Thirty years later, they have now come back to life.“With time I have become more abstract and minimalist. Time erases hyper-sensitivity; I became less attached emotionally and simply looked at the pictures for what they were. I printed and edited, discarded half of them. I confronted the remaining ones, and edited again to only keep the ones that interacted together. Then I added a level of abstraction and eliminated anything that was straightforward,” he recalls.

Last but not least, Chaputfelt he needed to insert the last piece of the puzzle: an exclusive short story written by Salman Rushdie. “I met Rushdie through friends… One evening, I presented him with the first layout of the book, still very much a work in progress. I told him that I’d always wanted to do a book with a writer, to add a dimension to the photography.” A few months later, Chaput received an email: the subject read “Here’s a little text for you.” The photographer was suitably humbled: “The book started in the dark room; it came out into the light,” he concludes.

Jantar Mantar by Simon Chaput, published by Nazraeli Press in a limited edition of 1,200 copies. The first 25 come with an original print, price on request.

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