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June 9, 2023



Photography by Jayesh Kumar Sharma
Story by Karen Ghostlaw Pomarico

Jayesh Kumar Sharma is a trained and educated artist and photographer, receiving a Bachelor of Fine Arts (2012) from the Institute of Fine Arts, Varanasi, who lives and creates important work in India. His earlier interests in painting began to shift to the medium of photography. The different processes around the medium interested Jayesh, and he found them to be the directive to nurture the inspiration in his visual storytelling.

Coming from a small village in rural India, close to the city of Banaras, sheltered Jayesh from current affairs of the so-called ‘Modern World’. Jayesh moved to the city of Mumbai, inspiring him to explore many of his country's diverse regions encapsulating the wide range of cultures and traditions. These formative years of investigation led Jayesh to a world of discoveries. His travels made him aware of the myriad changes Jayesh saw sweeping across his country. Jayesh became aware of social struggles and challenges, sensitizing him to the many traditions, rituals, local sports, crafts, that have been lost forever. Jayesh shares his revelation.

“The onslaught of Modernism and relentless modernisation are not only spoiling our earth but our age-old way of life through which we have been deeply connected to the earth, to ecology, to the very soil we continue to live on. To me this has been a tremendous loss and I feel we are losing these things forever. This primeval connection once gone, will alienate us forever.”


Jayesh was brought back to his beginnings as a child, looking closer at his own traditions and understanding how and why they began.

“Since childhood, I have been inculcating a habit of storing and collecting things, with some rudimentary idea of preservation, be it personal or traditional. Kashi, also known as Varanasi, is an ancient city in India and perhaps the only city in the world which has had the same running cultural practices since over 2,500 years is a city which influenced my formative years. I was inspired to experience and document the nature of human society and its varying beliefs, and to capture my thoughts and present my own formulations and understanding of the same through photography.

My family influence has been traditional, and in my own journey of life I have experienced many changes around me. In this fast pace of progressivism somewhere the very structures of human society are being greatly affected, much is being irretrievably lost, and all this is happening so fast. My work has been infused and coloured with these influences – both exciting and sad at the same time.”

Jayesh’s photography is driven by the impact of nature and the ecological contemporary situation of human life. It fuels the fire for critical and creative thinking, awakening Jayesh, inspiring him to share his independent thoughts as he embraces traditions and cultures of his country through his visual storytelling defined through his photography.

“Photography is a medium that helps me to connect with myself. Amongst all my faculties, I feel that the one I find most developed and the one that I can use most creatively is the visual, so I found a way to express my thoughts in a straight way through photography. I think that photography is on the best footing among all those inventions through which you can work to inspire and awaken the ideas of nature and the relationship to the human condition in society.”

Jayesh admits photography is more of a process than a profession for him. Jayesh firmly believes that for an artist to truly develop and create new work, they must be allowed failures, they must struggle and search their souls and go through the work, to understand the inspiration. Jayesh finds meaning and inspiration in a quote from Marcel Duchamp.

“I believe art is the only form of activity in which man, as man, shows himself to be a true individual, and is capable of going beyond the animal state, because art is an outlet towards regions which are not ruled by time and space.”

I asked Jayesh, what inspired the concept for his project Kushti? How did he approach producing the series?

“The social and cultural changes taking place in the society became the concept of my story, In which I have made a poignant and valuable contribution. Varanasi is a very ancient city, where thousands of years of traditional activities helped form the society here. This creates a platform of visual storytelling with a direct outlook of social awareness, while remaining an intimate story about culture and traditions. Disturbed by our decreasing interest in traditional arts, I became more inclined to bring new attention to these fading traditions that once defined our culture. I am involved in an effort to document the few remaining traditional arts. I have a personal connection with each story, making my connections and observations genuine and authentic. Keeping myself personally invested in the story helps me shape my visual storyline. In this project it is Kushti, the ancient form of wrestling, that I am exploring and documenting. I see it dwindling rapidly and know it will disappear within the next few years.

The education imparted in childhood affects not only your character but also the character of the society. Wrestling (Traditional Wrestling) is one such medium which has played a great role in the character building of the society, it is one of the ancient arts with a history of 2500 years. This is a practice which is not just about physical prowess but places equal emphasis on the disciplining of the mind - in that sense it is a kind of yogic practice. The wrestlers were an integral part of their communities and received both financial and emotional support from the larger community as this practice was treasured as an morally important practice. In this sense the wrestlers were not just sportsmen but were upheld as men of exceptional honour. The practice becomes not only about the physical, i.e. building the body and strength, but also significant to an individual's personality and one's very soul of being. I came face to face with this unique art/sport form many years back in Varanasi when I was a university student. Wrestling is the first traditional art which made me aware of the ending of many contemporary practices.

I met Anurag Kanoria of Nine Fish Art Gallery for a photographic project almost a decade ago and was amazed to find him also speaking about these lost traditions and specifically Kushti too! We had long discussions on the subject of these dying arts and what we as art practitioners could do to intercede or record them before they vanish. He was a mentor and helped me pursue this and other similar projects. In a sense, it was a happy meeting of minds. We have since been working on other projects too.

The entire process has been a long one, spanning over 6 dedicated years. As this has required my involvement with a rather closed culture, it took me almost 3 years to be accepted into the ‘fold’, so to say. Over those initial years, I involved myself in the inner lives and ways of the wrestlers. As they began to shed the first layers of suspicion at my presence, they slowly began to allow me to bring in my camera. Many of the frames that finally saw the light were already formulating themselves in my mind and when I could finally click it was an exhilarating experience. These Akhadas are usually very dark places and shooting inside has always been a challenge. Many of the exercises done by the wrestlers are very early in the morning, even before the sun has risen. It took a lot of experimentation from my end to get these images to where I felt they best depicted an accurate story. My purpose was not just to document in only an academic or anthropological way, but also create aesthetic pictures that have more meaning, embodying the soul of the tradition while embracing culture and community. It was this balancing act that I have found most fulfilling.”

Jayesh’s project Kushti was just exhibited at MIA Photo Fair in Milan. Jayesh’s Gallerist Niti Gourisaria from the Nine Fish Art Gallery, Mumbai, sets the stage and premise for his story.

“India stands in a rather strange space vis-à-vis Modernism and postmodernism as its own particular issues with nation building are layered intensely and intricately with its own myriad, complex and often conflicting civilizational sub-histories. The advent of photography in India happened more or less at the same time as it did in the West, but while its technological history paralleled that of the West, Indian photography had its own variations and interests and these local concerns have also consumed Indian photographers. While in the West much of the interests of photographers over the past hundred odd years was the obsession with change and modernity and the pressing need to capture the new, Indian photographers have, in light of their own experience of the modern, been shy of highlighting their own community histories of thousands of years, except through the same problematic ‘colonial’ gaze.

As India strides exuberantly into the next decades along with the global world it carries with it its checkered local histories of marginalized peoples, cultures, practices, and rituals which are losing ground and identity, and will probably vanish forever in the next decade at most. These are ‘The Lost Children of postmodernism’ to coin a term, and their worlds need to be recorded for posterity and documented for remembrance.

Jayesh spent six years photographing the dwindling practitioners of Kushti, an ancient style of traditional wrestling which is dying out. Now it has few takers and is gasping for survival as the lure of international style wrestling and India’s recent glories in that style of sport have attracted most young practitioners. The old mud arenas found almost in all villages, where generations practiced together, are all empty now. Kushti was not just a sport but a philosophy of life and the almost monastic lifestyles and disciplines that the young had to take on, are no longer attractive. These old gymnasiums, known as ‘akhadas’ are largely silent and wear a forlorn and extremely run-down look and the same look is often reflected on the faces of its last few practitioners.”

Jayesh’s journey did not stop here. He began an insightful exploration into the subject of ‘Leela’. Leela is a local folk street theatre, acted and played out by young children on the banks of the Ganges once a year. It is peculiar to Banaras, an enriching cultural event he has been attending every year for quite some time. While observing how it is losing ground in popularity and support, Jayesh became more and more concerned that the day is near that it will cease to exist, ending a run of almost 450 years. Jayesh explains the directive behind this work.

“Leela is one of the most ancient folk theatre forms in India. ‘Leela’ usually depicts the major events that took place in the life of a significant personality whether real or mythical - an avatar of God (i.e. Lord Ram, Lord Krishna, Lord Narsingh) or even a revered saint or hero.

The connection of the audience with Leela is much stronger than in any other theatre form because they know the narrative and deeply identify with the hero and his story. The audience can themselves become actors in the performance as they play the crowd scenes for the theatre. It is strongly believed by the Leela lovers that the actor playing the Lord Ram(or any other God) is not a performer, but rather a God himself for that period of time. Most of the Leela performances are out in the streets or public places.

The history of Indian folk drama (Leela) has originated and developed from the storehouse of Sanskrit texts (written and oral) in India. Indian folk drama is deeply rooted in Classical Sanskrit theatre, and is an important component of popular culture in Banaras.

This particular traditional Leela showing the tale of the childhood of Lord Krishna is performed by young children and every year with a new cast. Records show that it has been performed continuously since the last 450 years. It is also performed in the neighbouring districts of Banaras. I have started shooting it recently but I would like to explore this further and document the same. I am particularly interested in the interaction of these child artists (who otherwise lead everyday regular lives) with the performative space of the Leela which is created to depict the sacred realm. This performative space is temporal as it is at a very crowded public place, wherein the crowd moves aside and watches the actors perform, then closes in again as the actors move on. Interestingly the play’s various scenes might be often enjoyed by a shifting audience, as not all follow the actors around the city as the play unfolds. Deeply conversant with the story of the play, it is easy for the audience to simply enjoy the part performed before them and then move on with their own lives. This transitional and highly temporal spaces of theatre overlapping so casually with the daily lives of the audience is a fascinating act in itself.”

Growing up in the ancient city of Varanasi has given Jayesh an unique and authentic perspective. He has witnessed the rapid changes that his generation is being subjected to, including the deep sense of loss and disconnect that begins to filter out memory, and begins to adulterate received identities. Jayesh is concerned that the changes are too rapid and the records of what is vanishing, too thin. Jayesh wants to dedicate many more years in exploring the formations and erasure of cultural identity and memory.

We leave you with some last thoughts and a quote from Jayesh:

“It is said that change is the law of nature, and that change has become a part of my nature. Changing the world means changing the experience of seeing the world, it does not mean that you will leave the real world and go to the world of dreams, I make my pictures with this stream of focus. My job is to know what is the truth or reality, but this depends on what your point of view is.”

We thank Jayesh for his time and insight into their fascinating traditions. We wish them much success in their documentation and illumination of these dying cultural ways of life and character building traditions.

You can experience Leela through Jayesh’s critical eye, and respectful perception on our website in his portfolio series, ‘Theater of the Ever-Living Gods’. He has been awarded for his brilliant contributions to photography and exhibits internationally. Follow his links for even more inspiration.

Nine Fish Art Gallery >>>

Featuring forgotten India with ‘Kushti’ and ‘Leela’ at MIA Photo Fair 2023 Milan >>>

Fotografia article >>>

Jayesh's website >>>

Jayesh's Instagram >>>

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the text belong solely to the author/s, and are not necessarily shared by The Pictorial List and the team.

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