The Vagriyar tribes in South India are an ubiquitous presence – surprisingly so even in a large metropolitan city like Chennai. They lead a marginalized and eccentric lifestyle. They are hard to miss. Around temples they carry their wares and press them into the hands of visitors, hoping to make a sale. They walk around in small groups foraging for things that you and I would have casually thrown away. I remember once insisting on buying a catapult from one of them camped in Adyar. The white wood came from the trees they slept under, the rubber bands slit from strewn bicycle tires. We were told the gypsies kidnapped children, ate parrots for dinner and lived in filth.
N. Prasanna Kumar, a 24-year old award winning photographer has created a body of work documenting the lives of several of these gypsy tribes and in the process breaks some stereotypes.
I met this quiet and somewhat shy photographer with a couple of his friends at the Alliance Francaise in Chennai. Over a cup of hot lemon tea, a favorite of the locals I was told, we exchanged pleasantries and introduced ourselves. We dove into a body of work that Kumar and his friend Syed had somehow cajoled onto their two-wheeler.
The images from the Vagriyar tribes Kumar is following were the best of the lot. One can clearly see the passion for documenting this misunderstood group of people in each of those images. His images prompted me to gush out the name of another wonderful documentarian, a Magnum photographer, who has photographed gypsies in Europe – Josef Koudelka. A straight comparison of the two styles would be grossly unfair but the themes are similar.
Kumar's printing was interesting too. Some images were forcibly printed yellow or red, striking departures from the ordinary. Kumar called them “experiments.” He is a post graduate student at the College of Arts and Crafts and, presumably, has access to all sorts of nifty ideas and influences.
I have invited Prasanna Kumar to display his series on the Vagriyar tribes here on Tiffinbox. So, I do hope you will all get to see them for yourself.