Photography is an art when the man behind the camera is an artist. The tragedy is that there are very few photographers who are artists, and largely they are technicians. Out of the photographers of the great outdoors- nature, man, vegetation and mountain are their subjects. Out of the trio, Gorkha I have known more intimately.
I met Gorkha in 1952 when I was posted a Development Commissioner, Punjab, at Simla. Chandigarh had yet to come into being and Simla was the capital of the Punjab. In my evening walks on the Simla Mall, my favourite haunts were bookshops or occasionally a photographer’s shop. While posted at Delhi as Secretary of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and later on as Deputy Commissioner from 1945 to 1948, I happened to meet B.K. Dilwali, proprietor of the Simla Studio through a common friend, Dr B.P.Pal.
Our common interest was photography of the mountains and rural Punjab. When I saw another Simla Studio at Simla. I could not resist the temptation of walking in. At the entrance I met, not B.K.Diwali, but Hari Kishan Gorkha who was drying photo plates. On the walls were some strikingly beautiful mountainscapes of Simla hills. Some of them showed Simla under snow in winter. During winter Simla used to get deserted as most people left for the plains. Gorkha, however, used to stay there throughout winter. He may have suffered the discomfort of intense cold, but he was more than compensated by the photographs of snow in various moods. How sensuously does the snow build up circular mounds around the stems of trees! This photograph has a poetic quality. Another one was of a pile of snow with a thorny branch of a barberry struggling to peep out. Another shows branches of a Ringal bamboo waving in the air like the sails of a boat. These photographs have the simplicity and beauty which we associate with Japanese landscape paintings and Haiku poetry. In a few lines so much is suggested. They provide a real stimulus to one’s imagination. I began liking Gorkha and started thinking how I could make use of his talents in a wider sphere.
The opportunity came in 1954 when I shifted to Chandigarh, the new capital of Punjab. Rural development work was in full swing in the villages. There was great enthusiasm among the villagers in construction of link roads and school buildings under the newly started Community Development Scheme. In Gurgaon near Ballabhgarh I led ten thousand villagers to construct a road. It was a sight to see how enthusiastic the villagers were when a programme really met one of their felt needs. I felt that people who live in cities and those who have large say in policy-making ought to know what was happening in the villages. This was only possible if the work of the villagers could be recorded by photography published in newspapers and also shown in exhibitions. I realized that I must develop a Photo Section in the Development Department. A post of Photographer was created. Then arose the question about laying down of qualifications.
The office suggested Matriculation and Diploma in Photography from a recognized institution. Gorkha was neither a Matriculate nor had a Diploma in Photography. If he got ruled out on these considerations I felt it was no use having a photography degree. I toned down the qualifications to literacy and artistic photography of high merit. Gorkha knew only Hindi. There was no doubt regarding his excellence in photography. After conquering all bureaucratic hurdles, I managed to have Gorkha with me. The argument which proved most effective was provided by Slocum. I told the Finance Department that if the Punjab government could entrust the Bhakra Dam to Slocum who had no engineering degree from any institution, surely photography of the rural area could be safely entrusted to Gorkha.
Now Gorkha was my constant companion in my tours of the Punjab. At the time the Punjab extended from the heights of Lahaul and Spiti to the rocky terrain of Gurgaon and Ballabhgarh in the plains. There is no valley in the Himalayas which can rival Kulu in the beauty of its forests, ruggedness of its mountains and picturesqueness of its people. Gorkha took some excellent photographs of Gaddi shepherds grazing sheep in the valleys. He recorded the rugged grandeur of mountains and the insignificance of man in a photograph which has the touch of a Roerich painting.
In Kangra Valley, we paid a visit to Andretta and met Sobha Singh, the artist. While Sobha Singh has so successfully painted portraits of Gaddi men and women, his own best portrait is by Gorkha. When we compare this photograph with portraits of Guru Gohind Singh which Sobha Singh has painted we can sense the resemblance between the two. The artist paints their heroes in their own image.
Gorkha is at his best when he photographs common people. He does not like photographing V.I.Ps, who are his pet aversion. Nor does he like photographing committee meetings. But when he is among villagers, photographing herdsmen and ploughmen, he is at his best. This is possibly due to his plebeian origin. Gorkha was born on 21 December, 1918, at Simla. His father Sri Sher Singh was a copyholder in Government of India Press, Simla, who died in 1925 leaving him an orphan. Forsaken by his mother, Hari Kishan was brought up and educated in an orphanage at Ferozepur from 1925 to 1930. When he was merely a boy and left the orphanage he was employed by Mehr Chand, a photographer of Ferozepur. He served him till 1935, washing plates and learning the techniques of photography. In 1936 he shifted to Delhi and was employed by the Kinsey Brothers who specialized in portraits. From 1947 to 1952 he was with Simla Studios of B.K.Dilwali. In 1947, he came in contact with R.R.Bharadwaj a leader in pictorial photography who was a sensitive camera artist. Gorkha was profoundly influenced by the photography of Bharadwaj who he regarded as his Guru.
Photographing unknown women is a hazardous task. I remember a trip to the Kangra Valley when I was accompanied by Devinder Satyarthi, the collector of folk songs. We stopped at Jwalamukhi where a fair was going on. Satyarthi is also a good photographer. He wandered away from us and could not be traced; we thought we had lost him. After search we learnt that he was in the Police Station at Jwalamukhi. We learnt from the Sub- Inspector of Police that he had been handed over to them by a villager whose wife he was trying to photograph. A mob had collected and as Satyarthi was bearded, they mistook him for a Pakistani spy. The rumour spread that he was photographing Hindu women with some nefarious motive. This explains how he landed in the Police Station. I informed the Sub-Inspector of Police that Satyarthi was a writer and he had no evil motive in taking photographs. The Sub-Inspector relented and Satyarthi was set free. When I compare the predicament of Satyarthi with the success of Gorkha with hill women I really amazed at his tact.Gorkha has some excellent photographs of hill women in his collection. His success was due to the fact that he mixed with the people, won their confidence and then there was no difficulty. Besides he is tall, slim and handsome and few women could resist his charm.
In 1955 I came to Delhi as Vice-President of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. Gorkha felt that he was not being appreciated by my successor at Chandigrah and he requested me to take him to Delhi. In the I.C.A.R. I started a Publication Division for production of books on agriculture. In book production, photography has a great role. So, I started a Photo section with complete equipment and got Gorkha appointed as the I.C.A.R. Photographer. In my tours all over India, particularly in the southern States, Gorkha was always with me. In my tours of Kerala, Madras, Mysore and Andhra he took large number of photographs of villages, crops and people. I am reminded of an ancient near Cheruthuruthy in Kerala in the month of January, 1958, while we were on our way to Trichur after seeing the crop of Sea Island cotton at Patambi. An attractive Moplah woman was walking on the road carrying a huge basket. We stopped the car, Gorkha followed her, and before she could realize what had happened, he had already taken two snaps. When she saw her passage blocked by a handsome young man, she was heard mildly protesting in Malayalam, “What are you doing to me?” She gave a charming photograph, one of the prettiest in the gallery of women collected by Gorkha. How many photographs were taken in this manner, it is hard to tell. But there is little doubt that Gorkha has been able to convey the grace and unsophisticated charm of the women of the villages of India successfully in his photographs. A library of more than ten thousand negatives was built up, and it provided illustrations for the books published by the Indian Council of Agricultural research.
I left the I.C.A.R. in 1960. The book production programme languished on my departure. Gorkha was feeling uneasy and he asked me if he could be appointed in the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi. I persuaded Dr. B.P.Pal, then Director of the Institute, to take him. Since then he has been working in the I.A.R.I. and apart from photographs of crops, dairy animals and agricultural implements he has also mastered micro-photography. Above all, he photographed nearly all worthwhile flowering trees, shrubs and climbers. He particularly specialized in photographing roses. His photographs of roses were utilized by Dr. B.P.Pal for well-known book Rose in India: Gorkha has photographed the roses in all its moods some of these photographs are very delicate and have captured the beauty of blooming roses.
In technical excellence and artistic perception there are few photographers who can match Gorkha. He has keen sense of pictorial composition. His landscapes have a mellow beauty, and his portraits bring out the character of the person or object photographed. He has discovered that plants too have a personality and if they are carefully observed and then photographed they also provide unusual portraits. He discovers beauty in common objects. He has realized that beauty is not in extraordinary things or persons but in everyday life and one should have eyes to discover it.