I will always remember my first conversation with Prabuddha Dasgupta. It was not a pleasant one. I was the Beauty Director at Marie Claire and we needed to commission a shoot on skin lightening beauty treatments. Prabuddha, who shot only those projects that caught his fancy, was initially excited about the idea of doing a black & white spread with ambient lighting – his speciality. But then he heard the storyline and slammed down the phone. Trying to make women want to be fair complexioned? “Please don’t call me with such rubbish again.”
End of conversation but the beginning of a new story. His argument (one sided as nobody could get in a word when Prabuddha started making a point) convinced me that perpetuating the fair-is-beautiful myth was counterproductive for a dusky skinned country whose women are finally taking the spotlight worldwide because of their natural beauty.
To Prabuddha, this was a political and moral insult – like most colonial countries, “fair” is equated with the upper classes in India and this nonconformist was not just going to dismiss the cliches but also wage a longstanding war against them, in the process defining the beauty of Indian women for a whole generation.
This was his greatest signature – images of urban Indian women that represent their strength and stability, emphasising their innermost nuances. Prabuddha was a documentarian of everything that was beautiful according to his own standards, reminding the world that beauty comes in different types, sizes, ages and skin tones.
He shot a new and “real” India, taking it centre-stage on international platforms like Hermes and Louis Vuitton. Not only did he shoot extensively for foreign fashion brands and magazines, his work also took the spotlight in several personal collections and institutions, like Le Cashmerien in Paris, Bodhi Art in New York and Galleria Carla Sozzani in Milan.
And then there was his personal work, which reads like a visual exploration of friendships, family ties, personalities, relationships, personal spaces, journeys and landscapes. In 1996, Prabuddha broke a major taboo by publishing Women, an extremely controversial collection of nudes of urban Indian women.
His second book – Ladakh – was published four years later and showcased a personal exploration of India’s frontier wilderness. The most recent tome – Edge of Faith – was perhaps closest to his heart, replete with images of Goa, which was this Kolkata-born photographer’s adopted land.
Through the years, I followed Prabuddha’s work, hoping that we would shoot together one day. And when the moment came, its magic fulfilled every dream, every expectation. There is so much that stylists, photographers and editors across the world have learnt from this stubborn individualist, especially the need to be true to yourself and your subject.
His lessons worked on a personal level as well: never apologise for who you are and never try to cast yourself according to someone else’s expectations. Over endless tumblers of hot coffee in Goa, he would tell me that the world has a place for every single person regardless of age, complexion or size. We just need to find our space and then stand firm.
Prabuddha definitely found his space and he filled it with a new aesthetic that has not only come to define the beauty of Indian women but has also changed the way the world looks at our country. His work done, the stubborn maverick went out doing what he loved best – holding the camera.
His sudden and completely unexpected death has shaken the fashion and beauty community across the world. He was just 52-years-old and had many stories left to tell, many images left to render. I can clearly visualise him arguing with God on the creation of a female form up there.
Prabuddha, despite all our arguments, you will be missed more than you can imagine. But your aesthetics and philosophies will love on.
And I shall continue to keep my promise to never air brush a model into milky-whiteness ever again.
Click through some of Prabuddha’s best images… which is your favourite?
Arjun L. Sen says
I was impressed with this excellent and well-considered as well as sympathetic and heartfelt review. You have quickly and clearly brought attention to some key points here about Prabuddha, including his challenge to the 4000-year old “fair skin” value system in India and his central stance on seeing women as self-determining individuals, not adjuncts to a male-ordered world. The phrase “maverick” is right. Prabuddha was a challenging pathfinder in modern Indian culture with a strong sense of our history and roots and therefore the capacity to question some aspects of them as well as a hugely talented artist. I knew him very well as we were friends and college students together back in the seventies.
Hi Arjun, glad you liked it. Dada’s going has left a huge void and I don’t think any words can do justice to him. I only worked with him in a professional capacity and he left a huge impact on all facets of my work and thought processes. But you knew him on a personal level and so must be feeling his loss even more deeply. May his soul rest in peace, though I don’t think he would be sitting quietly up there either… what do you say????
Arjun Sen says
I’m so sorry to have failed to see your reply in a timely manner. Actually, I’ve been diverted away from this by all sorts of things and I haven’t been back on the Beauty Gypsy site for nearly two months,…
Even though you knew him more in a professional capacity than a personal one, as you say, I would not underestimate the value of your input. You were clearly very moved by the man and his approach to his work or else you would not have left a significant comment about him. Therefore I very much value your input. Moreover, people who worked with him professionally have an input to his work that I cannot supply – except once, when we were working (unsuccessfully) on the Ladakh book together in 1996-1999. We had very different approaches and drifted apart on that book, but in no way does this detract from the magnificence of his subsequent achievement. My own approach to Ladakh was rather different, perhaps more academic, and better reflected in my 2011 article publised by the India International Centre Quarterly called ‘Celebrating Ladakh,’ although what we shared was at bottom a lyrical, emotional and symbolistic appreciation of Ladakh on which I also grafted social and cultural interpretations which were extraneous to Prabuddha’s interests. A few Ladakh word-pictures also appear on my art website.
Actually, you may have found a Facebook page which is a dedication to Prabuddha and is filling up with very interesting material on him. A long thread between myself and Prabir C Purkayashtha who himself produced a stupendous book of photographer on Ladakh might be of interest to you and which you can find on the website. Prabuddha himself, and our three-way obsession with Ladakh, is central to that discussion thread. You can see how I really feel about him and about Ladakh in that thread. I know Prabir well and in some ways we communicate better on Ladakh than I could with Prabuddha who, as a man, always found it hard to express his feelings in words, whereas Prabir manages to do it with facility, as I do. Yet, it was Prabiddha’s contribution which began a very special kind of dialogue between the best modern urban Indian sensibility and Ladakh and which remains an essential turning point and even lynchpin for the whole “cultural conversation” we are having about it.
You can find this link on
Hi Arjun, so lovely to hear from you again! Yes, Prabuddha was someone who you could not argue or debate with – it was either his way or you could go to hell. Sometimes, that was part of his charisma. At other times, it irritated one like anything. And there was always the fear of a shoot getting cancelled at the very last minute because he would not want to do certain shots. But given all that, there was so much I learnt from him. He has made me cry, made me laugh, made me angry, made me crave a great shoot. But what he taught me most of all was to think a shot through and through to the tiniest detail and be true to my inner voice rather than get sidetracked by commercialism. And that’s why I will never get over the loss of losing this genius!
I would love to read the article you have mentioned – anywhere I could get my hands on a copy? Sounds fascinating!