Through the lens of Cop Shiva

Cop Shiva believes that he is still a village boy even though it has been many years since he left Ramnagar, his birthplace and came to Bangalore in search of a livelihood. “Everybody needs jobs and I have not studied much. I have studied only till the 10th standard. I used to work in different kinds of jobs but I was very good in sports. Because of that reason, I applied for the police services and got it”. Before becoming Cop Shiva, the photographer he was Shivaraju BS, the policeman and even before that he worked as railway policeman. The need for a secure job was important for him as he was the sole breadwinner for his family. “My job as a cop gave me a lot of strength, it has resulted in me respecting people and has taught me how to deal with people”, he says with a smile. This helped him a lot in the long run when he started capturing the lives of ordinary people with extraordinary stories through the lens.

Although he was happy about his job, Shiva had an artistic side which hadn’t yet seen the light of day. He recalls his days as a young boy when he used to read novels and was fascinated by Kannada art films. Apart from him, nobody in his family had any affiliation with the arts. “During my free time, I used to work as a program coordinator at 1 Shanthiroad art gallery. I used to go there and attend the exhibitions and I helped director Suresh Jairam in running the place”. This was the moment for him to discover his passion. He met a lot of artists from different nations who came to the gallery as part of residency programmes. By this time he had taken charge of organising events there and helping out the artists in building their projects. He was also in charge of documentation and picked up a camera for the same. “I started out with a small camera and I was always surrounded by artists, filmmakers, photographers. Over time, I realised that I wanted to do something similar”, Shiva says. But why photography? The answer lies in his 14 years of service as a policeman. He was always out on the streets, surrounded by people, people and more people. This made him understand their lives and as he was a local guy, things were all the more convenient for him. “It is easier to work within your community or within your own people. I feel that as an artist, you always have to work with your community; you have to look around within your circle. No need to look somewhere else”, he says. This resulted in him creating two of his very finest projects Being Gandhi and I Love MGR. Both of these projects have been exhibited in countries like the US, UK, Switzerland and Bangladesh. The former project was recently displayed at The Frank Museum of Art in Otterbein University, Ohio. He remarks that the Gandhi project which started in the year 2009 is still ongoing. “There was a time when people thought that Bagadehalli Basavaraj (the man impersonating Gandhi) was mentally ill. But now they respect him more than ever”, his voice has a tone of achievement.

Shiva has had a knack for looking at what he calls the “hidden” and this has been sort of a driving force for him to keep looking for new subjects. There are untold and ignored stories of people hiding in plain sight. He believes that one has to be curious and observant of the things happening in his/her surroundings. It is not entirely necessary that one has to go to faraway places to document something when there is so much that is waiting to be discovered in your own neighbourhood. And this is clearly reflected from his most recent project titled Ecstasy which chronicles the many obscure festivals and rituals happening in Bangalore. In a time when media has decided not to bring these facets of life to the mainstream, Shiva believes that these stories can be unearthed only if one is constantly observant. For him, this might be capturing some tree or wall while people around you wonder what on earth is there to take a picture of. The eye of a photographer finds beauty in the most mundane. “It is difficult to describe how I have developed that instinct, it is a connection in your mind itself”, he says. He has been a witness to the change this city has gone through but his eye as a photographer still revels in the way he was brought up. “I have been living in this city for a long time now but I still consider myself as a village boy. Maybe the way you look at things is what matters. For me, I think the city is changing only for a certain kind of people”, Shiva quotes.

Pictures from I Love MGR (L) and Being Gandhi (R) Source: copshiva.com

For a photographer, consistency of work is paramount. True, there are times when one may not be able to find the perfect subject but that doesn’t mean one should get disheartened. The reason why Shiva chooses not to take names of people whose works he has admired is due to the fact that many of them have given up photography altogether. “The thing is, now it is easy to buy a camera and consider oneself as a photographer. But you constantly have to keep continuing your work. Only then you will get a good grip, you will get good subjects and it will be possible to create a good body of work”. Of course, there have been times for him when the project reaches a point where it moves slowly due to various factors. It takes time to build up a connection with a person as a subject and that requires a lot of planning. It is a two-way process in which the subject has to be comfortable with the artist as well for a fruitful outcome. For Shiva, a project can go on for as long as ten years but it can never actually reach a point of conclusion because there will always be a new perspective which will mushroom up. He gives the example of his Gandhi project and goes on to say that now he is finding new ways to project it differently. There are a lot of ideas and some of them might not work out but that doesn’t count as a failure.

Looking back at his life as a young boy from a small village, Shiva regrets the fact that he wasn’t born 20 years earlier. With gleaming eyes, he goes on to describe how as an artist it is necessary to look back in the past because it shapes who you are; all your experiences and ideas are noteworthy. “You can compare them and maybe work on an idea which came to you five years ago”, he reveals. His love for films has been a constant for around 20 years and every now and then he has an urge to work in that direction. As of now, this ambition is kept for another day because there are always financial aspects to consider first. No matter how ambitious his aspirations have been, his family has been a constant support for him. “My mother and sister don’t know much about art but they are happy with what I am doing and they are confident about me because I started working when I was 15 years old. I took care of my sister, my nephews. They are all settled now” he says with a smile.

At the onset of his career, Shiva was working rigorously without taking any breaks but now, he has reached a point where he can slow down a bit and reflect on what he has done. But still, he feels that there is a lot that needs to be done. One of the things that he wants to make a reality from his long list of to-dos is to travel across the country. He has been to many places abroad; he recently attended a three-month residency programme in Sweden and there is an upcoming one in Switzerland. “Because of my life and job as a policeman, I couldn’t travel much. There are a lot of things I have missed” he says. Apart from that, there are three projects in the pipeline which will be seeing the light of day soon.

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As they keep searching      

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Many wannabe musicians feel that following music full-time in this country does not pay off financially. And this insecurity tends to make many abandon their dreams and passions. This wasn’t the case for Uddipan Sarmah, the lead singer and guitarist for Ahmedabad’s Hindi-post rock and ambient outfit aswekeepsearching. The band has received critical acclamation since the release of their debut album Khwaab in October 2015 and has played in shows headlined by the likes of Tides From Nebula and Steven Wilson. The band is back with their latest 11-track offering ZIA, which was released in May. Since the band’s formation in 2013, they have come a long way. From playing in shows without any payment to signing off a deal with a music label from Russia, the journey has been tough but rewarding at the same time.

Shubham Gurung (Guitarist/Keyboardist) and Sarmah came up with the idea of the project when the latter was doing his engineering graduation from Dayanand Sagar College, Bangalore. “I have known him for the past ten years. We have been making different music whenever we used to catch up. I was in Bangalore, doing my graduation and he used to be home in Ahmedabad so whenever I had semester breaks, we used to sit and write music,” says Sarmah. After his graduation with an electrical engineering degree, Sarmah worked as an application engineer for a year and a half before taking quite a risky step and quitting his job in 2013. “I had two years of experience and a degree and even if I had to lose two more years doing music, it wouldn’t have hampered me and so I decided to pursue music full-time”, he says. Coming back to Ahmedabad, Sarmah decided to open up BlueTree Studios, his own personal recording space which proved to be a major asset for the band’s activities. “I started producing other artists, mostly local artists from Ahmedabad. And since we had our own space, a lot of things got easier for us, for example, to record or maybe sit in a studio and write scratches,” he says. Sarmah approached a mostly DIY process when it came to the technicalities of the recording process by consulting YouTube videos and experimenting on his own personal projects including the band’s first EP released in the year 2014 titled Growing Suspicions.

“After the studio was up, I and Shubham decided that it was time to take things forward professionally. Thus, we wrote some scratches from our side but we were short of a bassist and a drummer. That is when we met Tushar and Ashwin Naidu who filled up for the duties respectively,” he says. The release of the EP generally got them a positive reception and the next step in Sarmah’s mind was taking it live. But things weren’t so easy for them. “We jammed but we didn’t get any shows for around 7 to 8 months. And we were from Ahmedabad which didn’t have a scene and until and unless you come out of the city and play in other cities, nobody notices your work. And I believe at that point of time, there were a lot of other bands who were doing really great and for a new band to reach out to a larger audience was really difficult,” Sarmah recalls.

Tushar and Naidu decided to leave the band in late 2014 for their musical pursuits. Current drummer Gautam Deb and bassist Bob Alex came into the picture after a few moments of discussion and jamming sessions proved them able for the job. Sarmah goes on to talk about the genre they are associated with, something which is quite underground in the country. “We never considered writing post-rock music. It was more of like our whole influences put together into a song and when it was released people started categorising it into post rock. We were influenced by that genre and bands like God Is An Astronaut for instance and that is evident, but our music has elements of electronica, rock and metal and I think that makes us much more than a post-rock band,” he remarks. What set the band apart are their Hindi vocals and Sarmah believes that this was something which made them interesting and the audience felt that this was different within the scene as there wasn’t such an amalgamation between Hindi and western influences. The quartet might be the only Hindi post-rock band on the planet.

Sarmah was able to sign up a record deal with Flowers Blossom In The Space from Russia who was seemingly impressed by the music that they were making and this led to preparations for their first debut Khwaab. “Every band’s first album is always something which is special. We ended up getting some really genuine fans who came out to see us live and then talked about how good the experience was. We are a performance based band and live shows mean a lot to us,” Sarmah says. The five city tour in Russia during October 2016 was a turning point in their career and even provided inspiration for a song titled There You Are in ZIA. “It is old now and we have talked enough about that tour. Let’s just say it was a fun experience,” says Sarmah.

ZIA chronicles the various adventures and feelings the band members felt while travelling and touring after Khwaab’s success. “This time we sat down and discussed our experiences and decided to write songs based on them. What we felt collectively was really deep and so it was easy for me to write the lyrics for the album. Khwaab was more of a random album while this isn’t,” Sarmah says. The production took one and a half years with delays mostly due to touring. Sarmah and Gurung travelled to a small village named Kalga in Himachal Pradesh for a week which inspired the song Kalga. “Going there was more of a personal choice because we thought that we were at that moment of time when we were lacking some creativity and wanted to take a break from constant gigs and travelling. Even then we definitely had that whole thing on our head of writing music there. We took a few instruments with us so that we could program and write scratches,” he says. ZIA features three guest musicians namely Sambit Chatterjee from Ganesh Talkies, Ajay Jayanthi from Anand Bhaskar Collective and Rishabh Seen from Delhi-based prog band Mute The Saint. On taking this step, Sarmah says “The moment we were done with the songwriting and recording, we felt like in some songs we had some space for some tabla, strings and sitar. So, we sent it to the artists and they really liked it and the moment they sent us the scratches, we liked it in the first go itself”

Being featured on UK’s prestigious PROG Magazine and Metal Hammer has been earning them quite an international presence. Many blogs have reviewed their new album and the reception has been positive. When asked about the band’s future prospects, Sarmah makes it really clear, “Now we are only focusing on the gigs ahead of us. We are doing a 14-city India Tour starting from September 5th. We will also be playing live in the NH7 Weekender in both Pune and Shillong. So now, all we want is to go onstage and just play the music. Once we are done playing ZIA in different venues, we will plan for the future.”