Unknown to most people, India has been on the international jazz music circuit, for a long time. Many of the world’s greatest jazz musicians have had India on their agenda, when planning tours. This is largely due to the restlessness of a gentleman called Soli Sorabjee. In the early 70s, Soli, then a young attorney in Bombay (now Mumbai), was unhappy with the state of live music in India, particularly in the jazz genre. There were no international acts, no-one doing original music.
Seeking to change this, he got together with a group of like-minded individuals, they all chipped in, and the seeds of Jazz India, and it’s week-long festivals of jazz, called Jazz Yatra, were sown. Jazz began spreading from Bombay to the corners of India.
Thus began the entry of international jazz acts to the Indian subcontinent.
And they all came. From Freddie Hubbard to Max Roach, from Jangarbarek to John Surman, Karin Krog to Stanley Jordan and Rudresh Mahathapa. They came, they played and they were forever imbedded in our minds and hearts.
Soli later moved to Delhi, where he replicated the infrastructure through which jazz music would enthral a city. The Delhi chapter of Jazz India, later became Capital Jazz.
A friend of mine is on Capital Jazz’s committee, and seeing that I work in the spheres of design, photography and communications, she introduced me to them. One thing led to another, and I became the unofficial, official photographer and designer for Capital Jazz.
Sadly, Soli Sorabjee, who had risen to the position of Attorney General of India, and had been awarded the Padma Vibhushan, India’s second-highest civilian award, for his work on freedom of expression and human rights, passed away last year.
March 09 was his birthday, and the Indian International Centre, of which he was Life Trustee, and Capital Jazz, of which he was Founder and President, joint hands to celebrate his life with a concert of poetry and jazz.
Naturally, I was there, camera in hand.
Shooting live music concerts, is one of the most fun things for me to do with my camera. I’ve enjoyed shooting the Jazz Utsavs for many years, and was totally psyched to be an official photographer for Guns N Roses when they played at Gurgaon in 2012. It was more like Axl and friends, but fun!
On the 8th, the day before the gig, I went to have a look at the venue. The concert was to be held at the lawns of the India International Centre on Lodhi Road. It’s like a small amphitheatre – wide gradual steps, able to accommodate two or three rows of chairs each, in a semi circle, drawing down to a small lawn, on which they would construct a stage.
I made a mental note of where the stage was to be built, and tried to picture access and visibility lines.
The next afternoon, on the day of the concert, I reached IIC around 4pm and everything was looking exactly as I’d envisaged. Chairs were in place, stage constructed and lined with black curtain material, lights were blazing off two trusses, on either side of the stage, and the performers were running through their song list, and soundcheck was underway.
Whenever I’m shooting a gig, I always try to be there for soundcheck. There are three things I try to do:
First off, I try to figure out the dynamics and idiosyncrasies of the band(s). They way the musicians interact, their inter-personal dynamics, body movement, these are things that are only observable when there’s no audience watching. Once the audience is there, you’ve got to be making pictures, there is no time to figure out, for example, if the lead singer pumps his fist before or after the guitar solo. Or at what point in a song, the guitarist and drummer look at each other and sync. You need to look for these things and file them away for reference in advance. It’s also an opportunity to get to know the musicians, and for them to get to know you and be comfortable around you. It makes for far more impactful photographs, when the musicians respond to your camera pointing in their direction.
Second, having access to the venue before the event, with the musicians on stage, allows me to figure out lines of sight, reflections and angles. I can figure out where I need to be, and how to get access to that place, in advance of the show. Do I need a key, permission, or in some cases, a distraction (so I can slip by unnoticed)? You know, asking for forgiveness being easier than asking for permission, and all that! Getting there for soundcheck, allows me explore all these possibilities.
And finally, by getting to the venue in time for soundcheck, you have the opportunity to meet and make friends with the crew. The sound technicians, the caterers, the venue staff, light crew, etc. The light guys are usually testing their lights around this time too, so you can figure out when and where the best light for a particular shot may be. On a couple of occasions, I’ve got friendly with the lighting guys and they agreed to keep an eye on me, and strobe a particular spotlight, or toggle a flood, when I’d gesture in a certain way. It really helps have mutual familiarity with the guys that work behind the scenes, at the event. I’m constantly amazed at how much access that creates for me.
So yeah, get there early, always be at sound check.
Back to the day of the shoot:
The pianist and drummer are usually the hardest people to photograph in a band (because of all the paraphernalia around them), and this gig was no exception. The piano was placed sideways on stage. Behind where Arjun would sit, was a black curtain, with no way to shoot through. To his left was the back of the stage and curtained entrance to the green room. I could shoot somewhat over his shoulder and get a profile picture with his hands on the keys, but to get a good angle, I’d need to take a few steps forward, and that would put me on stage, visible to the audience. [Golden Rule: You never go on stage, when shooting live music. Not only is it unprofessional, but it is rude and distracting to artists and viewers.] I could shoot from the opposite side of the stage, framing his face in the piano frame (and I did that, see below), but short of blocking the audience’s line of sight, by plonking myself right in front, between him and the front row, there didn’t seem to be a way to use the lighting and capture the passion with which Arjun plays.
So I wandered around the piano, looking above it, below it and all around it. Looking for a reflection, an unblocked line of sight, something. I couldn’t find anything. Ugh. I figured I’d have to leave that one for when we were live, and just see how it went.
The drummer, also, was blocked from all sides. I couldn’t get a clean shot. There was one small nook, just off stage right, that would have been perfect. I’d be able to stand 12 feet away from the drummer, on stage right, completely invisible to the audience, and with a clear view of him. But there was no access to it if you weren’t already ON the stage. Remember the Golden Rule?
Getting into that spot if you weren’t on stage, meant climbing onto a 5-foot high ledge, with camera in hand, without any footholds or toeholds. But this is why I was there at soundcheck. I asked one of the crew if I could access that ledge during the show. He nodded, and two minutes later, there was a prefabricated staircase leading to my nook. Tada!
So reconnaissance mission over, I hung out in a friend’s room, and relaxed for an hour or so, then came back to shoot my gig. It went off without a hitch.
The event itself was stellar. Astri’s poetry readings, accentuated with Arjun’s piano, were reflective, insightful, and funny. No doubt raising bittersweet memories in the minds of those in the audience that knew Soli personally. For those of us that didn’t, the poetry gave us a glimpse of the man behind the name. He may have been Soli Sorabjee, Attorney General of India, Padma Vibhushan, Life Trustee of IIC, a man who you read about in the papers and heard speak on TV. But he was also a regular guy, who loved to sing, played the clarinet, made people laugh, and loved music.
The music, of course, was magical. How could it not be? Jazz music on the lawns of the IIC. It doesn’t get much better than a cool Delhi evening, a cloudless sky with stars twinkling above, and a saxophone crooning gently in your ear. Arjun Sagar Gupta and Quartet were tight, soulful and mesmerising. When accompanied by Carlton Braganza’s incredible voice, the result was at times lyrically lovely, and at others passionate and raw. Amazing music; An amazing evening!
Happy birthday, Soli!
So I did actually solve the piano problem. I found, that if I lay on the floor, between the piano and the backdrop, I could go around 3 feet onto the stage, and not be seen by the audience. The musicians would see me, if they looked precisely in my direction, through a jungle of mic stands and speakers etc. Possible, but unlikely. Arjun of course, would absolutely see me, if he turned his head in my direction.
He did see me, wriggling around on the floor, trying to get the right angle, the right light, the right expression, all while staying hidden from the audience. He burst out laughing, and that’s my favourite picture of the shoot (see below)! A complete gallery of images from the shoot are here.