Roundabout | Cogwheels of the city through an artist’s lens

In 1978, a blond and chubby boy in his late teens was often seen at Chandigarh College of Art, where he sat with older students and in the art circles of seventh-decade dreamers, always ready to help them with their prints. so much so that he could be forgiven for mistaking him for a college student. That was Kuldip Soni, who would one day become PGIMER’s senior medical photographer. The talents of this boy from Maira village in Hamirpur district of Himachal Pradesh were not honed in college classrooms but in the harsh corridors of life.

Looking back, Soni says: “My brothers were engineers who lived and worked in Chandigarh and I moved here with them to look for a calling. My first training was at Vij Studio in Sector 16 as a counter boy”.

Seeing his dedication and ability to work, he was soon transferred to the darkroom to develop photographs. He remembers impossible working hours from 4 a.m. to 10 p.m. without complaint. The lunchtime excursion would be to the College of Art where a relative, Dharamvir, now known for his skills in graphic arts, was studying commercial art.

Soni soon came into contact with now well-known artists such as Raj Kumar, Sidharth, Sanjeev Soni and Diwan Manna. Through them he was part of the coveted gatherings hosted by Laali the Scholar – the late intellectual Hardailjit Sidhu – who by default heard speeches on art, literature and life. He then moved to Sukhvir Studio on the campus of Panjab University and his skill was such that he was soon developing prints for graduate art school students. Looking back, Dharamvir recalls: “The work that Kuldeep has done has been remarkable. His fingers were always yellow from the chemicals used in manual printing.”

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flight of the falcon

A memorable anecdote from the life and adventures of a photographer in the making came at a time of the collective bruised psyche in Punjab after Operation Blue Star in 1984 when the baz (Falcon), the mascot of Guru Gobind Singh, was featured in various gurdwaras across the state. Back then, Soni was working in the studio on campus. He recalls: “One day, Sardar Bhupinder Singh from the popular Punjab Sweets, where students, teachers and others were going for tea and pakodas, came to me excitedly. A baz was sighted in the gurdwara of sector 15 and he wanted me to accompany him to take a picture.”

Our always helpful photographer took his camera and went with him. “Sure enough, a baz sat on the Durbar Hall ceiling fan. I was small and couldn’t grasp the picture. So the great Bhupinderji picked me up and put me on his shoulders and I could click a picture,” he says.

What followed is worth telling. The proud photographer with the rare click in his camera turned to mentors like Raj Kumar and others, all in their 20s at the time. Raj decided that fate had knocked on her young friend’s door. A makeshift studio was quickly set up in Raj’s rented space, also in Sector 15, and Soni was tasked with developing prints as quickly as possible. Word of mouth alone sold around 170 photographs at a good price in two days 150 each. Raj recalls, “But on the second day a police gypsy landed there and asked if anyone was selling photos of a falcon. We thought they came to accuse us of spreading rumours. So the makeshift studio was demolished and everything was hidden,” he says.

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The uniformed police officers were told that there was no one selling pictures of falcons there. The police left disappointed because they too had come to buy some prints. Not only had they lost buyers, the store was closed.

Then and now

Late bloomers have been heard of and Soni is certainly one of them, as it was only after his retirement that he became involved with the Chandigarh and Punjab Lalit Kala Akademis, which is re-engaging with arts and artists. Bheem Malhotra, CLKA Chair, says: “Soni is a true artist, raised in the company of great talent who are passionate about art but have no sense of commerce. We would have to remind him to submit his bills for months and he would eventually grudgingly submit them.”

From a Covid-era assignment to train inmates in photography came a classic shot of a hand clinging tightly to the prison door. The times of seclusion saw him wander the city mostly in the southern sectors as he lives in Sector 39 and now he has in his portfolio a memorable shot of the other side of town that people forgot in the hype of flashy poses seen in hotel lobbies with towering flower arrangements.

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This is the time of the weird business of social media photography, dubbed the saree challenge or hairstyle marathon on social media. And here Soni finds ways of looking at the city and its surroundings, finds art in bricks being laid and the heads they support, or a freshly colored boy hanging dupattas. He stops two whitewashed boys with paint splatters on their t-shirts and jeans to form a frame. They grin and strike a show-stopper ramp pose. “It was so eloquent that I decided to just click on the pose and not on their faces,” says Soni.

Another eye-catcher is the rear view of a prefab red brick house dotted with a greener tree. What makes the frame throb is a cleaning man invading the frame with his wares.

Among his portfolio are images that recall lines from a poem by the city’s late poet, Kumar Vikal: “Kabhi kabhi yeh shehar/ mera bhi hota hai…kam se kam uss roz/ jab Kasauli ki surmai paharhion par parhi baraf/ Ek sanvali larhko ke dudhiya daanton si chamakti hai… (Sometimes this town is mine too/ More that day/ When the snow on the hills of Kasauli sparkles like a dark girl’s teeth…)”

Going back to Soni, I ask, “When are you exhibiting these works?” He nods dismissively, as if I’m interrupting his journey, camera in hand, away from long years in darkrooms to get to know his city.

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