It is typical of politicians, broadsheet columnists and geographers to describe India’s youth population – the world’s largest – in sweeping terms. This lumpen mass is said to be “ambitious'', “resourceful”, “tech-savvy”, and the driving force of a long-promised, ever-nearing economic miracle. And yet, so little has been done to reveal the intricacies of their lives beyond those ones rarefied enough to merit Bollywood screen time.
Desi Boys, a new series by the Kolkata-based photographer Soham Gupta, attempts a course correction, capturing a subculture of working-class young men so ubiquitous in modern-day Indian street life they are almost invisible. These are the boys who service laptops while playing South Asian hip-hop from their mobile phones, or hawk fake Gucci sunglasses en route to delivering someone’s dinner. They sport tattoos, designer knock-offs, and bleached hair. Sometimes they clutch besotted girlfriends to their muscled torsos, bearing little resemblance to the effete and servile stereotypes that have long dominated popular depictions of South Asian masculinity. They are usually Muslims and come from lower castes, but their adopted guises shroud these ancestral bearings – often intentionally so: after all, where in the Dharmashastras is the passage identifying a man’s social standing by the diamante stud in his ear?
This is not Gupta’s first time turning his lens to the disenfranchised underclasses, having attracted the attention of the international art world following the inclusion of his harrowing photo series Angst at the 2019 Venice Biennale. It depicted a particularly abject selection of Kolkata’s most desperate denizens – drug addicts, the disfigured, sex workers, and the homeless – by presenting them as reticent, tormented subjects enveloped in darkness, observed by the viewer as though on a nighttime hellhole.
In Desi Boys the blackness remains, though its stylistic effect is markedly different. Here Gupta’s subjects appear confident, self-assured and in high spirits. The nighttime liberates, rather than subsumes them. Their smiles, however, belie a darkening situation: the political climate in India continues to worsen as long-entrenched caste and religious tensions are exacerbated under the Hindu nationalist politics of the current prime minister. Amid this backdrop, Gupta discusses why he undertook this project.
“I have been working on this series of portraits since 2018 as the country’s socio-political and economic situation deteriorated. When your back is against the wall, the manifestations of dissent become more interesting. These signs: tattoos and hair gel, knock-off brands, piercings, hair colour and hip-hop are the signs of our times. It would be a crime if this is not chronicled for the future.
“Much like my last series Angst, in which I established relationships with my subjects, I have developed bonds with the boys and their friends. I make images and go back to their neighbourhoods with prints for them to circulate. I often give my camera away to the boys and let them photograph each other. I then send these images to them via WhatsApp to use for their social media accounts. This allows the boys to open up and express themselves in front of the camera, to pose with pride; they feel validated looking at the portraits that have been made, either by me, their friends or other photographers whom they pay to have their images made. Yes, there is bit of narcissism at play, but it is their confidence that radiates – their will to dream sky-high, have aspirations, feel good, look good, look attractive and not bow down to societal pressure and oppression. I want this exuberance and this side of our culture’s masculinity to be visible. When it comes to the international gaze on India, the details of our working-class youth are virtually unknown. People know about their impoverishment, but there is not nearly enough material on their day-to-day realities or their aspirations.
“I view Desi Boys as a real departure from my 2018 series Angst, and for good reason. When I was making Angst, I was in great pain, and very angry with the world at large. I was a college dropout, often thought of as a parasite. And thus my anger, my angst, showed in the images: I wanted my work to rot a bit, to be bitter. I released Angst when I was exactly 30. Now I am older. A friend recently said I have become less extreme, more calm and balanced. I think that is visible in these new works.
“Angst – in its unflinching depiction of abject poverty – is a provocative work, which has attracted its critics, but I believe it to be a classic. When Satyajit Ray made Pather Panchali, a famed Bollywood actress accused him of “exporting poverty”. Even [François] Truffaut left a screening of the film, saying he did not want to see farmers eating with their hands.
“With Desi Boys, I am trying to capture another side of the Kolkata metropolis, in this case, the unique phenomenon of sartorial choices and grassroots hip-hop movement that have helped disenfranchised young men mostly from Dalit and Muslim communities find an outlet and a voice. This despite crippling odds in a country, with rampant class and caste-based tensions, xenophobia and vast income disparities.
“This youth movement, which transcends religion and caste and class today, is fuelled by the democratisation of smartphones and high-speed internet in the country, along with the boom in app-based service marketplaces that connect customers to service professionals, leading to a sudden demand for jobs for the economically marginalised youth. The youth have sky-high dreams – they dream because they have the internet and they see what wealth and fortune looks like, and because hungry politicians are merchants of their dreams. But promises are just that – and a nation with a disillusioned youth quickly becomes a nation in crisis.
“The early-20th-century Bengali poet Kazi Nazrul Islam famously wrote about the power of youth in his poems, and taught us that the foundation of nations must be based on the happiness and contentment of its young population. This is only achieved in a space where everyone is welcome, where people can dream freely, read freely and speak freely anywhere: from Kashmir to Andaman, Arunachal Pradesh to Gujarat.”