Review by Ankush Arora
December 01, 2018


By Ankush Arora

Jazz Portraits

Farrokh Chothia

October 20 to November 24, 2018
Photoink, New Delhi


Typically, if you walk into an art show about practitioners of music, you would expect ambient soundtracks—preferably from their repertoire—to complement the exhibits displayed at the gallery. It’s like experiencing the highly imaginative worlds of the ancient raag malapaintings by listening to the specific melodies they sought to represent. 


But the latest exhibition at Delhi’s Photoink gallery demonstrated a different approach towards curating a show about music. Simply titled ‘Jazz Portraits’, shot by famous fashion and advertising photographer Farrokh Chothia, the collection documents some of greatest jazz performers of modern times (both living and dead), during performance. There’s no music, however, in the background, which may have accentuated the palpable intensity of these 23 monochromatic images.


Chothia’s images flirt with stage lighting as he studies his subjects, often suspending them between shadows and the deliberately measured exposure to light. Known for his intense portraitures of film celebrities and fashion models, the artist’s collection endeavours to capture the underlying intimacy and the ever-shifting emotive dichotomies of jazz music. There’s pain, power, ferocity, self-dissolution, loss and multiple unexplained emotions in these images. Each artist is attempting to—and probably has, eventually—cross an existential threshold through their musical practice. Chothia’s lens chases them in their individual pursuits.      


For example, there’s B.B. King, literally the King of Blues, drenched in the headiness of his own baritone and dripping with ecstasy. Chothia shows different avatars of neo-soul virtuoso Erykah Badu—first, in her signature towering head wrap, and in another, resembling a dervish-in-performance—which give her an air of mystery, as if she is tip-toeing from temporal realities into a mystical landscape.


The dark alleys of Badu’s music seem to find their way into the image of Aaron Neville, the famous R&B and soul vocalist. The photographer, mindful of the singer’s warm and gentle vocals, which is distinct from his tough-looking mien, heightens the balladeer’s stage presence through an aura-like setup. At least to me, the 1995 photograph of the New Orleans singer evokes the otherworldly tones of ‘Ave Maria’, the immortal Latin prayer hailing Mother Mary. He could also be crooning of longing and hurt in “Tell It Like It Is”, an addictive melody about a difficult and confused lover.           


While looking at the portraits, it is not possible to not think about the chequered history of jazz music, which belongs in the African-American tradition. Racism, cultural appropriation, plagiarism, and disdain of music observers have overshadowed the origins of jazz music, which saw its first recording a little over 100 years ago. In this context, Chothia’s work indirectly harks back to the historical undercurrent of jazz, as he documents, for example, the performance of jazz legend Chuck Berry, the architect of rock and roll. Berry’s name often comes up in one of the most contentious topics in jazz music—who invented the genre? Master trumpeter and vocalist Louis Armstrong (not featured in the collection), who was credited with writing the first autobiography of a jazz musicianin 1936, contributed his bit to the debate by arguing that the New Orleans-based Original Dixieland Jass Band was the “first great jazz orchestra.” (Christian Blauvelt, ‘The Mysterious Origins of Jazz’, BBC, 2017)


Chothia’s ‘Jazz Portraits’ appear darker and more reflective than his commercial photography, and in that he moves beyond establishing a transactional dialogue between the lens man and his subject. There’s also a muted intensity in his work, invariably influenced by the history of the city he lives in, the erstwhile Bombay, where jazz music burst onto the scene nearly a century ago. His collection is no less than a landmark in the history of fine art and jazz music photography.