Artist Interview - Madhur Dhingra

Hi, Madhur!  Quite a series and quite a journey!

I have been a spiritual person right from my early childhood. The questions about “Existence” have hovered in my mind since then. My childhood was turbulent and insecure and, starting with reading books about it, it was much later, with a camera in my hand, that I started giving form to those spiritual ideas and emotions.

The concept of “Shunyata”  (Sanskrit – शून्यता )  first took seed during my Merchant Navy days. I was around 19-20 years of age then. My ship used to make frequent visits to Sri Lanka. When others used to go “merry-making” ashore, I would frequent the Buddhist monasteries there. Sailors and officers on my ship found me odd. It is pertinent for me to mention I was just a deck cadet getting a stipend of $8 a month and I relied heavily on my senior officers for travel and other expenses. Though they expected that I would spend whatever they gave me “enjoying myself,” I spent the money in travelling to Buddhist monasteries and buying books on Buddhism. Life takes strange and unexpected turns. Never had it ever occurred to me then that it would take a form as a photo-graphic series much later in my life.

The current pandemic has had me imprisoned in my studio for nearly two years now. The same feeling of emptiness and void has set in again.  I started searching for a unique photographic style that I could call entirely my own. Images of Shunyata have come into being as a result of that very search.      

Tell more of your origin story – birth, youth, early adult. Any surprises or formative experiences early on?

I was born an only child to my parents in Delhi, into a family torn apart by chaos and violence that followed the partition of India and Pakistan in the year 1947. The exodus from our ancestral land in Pakistan was so sudden and hurried that my family had no choice but to flee overnight, leaving everything behind. The only posses-

sions they carried were the clothes which they wore on their bodies. Trains packed with men, women, and children were mercilessly hacked to death by Muslim rioters all along the way. My father never really recovered from the wounds that Partition inflicted upon his psyche. Though I was born much later in Delhi, I too inherited or, shall I say, was “made to inherit” those very insecurities from my parents and grandparents. These remain with me to this date. Emptiness and restlessness have become an integral part of me and you will find this reflected in most of my images and style.

I enrolled in college but, restless and bored, I left after the first year to join the Merchant Navy. I loved this new experience, developed skill at navigation, and was promoted to become the navigating officer. During the first year, I never even thought of coming back home. I was busy fulfilling my desire to see the world, meeting different types of people and experiencing different kinds of cultures.  I sailed the high seas for about 5 years, but restless-ness and void again set in. Novelty had worn off and my temper-ament and upbringing was not that of a sailor in most ways. I finally decided to call it quits and join the family business which was waiting for me to return. My dad was overjoyed at my decision.

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Madhur Dhingra

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