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Betsy Karel: Photographer of Bombay Jadoo

When you get a glimpse of the world Betsy captured, you will be inspired, to say the least.
by Khalid Ilahi

Betsy Karel

Such a refreshing and wonderfully talented woman Betsy is, you can tell passion and honesty when you see it. Her book, Bombay Jadoo is centered around exactly that, the raw streets and going-ons of the India we rarely see now. The children on the streets, the dirt, the cows wandering about, the beauty of India as it is. All captured by the lens of Betsy Karel.

We chat with Betsy about her inspiration and the backdrop to her book.

Khalid Ilahi: What was your impulse for putting Bombay Jadoo together?
Betsy Karel: I have always loved photography books and dreamed about doing one of my own. Picking up a camera after a 17-year absence (I had worked professionally in the 1970's), I made the decision that I would challenge myself to see if I could build a body of work that might become a book. I wanted to do it on my own terms without constraints from editors, writers, or designers. Some of my fellow photographers thought it a bit perverse that I would want to capture this city with black and white film, and several marketing people scoffed at the idea that I would find an audience for a book about India in the States.

KI: What in specific about India and Bombay appeals to you or you find compelling?
BK: Two things: Bombay is a gold mine for street photographs. The writer Pico Iyer once said: "The real sights of Bombay are the streets themselves, and though there is not much formally to see here you can have a great time not seeing it." Secondly, and equally important, is that from my very first trip I met so many wonderful, generous, welcoming people that I wanted an excuse to return.

KI: So what is your history with India?
BK: My history with India predates my first trip to India by several decades. Unlike many of my American contemporaries, I was not drawn there by mysticism, or yoga, or even the Beatles in India. I recently realized I have carried around a mental image for many decades. As a young teenager I read Ved Mehta's memoir Face-to-Face about the first 20 years of his life. What I remember is this young boy, blinded at the age of three, jumping from rooftop to rooftop, to keep up with his sighted friends. I also recall his determination to get an education, to make himself, in his father's words, a "self-sustaining citizen of the world." I admit I was guilty of the worst stereotyping. I projected his energy, his persistency, his soaring spirits, his bravery on an entire population. Unconsciously, I wanted to meet more Ved Mehtas. The lovely thing is, through Bombay Jadoo, I have done just that.

KI: What other projects have you worked on and how do they compare to Bombay Jadoo?
BK: I worked professionally as a photojournalist in the 1970's and then put my cameras away for 17 years. I had primarily worked for magazines doing photographic assignments. Then, back in late 1990's, Tipper Gore organized a project around homelessness in America that became a book and a traveling exhibition. She invited me to be one of the dozen photographers to contribute. At first, I was reluctant. Some of the most well-known photographers in the business were also included such as Mary Ellen Mark and Annie Leibovitz. I worried that I would embarrass myself. I quickly realized how much I had missed photographing and any embarrassment I might feel paled in terms of the pleasure I derived from being behind the camera again. When I resumed photographing, though, I made a conscious decision that I didn't want to work for someone else, I wanted to do my own work. The model of Bombay Jadoo, where I was able to work on it from conception to execution, and then find the most remarkable publisher, Gerhard Steidl, is as good as it gets.

KI: What, if any was the involvement of Suketu Mehta in the book beyond his words?
BK: I met Suketu at a South Asian Literary Festival in Washington back in 2001. He had written a powerful essay in the magazine Granta. I introduced myself and showed him some of my early photographs for this project. Evidently he liked what he saw and encouraged me to continue to share the work with him as the project developed. I took him up on his offer. Not only did he continue to look at and respond to my work but he also shared some of his contacts in Mumbai who became my good friends. I felt deeply honored when he gave me a blueline of Maximum City and will always appreciate how movingly he spoke about my work at an event at the Rubin Museum in New York.

KI: As an artist/photographer, from your perspective, what is your opinion on where India is headed socially?
BK: As a photographer, my reality is the moment. Not the past or the future. My goal is to be totally in the present, the "now."

KI: As a photographer, what inspires you? Any other photographers or works you admire?
BK: On this particular project, Indian novels seduced me. Among the many that I read and adored I would include Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, Kiran Desai's Hullabaloo in the Guava Orchard, Arundhati Roy's The God Of Small Things, and two novels set in Bombay, Manil Suri's The Death of Vishnu and Ardashir Vakil's Beach Boy. I loved the way fantasy was commingled with the mundane, together with the humanity, the humor, the psychological energy of their stories. I wanted to do visually what they had done with language.

As I mentioned earlier, I love photography books and own a fairly large collection of them. Through the Internet, I look at other photographers' websites almost every day. We live in such a visual culture. I also love films and had the honor this past August of being on a panel with Shyam Benegal. Satyajit Ray has been a long-time hero of mine. In terms of photographers, those whose work have inspired me most is too long to print, but at the top of my list are: Henri Cartier-Bresson, Andre Kertesz, Helen Levitt, Lee Friedlander, and, of course, Raghubir Singh and Raghu Rai.

KI: What are you currently working on and what can we expect from you in the coming time?
BK: My husband is not well, and my first priority right now is to spend time with him. At the moment I am letting lots of ideas percolate and examining my options.

We most certainly wish you and your husband well Betsy. For more on Betsy and her works, you can visit bombayjadoo.com.

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