Photography, Nostalgia and Catharsis in a Coastal Indian Town

Photography, Nostalgia and Catharsis in a Coastal Indian Town

2000 1125 Hemant Chatterji

March 17th, 2020 is a day I remember with so much clarity, and yet the events before and after remain a blur. It was just a regular evening. We had just returned from the mess hall, catching up on the happenings of the day, but something was different. There was a tension in the air. The kind tinged with uncertainty.

There it was: an email from my college’s administration. It said that there would be a 15-day break. The cause? “To re-evaluate certain circumstances.”

I remember packing diligently, not too much and not too little. A few favorite clothes, books alongside a few select memories, all enclosed into the trusty old cupboard. It would be opened very soon, we said to each other as we parted ways. That day still has not arrived. 

As the following hours weaved into days, and then months, I started to lose my profound hope for things to improve. Lost in the initial days of excitement for an unplanned holiday. Adrift amongst the cheers over canceled examinations. Led astray over the slowly transforming ritual of the days. And, finally, disoriented over the things we thought we had under control. 

It’s in one of these oblivious days of this past year that I found myself seeking a pocket of hope – some type of sanctuary – if only in my albums and my photographs of yesteryears. And, within this desperate attempt to preserve my sanity, I found myself coming back to a set of recent pictures I have from not too long ago.

They are pictures of a place you would only locate on a map with difficulty. A place disconnected from the rest of the country and lost in lieu of much grander travel destinations. This is a story about those pictures and Dapoli. A fishing village tucked away. A place where the hills meet the water. 

First, back to the packing. My family clearly doesn’t understand the concept of traveling light. It’s not an exaggeration to say that efficient travelers would take off for the hills at the sight of us. By now we have a standard checklist: 6 bags of clothes? Check. Sacks for a stadiums worth of people? Check. Random nicknacks? Double check. All of this for just a two-day trip? Hell yes! 

There are those that say the journey (and not the destination) is what counts. And I do genuinely try my best to make the most out of road trips. But it’s not that simple. I don’t think the people who write these maxims suffer from motion sickness or claustrophobia.

On top of that, I don’t think they had a younger brother to play cat and mouse with. There’s no instance on record in which the two of us agree on anything unilaterally. If I want the windows open, he wants the shut. If I want to go slow and steady, he’s gearing up “Need for Speed.” So it goes, and in this spirit our journey was underway.

The drive to the coast itself is long and arduous, rolling through multiple Ghats with stretches of road washed away by the treacherous Indian monsoon. Prolonged and curved pathways, slithering alongside the side of the hill and humming away with the constant droning of a diesel engine. It all makes me uncomfortable from time to time. 

Having said all of this, maybe you can appreciate why I pounce at every opportunity to take a break and stretch my legs. 

We had made one such stationary interlude to gather our senses when we saw the majesty of nature spread before us. In the valley ahead lay low-hanging clouds hugging the hills creating soft shadows  that were playing hide and seek with sudden breaks of light.

With my camera at hand, I went to work. Trying to do some kind of justice to the beauty that lay before us. Pulling up my Nikon FM2N, I let my instincts take over. The usual process began with mounting the 50mm and choosing a smaller aperture. The next step being metering for the shadows, followed by focusing and then composing the image. Closing the act with the final press of the button and hearing that metal shutter gently close. 

Looking back, maybe the photos would have done better with a wide-angle lens but, I’m happy with the results nonetheless. The added warmth of the Kodak film does actually help in balancing the images a bit. All in all it turned into a very successful pit stop. 

We arrived at our place of stay, disheveled and exhausted. With our stomachs desperately aching for attention, we headed to lunch and then crashed into our beds. 

After crashing and getting some rest, we finally made our way to the beach for the evening.

Being a hobbyist landscape photographer, I do love to head out a bit early and scout the location. When it comes to photographing coastlines, I look for shapes, sizes and structures – things that could help me compose a good photo. From leading lines to small puddles, there are many options for creating an interesting foreground. Unfortunately, the landscape that eventually greeted me at the seashore was a little boring. 

There weren’t any foreground assistants like rocks or stray driftwood to be found. Instead it was just a long stretch of sand, extending beyond the horizon. So after much deliberation, I packed away my DSLR and switched over to capturing moments on film. I loaded a roll of Fuji C200 and started taking pictures of my family, making them wait more than they would if I had a digital camera as I manually metered, focused and snapped the shutter.

But in the end I was incredibly glad for the experience. The scans I got back from the lab continue to bring me a huge amount of happiness. From the calmness of the environment to the pastel-like shades of the evening everything is just as I remember it to be. As the evening wore onto the night, the stars came out and the feeling was just magical. This was the time when my father’s Nikon D5100 made an arrival and we used it to capture a few star trails. 

The next day we went in search of a location that would allow us a view of the shore with more grandeur than the one we had the previous evening. After driving around in circles, we finally came across one such location. It was a long-abandoned construction platform by the side of the road. Jutting out of the hillside just enough, it was the perfect place to sit and soak up the expanse of views ahead. The village was set in the distance with tiny houses dotting the coast. Thickets of grass swayed along the hillside with the gentle breeze and, the air carried hints of fish and salt. It was the perfect place to reflect and disconnect, and we returned many times to this unique location for that very reason.

When people discuss India, many of the things that come up are its chaos, color, and entropy. And while that is true for the most part, exceptions can be found in the country’s nooks and crannies. There are places where one can be lost in the quiet and listen only to their thoughts. This is one of those places – one standing in contrast to the rest of India, to its people, its wind, and its character.

Travel a few hundred kilometers in either direction and you would find the crowds you see in much of the country. But they are not here. There’s no one encroaching on anything here. That’s what makes it so charming and unique.

The two days we spent in Dapoli went by in a blur. They were spent taking walks on the beach and enjoying the mouthwatering local cuisine of the Konkan region. We didn’t get to do everything we wanted, or visit everywhere we had planned, but we assured ourselves that a return trip wouldn’t be far in the future. 

None of us had any idea that this trip would be one of the last we would take for a long time.

From the footprints in the sand, the salty breeze, and the pockets full of tiny shells, everything from that weekend remains a transient reminder of the happier moments in life. It is also a reminder of the good times, an inspiration for enduring these uncertain ones. As the country continues to struggle, its these memories that help ground me and keep me optimistic for the future.

The images I took in those days come to life in the current landscape of grief and struggle. They are binding me to the future. One in which we can return to this place and enjoy moments of happy calmness. A future in which the struggles of today are a memory, and more images are created to treasure and inspire.

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Hemant Chatterji

I've always looked for a medium to tell my stories. It's only when photography came into my life that I found my true calling. When I'm not photographing daily life I'm most enthusiastic about building things as a budding engineer.

All stories by:Hemant Chatterji
  • wonderful pictures
    wonderful place
    wonderful gear (I have made my “best” pictures with one camera and a 50mm when traveling ;-))
    You are right : light is the key. We can not find sharper than a 50mm.
    By the way I would like to have a deep thought from my heart to our human brothers and sisters of great India who are touched by covid19. We hope everything will return normal as soon as possible. The world miss great India.
    I hope the other countries will help India. The world needs compassion, solidarity, love and peace, not cripto-money ! (I hope States will regulate and stop the creation of this kind of fake money which is dangerous for safety of people – only a few win and many will lose all their savings)
    I love your images.
    The film is also very good.
    Thank you so much.

  • Beautiful photos, you have a good eye and I love the color pallet! Great writing too, I enjoyed reading this, thank you. Things are bound to get better!

  • Peter Bidel Schwambach May 21, 2021 at 7:02 pm

    Beautiful write up and pictures! The last trip I took before all this mess took place was me and my wife’s honeymoon in Gramado, a small, scenic town here in Southern Brazil, and I took just about the same setup, an FM2n and a 50mm as my normal lens, plus a 28 and 135. It’s a shame the weather didn’t cooperate, it was overcast for the whole trip, plus a couple days of rain, but the resulting pictures are also some of my favorites

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Hemant Chatterji

I've always looked for a medium to tell my stories. It's only when photography came into my life that I found my true calling. When I'm not photographing daily life I'm most enthusiastic about building things as a budding engineer.

All stories by:Hemant Chatterji