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Looking through his lens

City-based photographer documents nature, tribal life in NE

Good photography is less about camera and gear, it’s about the soul in you for the subject you love,” feels ace photographer Shyamal Datta.
If one goes through his works, especially those depicting life and times of tribals in the North East, one can fathom the deepest curiosity and restlessness that his statement veils.
Born in Digboi, Assam, Datta has followed his passion trail around the world to experience the marvels of nature and beauty of human race and freeze certain moments to stoke viewers’ imagination. The truth behind the photographs will only be treasured by the wanderer who stopped by to witness it.
Datta’s father, who was an electrical engineer in Oil India, moved to Shillong in 1960 with a job in Hydro Electric Company whose office was housed in the city’s first concrete building opposite the Secretariat. Datta was only four.
He completed his school education from St Anthony’s and finished college in 1973 from St Edmund’s. Having brought up in the sleepy hills of Meghalaya, Datta’s quest for natural wealth was an obvious consequence.

Several of Datta’s photographs talk about the Khasi culture and tradition, life and stories of the local populace. A photograph of a Khasi mother and son sitting comfortably on a hand-woven cane carpet spread near a hearth depicts an archetypal matrilineal Khasi society.
“I prefer low light because there is a magical mystery that provokes the imagination of viewers. There is a sense of beauty and artistry in low light. Also, all Dutch masters have worked with low light and maybe I am inspired by these masters in the 18th century,” said the documentarian whose works include landscapes, wildlife and abstract, to name a few.
When Datta completed engineering in Electronics and Telecommunication from Jadavpur University in erstwhile Calcutta in 1979, he was already part of the city’s IT sector. He left Kolkata in 1990 and moved to Portland, Oregon.
In 1985, a trip to Himachal Pradesh led to Datta’s deep interest in photography.
“My first foray into landscape was when I trekked up to a peak in Himachal Pradesh. The magnificence of the landscape stunned me and the profile of the tribals of Himachal mesmerised me. That was my initiation. From then onwards I was honing my skills in travel photography,” Datta, now 62, said in an email interview from Kolkata, where his photographs were exhibited during a recent festival.
Datta came back to India in 2011 after spending 25 years in the United States. Photography became his full-time profession in 2006 when he started his freelance career. “Before that it was a serious hobby and before that I was an amateur,” he said.

Datta has travelled to Alaska, Arctic Circle, the US, Canada, Mexico, the UK, Peru, Bolivia, Equador, Macchu Picchu, Galapagos Islands, Thailand, Cambodia and Argentina and collected a plethora of vignettes.
“I sailed in a small four-cabin boat in the Pacific Ocean to the Galapagos Islands from Equador to shoot the wildlife of the legendary islands made famous by Charles Darwin. I was in the boat for 15 days with a team of other professional photographers and we got on and off the boat in different islands for shooting following our guide every time. The trip was a milestone for me and a childhood dream,” the photographer shared his experience.
His photographs were also exhibited in Portland and Kansas City, besides Guwahati, Shillong and several other Indian cities. In September 2018, he held a solo exhibition of the works on the North East at the India International Centre, Delhi.
Datta had experienced some petrifying moments during his photography adventures. One such incident happened in Northern Alaska in the Arctic Circle, recollected Datta, who finds inspiration in the works of international photographers like Steve McCurry, Sebastiao Salgado, Steve Winter, Frans Lanting, Galen Rowell and David Muench.
“I was shooting polar bears. My native guide who was an expert on polar bears was guiding me. A huge male bear came towards me from a distance of 200 metres. My guide had to shoot a gun to scare it away and he rescued me from the bear,” he added.
Photography has earned Datta international recognition. He was a finalist in the BBC World Wildlife Photographer of the Year 2008 and was part of the photo essay ‘Fall Colours of New Hampshire, USA’ by The Kansas City Star.
Datta is also planning a book on the North East’s indigenous habitat.
When asked what Shillong, where he is permanently based now, means to him, the photographer used a string of adjectives to express his emotions. “Quiet, solitude, gentle, humility, grace and dignity,” he said.
Datta is currently working on several photo documentation assignments focusing on indigenous traditions in the North East and critically threatened wildlife species of the Eastern Himalaya biodiversity hotspot. He is actively engaged with biodiversity and wildlife conservation NGO Aaranyak.

~ NM

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