Prashant Arora: Life Driven by Passion

Tall, fair, smartly turned up and methodical with a no-nonsense attitude, he looked every inch a corporate official to me when I was introduced to Prashant Arora as a well-known photographer at the Sangeet Research Academy in 1997. Surprisingly, the photo archive of the Academy was not up to my expectations and as a member of Academic Research Department I needed artistic photos of SRA musicians. While sizing up this handsome young man with a shock of grey hair I had my doubts whether he would be sensitive enough to capture the subtle emotions of the vocalists in recital – a forte of Avinash Pasricha, a much senior, world renowned photographer, music/dance lover and a dear friend.

But within minutes the skeptic thought vanished when I learnt that albeit born with a silver spoon in his mouth in a Punjabi family of successful businessmen, Prashant was exposed to the beauty of literature due to his parents’ deep interest in Hindi literature. ‘We were eight siblings and lived in the area called Neelkuthi, Bhowanipur, where lived a landlord who, to please the British, turned into an indigo planter.’ Prashant informed with well-placed pride, ‘Later by 1957, the year I was born, it had become the cultural hub of south Kolkata. Moreover, I saw my eldest sister winning a Master’s degree from Calcutta University with gold medal. She is a renowned author now. It was the ambience of the place and my Didi’s footprints which encouraged me to think differently.’

And he did. On the occasion of Mahatma Gandhi’s birth century celebrations, Government of India had published several postal stamps. Since then he developed interest in stamp collection and participating in Philately contests. He won several medals for his systematic style of work. Very soon, this good looking youngster caught the eyes of famous thespian Usha Ganguly. She brought him on stage that exposed him to other performing art forms like classical music/dance and got him hooked for life. What attracted him to these arts?

‘Two things: the Guru-shishya parampara which brought me closer to our traditions, and music’s powerful calming effect on distraught nerves.’ Prashant said simply. ‘A major change happened in my life when I got my first camera in 1983. Those were the days when Anamika Kala Sangam was one of the top organizers of classical music and dance in our metro. I would go there to enjoy the concerts. I witnessed the thrilling kathak of Gopikrishna; listened to the ghazals in the silky voice of Talat Mehmood live on stage. The organisers saw my photography. They offered me to be their official photographer at the rate of a princely sum of three hundred and fifty rupees to cover their events that featured the legendary stalwarts of performing arts. I got noticed by people in 1984 when my photos of Russian Circus were published. It was a dream come true for me! I would buy rolls of films with that money for clicking images to my heart’s content.’

This lavish style of cultivating one’s hobby was possible because the main source of income was, and still is, his family business. He owns a retail outlet of kid’s dresses in an upscale AC Market of the city. He divided his days in two compartments – one reserved for business, the other dedicated to the cultural world. What about his extremely beautiful wife Puja and their three children?

‘Well, we were lucky to enjoy the blessings of our age-old concept of joint family system. They were safe and secure till we lived in Neelkuthi with our parents,’ admitted the lens man. ‘By the time we shifted in our own flat, the children were grown up and Puja was busy teaching in a school. Meanwhile, I noticed that many fans would demand autographs of their favourite artistes but did not come prepared with proper autograph books or diaries. An idea flashed in my mind. I started collecting every artiste’s autograph on his photograph captured by me. The novelty of this was highly appreciated by every artiste whom I gift photographs of his choice till date.’

The organizers of Salt Lake Cultural Association decided to hold the first exhibition of ‘Autograph on photograph’ in 1995 in this satellite city of eastern Kolkata. Prashant put up one hundred autographed photos along with brief bio-datas of each artiste. For this he ran from pillars to posts. It was an instant hit! Next exhibition was held at Gyan Manch of central Kolkata that led him to the prestigious Dover Lane Music Conference during its five-day extravaganza for years. The first ten years he could put up only hundred images but by next decade the number shot up to one thousand. Did he restrict himself within the music and dance scenario?

‘No, no!’ Pat came the answer. ‘A close friend advised me to diversify; because he had overheard someone complaining – “Theater is neglected. We, the actors, are not considered as artistes.” I, therefore, covered the Kolkata Film Festival, 1998; interviewed people, wrote articles for a prestigious daily. In fact, many interesting things happened during this journey of four decades. Once there was a unique event featuring stars like Zakir Hussain, Birju Maharaj and Bismillah Khan. By the time I collected the autographs of the first two legends, the latter had left to catch the train. I had to wait for nine years and then at the venue of his concert for another twelve hours because Ustadji was to perform at five in the morning and he refused to meet any stranger before that.’    

This is not the only incident. When Salman Rushdie visited Kolkata, Prashant clicked like mad, ran to the lab, got the photos printed, returned to the venue to get it autographed and to give Rushdie some photos as mementos. For MS Sathyu’s autograph on his image Prashant waited over twenty years and finally went to Bengaluru to get the desired signature a few days before the nonagenarian’s demise. Moreover, he was forced to innovate techniques to cope up with undesirable light conditions of different venues.  

At present he can boast of a collection of three thousand ‘autograph on photograph’ featuring eminent personalities belonging to different fields like literature, theater, fine arts, film actors of Mumbai and Kolkata and music/ dance of all genres now. Unfortunately four hundred of them are no more. Due to the entailing hassels, he stopped putting up exhibitions unless invited with proper assistance; instead built an impressive archive of his collection of autographed photographs and awards for his services to art and culture. ‘It took a lot of time, money and energy along with dedication, determination and patience to reach here,’ the passion driven photo-artiste often reiterates with a self assured smile.