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Treading On Several Paths – Ashima Narain

ashima profileWhen Ashima was completing her studies, many people asked her what she would like to do in the future. Her response? “Everything”.

In the face of conventional wisdom, that answer doesn’t hold ground. We’re often taught that we must choose a ‘path’ if we really want to make it. In a way, Ashima did find her niche; she’s well-known for her role in the world of photography. It didn’t stop there, though. Along the way, she’s also been a documentary filmmaker, production designer, costume designer and fundraiser. Within photography as well, she didn’t stick to one particular style. One would assume that this required a certain amount of courage. Instead, Ashima would brush it off as simply doing what she wanted to do.

She may have not known what she wanted to pursue while at school, but the first sign of what that would be, arrived in the form of a gift.

The Gift That Created A Profession

“When I was growing up, I always enjoyed participating in everything – be it drawing, sports or plays. I was never interested in doing just one thing and never related to the concept of a ‘burning desire’ or an ‘ambition’. I would simply do it all and say yes to anything that came my way”.

When Ashima turned 16, however, a gift from her parents would slowly grab all of her attention. “My father was very interested in photography and he took a lot of pictures. Possessing a camera of my own turned out to be quite a revelation for me.” Coincidentally, Ashima was in the perfect place to work on her photography skills. “I was schooled in Mussoorie in the early 90’s. It was pristine and beautiful. I’d try to capture funny incidents, nature or moments with my friends. What really appealed to me was that I could do so many different things with one tool.”

However, Ashima had still not made a decision as far as her future was concerned. “When I left school, I didn’t know what to do. ‘Everything’ was clearly the wrong answer for everybody. I eventually got into St. Xaviers and studied History, English and Anthropology. I enjoyed my time there, particularly under the tutelage of a fantastic professor who is now the Vice-chancellor of St. Xavier’s.” Along the way, Ashima felt that she had found her path – to be a teacher in the field of history. “I went ahead with my choice and decided to do my MA in Kalina. As I started with my classes, I had a change of heart! I didn’t want to teach or study history anymore. It was while I was doing the course that I realised that it wasn’t for me or something that I would enjoy doing.”

Ashima was back to square one and the world of photography was yet to find her.

A Hobby That Paid Off

 In her quest to discover what she wanted to do, Ashima connected with a friend who was running a charity in Mumbai. “A Chilean photographer had come down to document the work done by his charity. My friend asked me if I wanted to meet with him and I immediately said yes.” Having photography as a hobby throughout finally came in handy. She showed her portfolio to the photographer and he suggested that she apply to the Surrey School of Art & Design in England.

In the year 1996, Ashima found herself in one of Europe’s largest specialist colleges for Art & Communication. What had once simply been a hobby was now on its way to becoming a full-fledged profession. “Studying there was such an enriching experience. What I learnt was one thing, but staying with people who were in journalism, filmmaking, videography and other art forms truly added to my repertoire.”

Three years later, Ashima was set to come back and build her career in Mumbai.

The Reality Of Life After School

ashima cameraAshima soon realised that the business of photography could be vastly different from the art of it. “It was easy back in art school to have airy-fairy thoughts. The photography scene in India was completely different in 1999. It’s not as established as it is now. All my ideas of how life would be once I returned just crashed!” Soon after, she started working with the magazine, Man’s World in the year 2000.

In her stint there, Ashima started working on several interesting projects, but as with most jobs, not all of it would pique her interest. In one particular instance, she had to shoot rolls of toilet paper. Initially, the thought of shooting inanimate objects was a turn-off for her, but with time she realised that if she were to treat it the same way as one would treat portraits, working on composition, lighting and colour, the process and end result could be so much more gratifying.

This simple change in perspective had an altogether different impact. Today, Ashima has two books published that involves food photography, an area she never imagined getting involved in. “What was something that I disliked turned into something fascinating.”

To Lose Control

As Ashima became more comfortable in her current line of work, she started to crave a challenge to work with. “I was working in such a controlled environment and I wanted to relinquish some of it. I could have stayed in the same field, but I wasn’t interested in being the ‘best’. I just wanted new experiences. I like change, and I like to change.”

As luck would have it, Ashima’s sister, Ruchi Narain, was working on her directorial venture, Kal: Yesterday and Tomorrow. “She asked me to be the production designer. I took it up even though I was going to be thrown in the deep end. I had to figure out sets, costumes and controlling the situation was a monumental task.” Working within a fixed time frame, budget and around schedules of actors as well as other cast members required a new style of working for Ashima – one that involved moving at a much faster pace than she was accustomed to. “The biggest challenge was that in a film set things change hour-by-hour and not day-by-day. It was a completely different kind of rush.”

This experience had completely shifted Ashima’s line of interest. “Going back into a studio for my regular photography work had me going ‘I can’t do this.’ I began to enjoy working on films and the power of moving images.” This set the tone for her foray into the world of documentary filmmaking.

From Stills To The World Of Motion Capture

For her first go at making documentaries, Ashima decided to take on a topic that Mumbai wasn’t really known for – flamingos. “I was very fascinated with flamingos and I realised that there was almost no existing documentation on flamingos in Mumbai. I had no background to work with, and decided to put in money from my commercial work to fund this.”

Ashima started speaking to flamingo experts all over the world. Every day, she would go to the mud flats where the flamingos were located. In the process, Ashima would get caught in the tide coming in and would be stuck with a stink that wouldn’t go away for days. “No one even assumed that I was serious about this documentary. Besides my husband, nobody else understood why I was doing this. He’s always believed in big dreams and the power of passion and encouraged me to work the same way. My peers were so much more successful in their respective fields, and here I was, involved in a project that had no guarantee of any return, material or otherwise. I did it because it was simply what I wanted to do.”

Along the way, Ashima came across several other challenges. “I had no idea where I’d go to edit or how to go about the voice-over for the documentary!” She eventually turned to the people around her, starting with her sister who’d already worked on films and was the producer of her documentary. Ashima also asked her good friend and accomplished writer Jerry Pinto to write the script. “He told me that I was really pushing the limits of our friendship by asking him to re-write his 17th draft!”

ashima tortoiseIn the process of creating the flamingo documentary, she also came across another opportunity. “I happened to find out about a grant that was being given by the United Kingdom Environment Film Fellowship (UKEFF) for films on wildlife crimes.  We found a fantastic wildlife organisation here, Wildlife SOS, to partner with. Together, we worked on a 11-minute documentary about Sloth bears.” These bears were captured when they were young and others were bred in captivity. The cubs were often taken from their mothers and were made use of as entertainment. They were made to ‘dance’ by their ‘owners’ with a metal muzzle over their snouts. To keep them completely suppressed, their claws would be ripped off, teeth would be pulled out, and at times, hot rods or nails would be inserted in their noses to keep them in constant control. All dancing bears are snatched from their mothers while they are cubs and this usually ends in the death of the mother bear.

The film created by Ashima was sold to Discovery channel and was used by Wildlife SOS to spread awareness across India to rescue the Sloth Bears. As of December 2009, all Sloth Bears have been freed and holding or capturing these bears is now illegal.

As for the flamingo documentary? “Along with the documentary on Sloth bears, my first one about flamingos, In the pink, got nominated by an Organisation in one of the premier wildlife film festivals in the world,  called Wildscreen, for the Panda Awards in England.” These awards are given to wildlife filmmakers and is often dubbed as the Green Oscars. Soon after, Ashima also supported a blue-chip documentary on these bears.

“Both experiences were so satisfying. It was even more so to know that In the pink has been used for scientific research. A film made by a non-scientist! It’s so important to keep a documentary factual and it was a testament to that.”

Ashima continued to explore newer territories in the world of still photography and filmmaking. She created a photography based travel book through which she landed a role with National Geographic Traveller India as their photo editor. Even though she had already achieved quite a bit, the thirst to learn and get better never quite faded away. In the midst of her growing career, Ashima happened to discover that Ami Vitale, a photographer she was in touch with and had always wanted to work with, was coming to town. “I sent her a mail asking her if she needed anything for her trip here. She mentioned that she needed models, and I said I would help find them. Then she mentioned that she required a make-up artist. Almost immediately, I said that I could do it. I had NO clue how to use makeup, but I knew I wanted to be on the shoot with her. I immediately called a make-up artist to learn the basics! I just took my little make-up kit and went for the shoot.”, she says with a grin.

Thankfully for Ashima, she didn’t have to work on the make-up and instead ended up assisting Ami Vitale. Since then, she’s been able to collaborate with her on several projects.

What Does It Mean To Become An Adult?

Ashima hasn’t stopped taking on new rules and experimenting her way through in little ways, though her primary attention is reserved for her daughters. She’s now involved with The Wedding Filmer, an organisation that focuses on Wedding filmmaking services as the name suggests. She also leads student expeditions for National Geographic and teaches them photography and has also led a TV show in the past related to photography, Mission Covershot. Ashima is now able to strike a balance between taking care of her daughters and doing what she wishes to in terms of work with a flexible schedule.

“So much of learning has taken me to where I am now. I think the whole concept of “Jack of all trades, master of none” is an old-fashioned one. The more things you do, the more full your life becomes and the more experiences you get. If you’re younger in particular, that confidence and cockiness can help you! I’ve always surrounded myself with people better than me to learn.”

tedx ashimaAs our conversation was coming to an end, it was clear that Ashima challenges the ‘passion’ conundrum. Maybe we weren’t just meant to do that ‘one’ thing. While she found her footing in the media industry, she was still willing to experiment along the way. “As a nation, we are obsessed with academics and marks, but after a few years of working what people will remember you for is your ability to adapt, find interesting solutions, lend perspective to situations, and often these learnings come from experiences outside of your work.”, she says.

As children, we weren’t worried about finding that ‘one’ thing. If anything, it was simply a life of experiences. As we grow up, things change and we’re expected to be more ‘focused’. Without a doubt, focus has its place…but just maybe, the concept of having a singular passion is overrated.

Ashima’s philosophy is probably best summed up in what she shared with the audience at a recent TEDx talk in Vizag – “Does becoming an adult mean that we somehow have to expand our intelligence yet reduce our experiences?”



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