Cop Shiva, a photographer by day and constable by night, talks to The Better India about his journey as an artist.
Before Cop Shiva became a globetrotting photographer, he was known as Shivaraju BS. Shivaraju was born into a family of farmers in a small village in Karnataka called Ramanagaram. This village, which is around 50 kms from Bangalore, is famous as being the location where Sholay was filmed.
He says, “A government job is highly sought after in the rural areas where life is very hard and unpredictable. My family suggested that I apply for one and I was selected for the job of a police constable.”
He confesses that as a child he had always been interested in art. So, when he moved to Bangalore, he visited the “alternative art space” 1shanthiroad gallery/art studio. He was enthused to see the works of different visual artists, scholars, filmmakers and photographers who exhibited their work there.
Shivaraju felt that as a cop and a photographer, he has been able to develop a keen eye for subtleties and a good understanding of people who live on the fringes of society.
The turning point in his career came when he was assigned his first project by the gallery – to photograph the lives of migrant labourers working on construction sites in Shanthi Nagar.
Since Shivaraju had no training in photography, 1shanthiroad also served a space for informal instruction. His interactions with various photographers, especially with Suresh Jayram who displayed his work in this gallery, helped Shivaraju learn more about the technical aspects of taking photographs. Cop Shiva’s impressive Instagram feed features stunning portraits of people he meets everyday on his beat.
He says, “There are many real heroes, achievers working hard to change society and bring justice to the marginalised. They act on a small scale yet they want to bring about tangible positive change. They are the focus of my work and to bring them to bigger audiences is my main target. My experiences as a farmer, a police constable, an art space coordinator, and an artist have helped me build the right mindset for my practice. Negotiating all these different aspects of my life has allowed me to construct a personal narrative that is apparent in my work.”
“My portfolio includes intimate portraits of urban migrants, people of alternative sexuality, street performers, and others caught in the middle of urban/rural conflict. I also capture the diversity of humans who live on the edge and represent the spirit of our times,” he adds.
His first professional project, Being Gandhi, reflects this interest in documenting the lives of unsung heroes.
Bagadehalli Basavaraj, a 46-year-old man who is the subject of this series, lives in a small village called Chikmagalur in Karnataka. Chikmagalur is one of the two places in India where there is a temple dedicated to Mahatma Gandhi. Basavaraj has been working as a teacher in various local schools for the past 29 years. He was born into an impoverished family and had to struggle to educate himself. This made him understand, early in life, the importance and value of giving to people less fortunate than himself. Bagadehalli Basavaraj looks to Gandhi for inspiration and has been spreading the message of service to humanity through the performing arts for the past 14 years.
Shivaraju, who photographed Basavaraj’s performances as part of his first professional project, says, “Sometimes Basavaraj douses himself in silver paint, dresses in Gandhi gear – bare-chested and dhoti-clad, round-rimmed spectacles on the nose and a walking stick in hand – and walks on the streets of villages and nearby cities. He sometimes stands still as a statue for hours together. His Gandhi act never ceases to surprise. Some dismiss him as insane, some throw money at him assuming that he is an innovative beggar, and many quiz him. To them, he talks about Gandhi and his teachings. Basavaraj simply wants people to remember Gandhi, he told me.”
Shivaraju’s work was unveiled before a global audience when he visited the US in November for his solo exhibition. It was titled On Being Gandhi: The Art and Politics of Seeing, and it was displayed at The Frank Museum of Art in Otterbein University in Columbus, Ohio.
Was it the first time that his work was displayed at an international venue? He says, “ My work has been exhibited in several national and international galleries and exhibitions. And it has been part of several group exhibitions not only in India but also in countries like the US, UK, Spain, Switzerland, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Germany. I am very happy my work has been seen in so many places.”
Shivaraju says 2017 is going to be “an intense and fruitful” year for him. He has been invited by the Swedish Arts Council for a three-month residential programme to work with the local art community in the country.
In May, he intends to visit Germany to attend the exhibition of his work in the museum Funfkontinente in Munich.
Does he have any advice for upcoming artists in the country? Shivaraju says, “Being an artist is a very personal experience, believing in yourself and finding your own voice is a complex and painful journey. Once you decide to take your work seriously, everything falls into place, and of course all your life experiences and skills help you to deal with the subject.”