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Sankha Kar -A Lensman’s Odyssey

Sankha Kar -A Lensman’s Odyssey

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Sankha Kar's photograph of the last Press Conference of Mother Teresa
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We share the inspiring journey of Sankha Kar, a talented photographer who defied physical challenges and emerged as a renowned lensman. This captivating story highlights his resilience, passion for photography, and his discovery of Mindfulness-based Therapeutic Photography.

As we settled down for an adda on a sultry Kolkata afternoon, his opening remark was a famous quote of Mahatma Gandhi – “Strength does not come from physical capacity. It comes from an indomitable will”, which set the tone for the conversation that followed.

Meet Sankha Kar, the ace photographer, who had played around with camera obscuras and successfully created numerous gems that caught the eyes of millions over three decades. He was the youngest of the three siblings, a brother and a sister, and the son of an artist, who unlike him used paintbrush on canvas to capture images. But more than the DNA, it was the destiny that charted the course of his life and shaped him as a successful lensman and a mature human being.

Sankha Kar

As a kid, life had been plentiful in that rural milieu of Kakraban, a townlet in southern Tripura, until the age of 3 when a crippling disease of polio, caught him literally on the wrong foot and the entire family thunderstruck. Sankha was at his aunt’s house at Naihati, near Kolkata, when one day he returned home with a high fever after playing a game of soccer on a nearby field. In the next few hours he found himself lying inside a speeding ambulance and the neon street lights fast gliding by! Lodged in the hospital for about a month Sankha underwent treatment for polio and at the end of which he faced the hard reality – he had to retrace his life as a child with special needs.

Away from the capital of Agartala, nestled in the bucolic environ of the southern part of Gomoti district, Kakrabon has an inconsequential cartographic presence.

“My father, though an artist, had a very innovative mind,” Sankha quips, “in those days, in such a remote place he effectively created an environment so that I could carry on the physical exercise which the doctor advised for my numbing limbs. A small tank was dug up in the backyard so that I could swim, with worn-out cycle tyres, ropes and pullies a makeshift device was built for stretching exercise and a cycle with training wheels strongly infixed on the ground, used as a static bike for paddling exercise !”

The school-going boy, in a few days, could feel that life had taken a turn in a different direction and he had a battle to fight. During those days Sankha had difficulties in his body movements and the pain would keep him cowed down for hours. Kakraban did not have a proper medical infrastructure for supportive care of a polio patient and therefore frequent doctor visits to Agartala and Kolkata were planned. Gradually, as a kid, Sankha was coming to terms with the challenges and consciously trying to work out methods to circumvent them. “I could barely write with my right hand! So I tried with my left, and in the next few months, I became ambidextrous! ” He also never asked for a “writer” to proxy him in any of the examinations he wrote during those years. His parents and siblings never treated him as a child with a physical challenge and always encouraged him to take life head-on, the way any normal kid would do. “I played, I raced, I fell, I bruised – but I also applied antiseptic on the wounds myself !” He learned to face adversity and build up a psychological mechanism that would prompt him years ahead to excel.

“Search for the other route and quit the one that creates a roadblock!!” was the simple solution to the complex problem!

The family shifted to Agartala as Sankha’s father took over as the Principal of the Government Art College there. Sankha began a new journey in class seven at a new school which found him to be out of the malady. However, the scourge of polio continued to restrict his mobility. Though sports was his first love gradually he deviated. He was initiated to the guitar by Pradip Sarkar, an engineer staying nearby, and that was a turning point. Sankha’s weak fingers strummed the strings and moved on the fretboard to create music as if it came naturally. His perseverance paid off! In six months, he cleared the audition of All India Radio and played in the “Yugabani” service which had a good listenership in the North East. Stage shows followed and Sankha was in seventh heaven as he had grown a fan following !!

“I landed up in Kolkata in 1989 after my Graduation. I wanted to study printing technology, but more importantly, learn classical guitar under the tutelage of Pt Barun Paul. This was a natural progression as I had, by that time, built up a great attachment with the stick.” As luck would have it, none of these materialized, and thankfully, that helped Sankha to discover the “other route” !!

Benu Sen, the famed photographer from the city teamed up with a few like-minded persons to establish the Photographic Association of Dum Dum “PAD” in 1957. It was and is a creditable name in the field of photography training. For some reason when Sankha could not secure admission to the printing technology; on someone’s advice, he joined the Diploma course at PAD. And here he cut his teeth into the world of photography. Since his childhood he had seen photographic equipment in his house; thanks to his artist father who had an enviable collection of cameras, lenses, and a dark room, which in those days of analogue photography – was a must. A first-class first certificate holder Sankha bagged the national award from Press Information Bureau for his photograph in 1993. “It was a moment of pride and self-gratification”!!

Sankha’s entry into the world of Press photography was also perchance. In 1994 he landed up with a job in the Bengali daily ” Sonar Bangla” as a photographer. Within a few days, he learned the backstage story of newspaper publishing.

Sankha Kar's click from his photojournalism day
Sankha Kar’s click from his photojournalism days

“But the real breakthrough was just waiting to happen”, said Sankha with a babyish smile on his face. “It was the morning of December 20, 1994. I was just back from an early morning assignment at the Kolkata airport and reached the office when the land phone rang. The caller identified himself as someone calling up from the Forward Bloc party headquarters to give a lead on the unnatural death of their party member & MLA Ramzan Ali at the Kyd Street MLA Hostel!! Fortunately, my reporter colleague who the caller wanted to speak to was there in the office. After confirming with the source and taking consent from the Editor we rushed. This was going to be a big story! As a lensman I needed to take photographs; my intuition told me that rather than traveling to the spot and jostling with media people, who might have already got a whiff of the news and crowded the spot, I should try something else! In the next few moments, I was standing in front of the mortuary of the Medical College. The guy confirmed that the corpse was indeed there in their custody. He took me inside, opened the chamber, and yes, it was him. But he didn’t allow me to take snaps. But I knew that I had to do it! So I waited patiently for the police van to arrive which would take the body for post-mortem in the next building. It paid off. Within an hour the van was in front of the mortuary. The body was brought out and before loading it onto the van I could manage to take a few 90-degree angle shots !” That photograph, published as the first-page photo the next morning – showed the day for Sankha!

Clicking Mamata Banerjee
Clicking Mamata Banerjee

Sankha worked for Kolkata-based newspapers Aajkal and Bartaman till 1999 when the Destiny had something new to offer. ” I never had prepared my resume, because all throughout my career till that time, I was selected by media houses basis critical evaluation of my creative work – a pictorial resume, sort of !! But applying for a job in Gulf News, one of the frontline newspapers of UAE, called for one !” Kajal Patronobis, a veteran in the Kolkata media circle, insisted that Sankha should try for the photographer’s post for which the House was recruiting then. “I was an underdog in the race but to my greatest surprise was selected. Later Mike Chambers, the then Photo Editor of Gulf News confided that I was his first choice from the beginning as he liked my works’!

Dubai Constuction by Sankha Kar
Dubai Constuction by Sankha Kar

When Sankha took up the Gulf News assignment at the approach of the Millennium, UAE Press was a different ball game. First of all, it was run mostly by expatriates who settled down in Dubai from various parts of the world and carried various socio-cultural DNAs in them. Secondly, the city being an international hub for business, commerce, cultural, and sporting activities, the newspaper used to be having dedicated pages to segments and geographies. Nevertheless, hard news content was less compared to cultural, sports, business, etc. On the pictorial front, the trend was rather stereotyped with archaic front-face group shots without any captions. But that was to change with a new group of people joining the news and photo desk. Around this time digital technology and the internet also gained dominance. The dark rooms fast disappeared and photography became real-time like “instant coffee”!

“Also with local recruits coming on board the winds of change started blowing which liberalised the outlook to a great extent. Thankfully, Gulf News managed this “change” well and the concept of photojournalism gradually took root!’

Dubai Frame by Sankha Kar
Dubai Frame by Sankha Kar

Professionally, Kolkata media used to be rather restrictive in stark comparison to the Dubai counterpart. Dubai had a “world view” which helped Sankha to reinvent himself with pictorials or fine art photography which was his specialisation in PAD. His first series, shot in the city and titled “Reflections”, was a collection of photographs that captured the reflections of the city on huge glass facades of the skyscrapers that dotted the city skylines.

Dubai Skyline by Sankha Kar
Dubai Skyline by Sankha Kar

Sankha in his role as a photo editor of the newly introduced tabloid of the group got a chance to work closely with world-famous media designer Mario Garcia which he would still reminiscence with satisfaction. But stepping into the shoes of a photo editor he slowly drifted away from active photography and became desk-bound. “Day in and day out, I was viewing volumes of snaps dispatched by our lensmen across the globe 24 x 7 to pick and choose the ones to go with the stories. And this was a horrific experience because many in the lot contained scenes of human tragedy and therefore an eyesore. At times my depression and fatigue level used to get the better of me and I turned deranged.”

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Wildlife by Sankha Kar
Wildlife photography by Sankha Kar

What could be the panacea to the malady? Sankha was searching for the solution when he realised it was readily available in his backyard. Photography could be used as a therapeutic medicine for the wellness of the mind. “ In 2010 a research at Harvard University concluded that people spend almost 46.9 percent of their waking hours thinking about something other than what they’re doing, and this mind-wandering typically makes them unhappy. Your past gives you depression while the future offers nothing but anxiety. Then the solution is to stay in the present which we may try through photography. It neither captures past nor future but only the present moments that one is living through”. With photography becoming digital and cameras getting embedded in mobile phones, the concept of “anytime click” gained traction. Staying in the present moment helps reduce stress and anxiety, overcome loneliness, building up emotional and physical well-being. Sankha applied this concept of Mindfulness-based Therapeutic Photography (MBPT) to his life partner Chandrani who was fighting a bout of depression too and the result was amazing. “ Which was started as a therapy, has now become a passion for her”, quips Sankha.

Sankha’s journey in life has been an exciting one! He overcame his physical challenge to become a world-class photographer, played music, travelled countries and last but not the least, realised how to conquer a wandering mind !!


Postscript: to know more about Sankha visit



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