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Afterlife, the latest chapter in A Myth of Two Souls, Vasantha Yogananthan’s pictorial retelling of the Ramayana¸ explores themes of war, death, and reincarnation. The French photographer talks to us about the newest instalment in the book, the pros and cons of working on a project for several years, as well as his fluid approach to creating. Afterlife showcases a variety of images where the ancient epic is married with contemporary Indian culture, and it’s this respect and mastering of past and present where we can appreciate the timelessness of Yogananthan’s work.
You’ve just released the penultimate book in A Myth of Two Souls. Can you tell us what your intentions were behind Afterlife and what you hoped to achieve with this specific part of the project?
Afterlife is centred around the bloody war between the armies of Ravana and Rama. As its title suggests, the chapter deals with death and reincarnation. With Rama’s cruelty finally revealed, the series can be read as a visual exploration of one man’s descent into the darkness of the soul.
Can you tell us a little bit more about how you selected the photos for each chapter, as well as why you decided to start exploring colouring photos by hand?
From the very start of the project, my idea was to shoot differently each chapter to echo the narrative. I had the desire to create a modern iconography of the Ramayana in today’s India, and in order to do so, hand-coloured photography appeared as an interesting device. It allows the pictures to be read differently because of their colour palette.

The Ramayana has had an enduring legacy for hundreds of years. Did you feel any trepidation when you first decided to create A Myth of Two Souls around the poem, or were you confident that a fresh retelling of the story could be achieved through photography?
To be honest, I had no expectations whatsoever; I just started without thinking about what I could or could not achieve.
It’s quite a venture to release A Myth of Two Souls over several years and to devote such a large portion of your life to one project. Has your passion for it ever waned, or have you been able to appreciate the process of taking your time to create your own epic?
There have been some ups and downs, of course. You can’t get going on such a long project with the same intensity of confidence over the years. But my passion for photography is as fresh as when I started the project.
Many of your most striking images feature ordinary individuals. What do you think can be said by capturing ordinary Indian people in a story that focuses on royalty in exile?
I think Indian people have a deep connection to photography and the making of photographs. It’s obviously a blessing for a photographer as most people will be patient and ready to give you time. It was a challenging and engaging process to let people become actors of the pictures.

The nature of this project meant you spent several years photographing many people and places in India. In the spirit of Ramayana, what would you say is the biggest myth about the country? Is there anything that surprised or shocked you on your journey?
I’m not sure it’s the biggest, but it’s for sure one of the most important stories people share across India. I think it’s mostly because the Ramayana has been turned into TV series, comic books, video games… Young people don’t read the book, they watch it.
Can Ramayana and ancient India help us understand the country and its people today? Do you think photography is the best medium for understanding a time, place or culture?
The Ramayana is a very old story, and it has travelled through time and is still here today, so yes, it can help us understand some things about India. As for your second question, I don’t think that’s the case – painting, literature, cinema, dance and music can be as effective as photography.
There’s one image in Afterlife – the man in the water split above the dog by the wall – that struck me the most. What was the intention behind placing these images together? Was it purely aesthetic, or does it apply to what you’ve said about people trying to escape their bodies?
The collages in the book were all done physically – cutting prints and playing with forms and colours. I had so many pictures that were imperfect that I started to cut only the bits I liked. The process was one of chance and random encounter, leaving the cut-outs on a big table for many weeks to play with them, waiting for unexpected connections to happen.
As for the specific collage you mention, I am intentionally not answering as I don’t like to decipher pictures for the viewers; I believe it will only narrow down the image’s mystery and its possible readings.

You’ve spoken before about the universal appeal of the Ramayana as a work of fiction. Do you think you’ve succeeded in reflecting the myth in the people you’ve photographed? Was that your main objective anyway?
I think it’s not for me to say whether I succeeded or not!
In Afterlife, you’ve also included poetry by Meena Kandasamy. As a modern interpretation of Ramayana, was contemporary poetry used as a means of mirroring the original text? Did you always set out to make the project collaborative?
The poem is far from the original text; it’s very subversive. From the start of the project, the idea was to collaborate with Indian artists along the way in order to tell a story through multiple points of view.
You’ve spoken of how your approach to the project has changed over time, in that it’s now more staged than it was in the beginning. Why do you think you shifted to this style of photography? Do you think it’s more suitable for A Myth of Two Souls in particular, or do you think you’ll stick with this in future projects?
I did say that two or three years ago. At that time, staged photography was all I wanted to explore because it was new to me and it felt appropriate for the project. Funnily enough, after four years working solely with a large-format camera on a tripod, I now feel like going back to a kind of more ‘straightforward’ photography. I think I will always be torn between the staged and the non-staged. I think that the most interesting zone in photography is the ‘semi-staged.’ Each new project requires its own visual response, and it’s very important to me to keep questioning how I take photographs.
Following Afterlife, there’s only one more chapter still to be published. What’s next for you? Any plans to tackle the Mahabharata?
I have no plans to go back to India. After eight years of my life devoted to this project, I feel a longing to photograph in France, my home country.

Fraser Currie

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