Authentic Representation in India with Mayur Kakade

Spotlight / Creative Spotlight
Mayur Kakade
Reya Sehgal
Oct 24, 2022
India is home to over 1.3 billion people, among whom there is tremendous linguistic, regional, religious, and cultural diversity. While the phrase “unity in diversity” has been used since the country’s formal decolonization to define national progress—India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru famously declared this a tenet of the newly independent nation‑state—diversity and inclusion in the world’s largest democracy comes with its challenges.1 The legacy of British colonialism and the centuries‑old caste system have left indelible impacts on perceptions of race, class, sexuality, beauty standards, and religion; and a patriarchal culture has created vast gender inequities in earning potential, safety, and stereotypical representation. Accordingly, authentic representation of people in media is a struggle in India, where concerns about diversity, inclusion, and equity often are deprioritized under a political regime focused on nationalist sentiment and the upholding of standards that marginalize millions of people.2

However, contemporary photographers are challenging these norms, creating story‑forward content that has inclusion in the DNA of their work. I spoke with Maharashtra‑based contributor Mayur Kakade about his practice to better understand what he sees as the challenges and opportunities for authentic representation in Indian commercial content.
RS: Can you tell me a little bit about how you work with models to capture authentic content in your photographic work?

MK: I started photography as a hobby only. When I started, I started working with my family—my daughter, my wife—then with my parents. Then I realized there was good demand for multigenerational content, and I started focused more on those kinds of images. So how I work, we try to create a scene—let’s say we are creating a grandmother and granddaughter playing cards—and let things happen. I do not direct them much after that, and I just keep capturing the moments. That’s how I get some candid moments of them, or for that matter anybody. But sometimes working with family you have more time to play, that is the flexibility we get. Most of the initial images you will see are of my family. Then I started working with some of my close relatives, then distant relatives, then close friends, then distant friends, their friends—the network is growing day by day. Mostly they are through the circle only, and all are real people.

For me personally, I am comfortable working with people I know, and they also know what I do and where these images are going to go, so they feel comfortable working with me.
RS: You’re working with a limited pool of people, though you said it’s ever expanding, and I’m wondering how you think about inclusion of all different kinds–because there is so much diversity within India—and how you think about concepts related to inclusion, whether it comes to gender or skin color or body type, religion even?

MK: I’m always looking for people of diverse backgrounds. While casting I never look for the perfect body or perfect face, never. I’m desperately looking for something outside of what’s in my neighborhood. I haven’t gotten it, but I am looking for it—I want to shoot a Muslim family and people with disabilities.
It’s true that when I ask people “would you like to participate?” they feel like “Are you serious? You really want me to model for you? How is somebody going to buy an image of me?” But then I give them confidence that there are customers looking for real people, and when they see their image used somewhere they feel really good about it. I feel like, what we are working on with real people is really something—people really feel that every face, every body is valued…it’s not just the perfect body and perfect skin tone being celebrated.
RS: I think that’s really beautiful. How do you think you will find through your networks ways to include people of different religions or social classes, which I know is very hard to transcend in India?

MK: I have been working with people from rural Maharashtra and some tribal people; my next plan is to shoot with tribal people in Rajasthan. I like to capture different stories around me. Though that has not happened in a big way until now, there are a lot of stories around. So much diversity is there in India. I’m looking for something I can work on and add something new to my collection.

RS: And keep expanding your practice as a photographer. What are your goals for your photographic practice?

MK: I want to bring in more stories from India. If you just look at the Hindus in North India and the Hindus in South India, they have completely different practices. Even in Maharashtra, if you travel from one district to another district you will see different cultures. My dream is to work with broader people from different cultures and bring all those stories into stock photography. My next goal is to get in some local stories from when I travel—not just our stories from when we travel.

RS: If you think about commercial photography in India, how do you see photographic representation starting to change, if at all?

MK: When I see media in India, when I travel on roads and see billboards, I still feel that they are showing the larger‑than‑life pictures. Though things are turning around. If you see other media—the films and series which are coming now—they are showing actual pictures of real scenarios. But still, when I see billboards around me, they are still showing models with fair skin and perfect bodies and larger‑than‑life settings around them. When I see some local brands, they are showing more authentic things now. Their photography is showing the local flavors and real people. But still, it seems there’s a long way to go.

RS: Well, I think your work really contributes to that change. That’s a lot of power to have and an exciting place to be as a media‑maker.

MK: I hope the cultural diversity which India has will remain intact or rather flourish in coming times.
[1] Independence Diary: 'Unity In Diversity' One Of The Most Powerful Thoughts India Gave World (Outlook India)
[2] Kantar Global Monitor, 2021
Photographers, Bell Collective