Where Three Dreams Cross: 150 Years of Photography from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh= 150 Jahre Fotografie aus Indien, Pakistan und Bangladesch. Göttingen: Steidl; London: Whitechapel Gallery; Winterthur: Fotomuseum Winterthur, 2010. 375 pp. ISBN 9783869301389. Text in German & English.
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The volume relates to an exhibition jointly organized by the Whitechapel Gallery, London, and the Fotomuseum Winterthur, Winterthur, but does not look like a large-format exhibition catalog. Rather, it has the heft of a scholarly anthology or a college textbook. Also like textbooks, it claims to take stock of the subject, describing 150 years of photography in three countries of South Asia––Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan–– through a survey of works by about 80 photographers, all local practitioners. The emphasis is on the present, but images from the mid-19th century suggest thematic connections with a past when the technology of photography was introduced in South Asia by British colonizers and picked up by the locals.
The ambitious project of this exhibition marks a moment of arrival in scholarship for South Asian photography, and distinguishes its intentions from previous studies on the subject. Following the energy of Christopher Pinney’s groundbreaking Camera Indica: Social Life of Indian Photographs (1997), scholars of South Asia have explored in archival work and ethnography what Pinney and Nicolas Peterson have called “photography’s other histories” in the region. The present volume is not concerned, at least overtly, with that critical impulse, and consequently, it does not engage with questions such as what happens when photography comes into contact with indigenous perceptual worlds, or how indigenous practices produce a counter-history of photography. Instead, its view is geographical. According to the exhibition’s visionary, Sunil Gupta, Where Three Dreams Cross surveys photography using the metaphor of land irrigated by three rivers––the Brahmaputra in Bangladesh, the Ganga in India, and the Indus in Pakistan––and explores thematic confluence in regional images (p. 12). Whereas previous scholarship drew critical force by mining colonial archives and showing the limits of archives in terms of disciplinary knowledge, the present volume pleads for the importance of building collections of a fragile and ephemeral medium in South Asia. We are persuaded about the mission through a stunning display of images drawn not only from renowned collections––the Alkazi Collection of Photography in Delhi, the Abishek Poddar Collection in Bangalore, the Drik in Dhaka, the White Star Archive in Karachi, and the Malcolm Hutcheson Archive in Lahore––but also disintegrating personal albums, dispersed family archives, and works by artists living and practicing in a context where institutional support structures are almost non-existent.
It is a rare pleasure to see photography from Bangladesh, India, and Pakistan together in a single volume. The curators––Sunil Gupta and Radhika Singh for India, Hammad Nasar for Pakistan, and Shahidul Alam for Bangladesh––take on the hard task of searching through local collections for images that represent the range and diversity of the field, and presenting clear, historical perspectives on the development of photography as a cultural practice in each country. The history is uneven. In India, as Gupta and Singh point out, photography began with British colonial institutions in the 1850s. In Pakistan, the story Nasar tells begins in the 1950s, when professional photographers, away from colonial art schools and a tired, late-modernist art practice, took a sort of hand-made, portable photo studio to small towns in Punjab and the streets of Lahore, producing an amazing genre called ruh khitch (“spirit pull” in Punjabi). Shahidul Alam describes the enchanted practices of amateur photographic clubs and organizations as the bedrock of Bangladeshi photography and a revolutionary force during the 1971 revolution and underground resistance during later oppressive regimes. In essence, the three curators locate the beginnings of photography in the distinctive births of their respective national cultures.
In their historical view of India, Gupta and Singh ask a “vexed” question that could be applicable to South Asia at large: “What is Indian Photography and what constitutes ‘good’ Indian photography?” (13). The question of authenticity is problematic, but it is posed by the authors as a matter of “theoretical positioning,” and not of essentialism. The authors quote Stuart Hall, whom Gupta interviewed in 2003, saying “that a black camera in the hands of a black man does not necessarily produce black photography.” The problem of defining “Indian” or South Asian photography links the volume to a barbed question and contentious scholarly responses to the idea of Asian Photography presented in the first issue (2010) of Trans-Asian Photography Review [“Inaugural Feature: Why Asian Photography?”]. Gupta and Singh leave us with merely a tantalizing suggestion (and identifying “good Indian photography” is a matter of qualitative judgment, not theoretical positioning). The vexed question is not picked up by other essays in this book. A thematic thread, however, runs through the catalog and leads to the positioning of South Asian photography in what could be called “postcoloniality. “
Chrtistopher Pinney’s essay, “Coming Out Better,” fully develops the postcolonial angle into a formal theory of photography. Using Roland Barthes’ distinction between corps and corpus in Camera Lucida, Pinney distinguishes between the particular event or body placed in front of the camera and the truth value attributed to photographs based on acceptable notions of reality. He demonstrates the split between the two in a colonial photograph, namely, Felice Beato’s image of the courtyard of the Sikandarbagh palace in Lucknow after the 1857 mutiny, an image that was entrenched in the historical imagination after it was first seen. The knowledge that Beato arranged disinterred skeletons of dead people in the courtyard for the camera months after the brutal carnage leads Pinney not to charge falsification of the record, as some have done, but to ask: “Should [our doubt] be repositioned in the crevasse between the event recorded in the photograph, and the event to which the photograph seems to gesture?” (26). The “doubt” separates the corps from the corpus, in Pinney’s words, the photograph’s “micro-events” from its “historical events,” and also destabilizes the latter without falsifying the former. Pinney argues that, as Indian practitioners pick up the colonial practice, they explore the destabilizing micro events as what Barthes calls photography’s “sovereign Contingency” or “absolute Particular.” Pinney calls the staged particularity “necessarily real,” and explores its liberating potentials in a selection of staged self-images that gives indexical value to the productive doubt and uncertainty embedded in the corps itself.
The possibility of liberation within the ontology of photography pervades the volume as an organizing theme. It takes different forms, all based on a striking assumption underlying all the essays, namely that photography is not only a colonial technology but an eye that defines a coercive, public gaze within the modern nations, from which the practitioners represented here strive to redeem the perceptible world, or at least (as in
Pinney) make its reading indeterminate. The spirit of Barthes permeates this analytical move. The singularity and contingency of the photographic image is pursued here against the grain of realism through which the meanings of photographic images become obvious in the public eye. More fundamentally, the perceptible world appears in a tantalizingly repressed form in South Asian photography, as in Barthes, who famously struggles to identify the “radiant, irreducible core” of his mother in a photograph from her youth he discovers in her attic after her death.
It is within the overall Barthsian framework of the volume that we should make sense of the curatorial decision to shuffle the images from various countries into five thematic categories: the Portrait, the Performance, the Family, the Street, and the Body Politic. The shuffling blurs national boundaries in order to emphasize the “irreducible” history of those separated countries, including a shared colonial past, and interrelated social and political concerns. Furthermore, individual essays underscore different aspects of colonial repressions. Thus, while the ruh khitch in Nasar’s Pakistan recalls the fear of “spirit pull” when photography first came to the colony, the make-shift condition of the photo studios also generates in the colonial genre a kind of “magic(al) realism,” producing in the subject holding still in front of the slow camera “a condensation of a sequence of time through the process of making the photograph” (16). In Alam’s Bangladesh, informal photographic organizations not only reflect the spirit of a people marginalized since colonial times, but also represent an inherently democratic spirit of a nation that gives shape, in moments of crisis, to a plebian resistance under oppressive regimes. Finally, Barthsian repression turns into an organizing framework for the exhibition’s thematic categories in the three analytical essays. Complementing Pinney, who concentrates on staged performance, Sabeena Gadihoke examines the street and other public spaces, and Geeta Kapur explores family histories.
Gadihoke, who does not explicitly reference Barthes, elaborates on what she calls “subjectivities and intimacies of inner worlds” as the hidden content of photographs of public spaces in India after Independence. Her essay, “Journeys into Inner and Outer Worlds: Photography’s Encounter with Public Spaces in India,” describes the emergence of intimate worlds in the “poetic realism” of senior photographers, such as Raghubir Singh and Raghu Rai. The photographers insert into the firm realism of colonial, ethnographic genre a photographic wit relating to Henri Cartier-Bresson, whose control of timing in the click of a hand-held camera turned the quotidian and the ephemeral into the magical. Accordingly, in Raghu Rai’s 1995 photograph “Local Commuters at Churchgate Railway Station, Mumbai” (36), two newspaper readers in the middle of the enormous, steel architecture of a train station convey a ghostly stillness against the blur of pedestrian traffic that pulls around them like cotton wool, which in turn dramatizes the effects of the Pakistani ruh khitch photography. “Poetic” forays by feminist and queer photographers also raise ethical dilemmas within the ethnographic paradigm as well as within the official photography of national news media. In a fascinating example of the newspaper Blitz, established by Russy Karanjia in 1941, Gadihoke goes beyond Barthes to suggest that the repressed need not be personal and subjective. In Blitz, photography make sense when seen as part of a heady mixture of text and images relating to “news, scandals, gruesome murders, fantastic stories and pin-up girls” (40) that, taken together, offer an alternative, irreverent portrayal of public life hidden underneath the public gaze of official press photography.
Geeta Kapur’s “Family Narratives and Their Accidental Denouement” also pursues repressed desires in photography. If Pinney undoes the photograph as a record of historical events (as Gadihoke also does), Kapur undoes the photograph as a record of socialized family, reading in family albums hidden premonitions of human vulnerabilities. Thus, regarding Umrao Singh Sher Gil’s photographs, Kapur writes that even before sinking into depression over his family’s tragic destiny, including the premature death of his daughter, the artist Amrita Sher Gil in 1941, and the suicide of his wife, Marie Antoinette, “...his pictures conformed to the melancholy aspect of the medium, going to the core of the photograph’s ontology and to its existential effect” (48). Melancholy anchors the tragic future within the indexicality of the photographic trace, as Pinney also notes with reference to Sher Gil (29). But unlike Pinney’s purely formal interests in such indexical anchors, Kapur pursues stories of human intimacy embedded in the melancholic archives as an “accidental denouement.” In photographs by a range of artists, she describes a delicate balance between formal self-representations and masquerades of emotional uncertainties. Vivan Sundaram’s photomontages describe “illicit” erotic desires in albums of his grandfather, Umrao Singh Sher Gil, and his aunt, Amrita Sher Gil, thereby realizing in the dead the “potentiality of being...continually being, of an always-incomplete becoming” (51). Dayanita Singh’s portraits of upper class families reveal underneath their comportment “the performative ‘excess’ of the family in the unstable here and now” (60). Ketaki Sheth’s haunting series of identical twins in everyday situations represents a human metonym of photography itself, caught in its own doubleness between a “mission to document objective reality” and the “initial magic” of a “spectral existence” the camera captures by chance (57). In this way, the human condition take on a fragile, uncanny form within the ontology of photography.
It is unfortunate that these essays skew the analytical framework toward India, but the imbalance is thoroughly offset by a conflicting diversity of images from the three countries. It is a pleasure to simply flip pages of this volume and discover dissonances. In a silver-gelatin print from c.1850 by S. B. Syed, a decked-up young woman poses in front of an artist’s easel that shows an oil portrait of a woman that very nearly looks like herself (100-101). The self-mirroring of a cultivated, upper-class woman reverberates beyond the 19th century in such photographs as the Bangladeshi Amanul Huq’s 1963 image, in which the young film actress Joya Vaduri (Jaya Bhaduri) holds up the Filmfare magazine cover showing the film star Sharmila Tagore (107). Reference to cinematic glamour also becomes middle class norm in Noni Singh’s celebratory 1962 silver gelatin print, “My Sister Guddi, Posing as Scarlet O’Hara from Gone With The Wind, Srinagar” (150). But, then, self-mirroring also becomes drag in Asim Hafeez’s disturbing and poignant 2007 digital series “Karachi Lady Boy,” where the marginalized transgendered subject dresses as a glamour queen (166-167).
Taken together, the essays and images in this catalog propose a theoretical positioning of South Asian photography in an insistent sharpening of the medium’s ontology. This idea is quite the opposite of the norm of Euro-American photography. In early American daguerreotypes, for example, the possibility of what Nasar calls “spirit pull” had also generated deep anxieties over the new technology. But as Alan Trachtenberg explains, professional photographers in New York and elsewhere tamed the eerie technology by bringing it into photo studios and masking the chemical image with conventions of traditional portraiture. Decorated oval frames and velvet surrounds encased the metal sheets and transformed the ghostly materiality of loved ones into a cherished self-image for a new, urban middle class. Harnessing the indexicality of a photographic image becomes standard in the Western history of photography, possibly challenged only by art photography. (But, then, “art” denies indexicality altogether.) In contrast to that history, the present volume suggests that it is in the ghostly (or ‘necessarily real’) presence of the photographic subject that the most provocative interpretative models for South Asian photography may lie.
Ajay Sinha is the author of Imagining Architects: Creativity in the Religious Monuments of India (University of Delaware Press, 2000), and editor, with Raminder Kaur, of Bollyworld: Popular Indian Cinema through a Transnational Lens (New Delhi: Thousand Oaks; London, Sage Publications, 2005). He is Professor of Art History at Mt. Holyoke College.
Alan Trachtenberg, “Mirror in the Marketplace: American Responses to the Daguerreotype, 1839-1851,” in John Wood, ed., The Daguerreotype: A Sesquicentennial Celebration (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989) 60-73.