February 24, 2020
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Something Doesn't Click

US publisher Aperture’s tribute to Indian photography ends up as a disappointingly motley collection

Something Doesn't Click

One distinctive feature of the half-century celebrations of India’s independence is that most of the exhibitions, publications and performances that have marked it so far have either taken place or have been generated outside India. It’s now the turn of Indian photography. The respected American photography foundation and publishing house, Aperture, has put together an ambitious book and major travel-ling exhibition which has premiered at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. It opens at the National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi in October and travels to Mumbai, Calcutta and Chennai. Aperture was a major force in American photography, particularly in the ’50s and the ’60s, when it was edited by the late Minor White. Aperture’s The Last Empire (1976) on 19th century British photography in India by Clark Worswick remains a classic, and many of Raghubir Singh’s recent books have been published by them. With major funding and support from Eastman Kodak, the Ford Motor Company, Air India and the Taj Group of Hotels, there were high expectations from this show. Sadly, India ($50) has turned out to be a mixed bag.

Curated by Michael Hoffman, executive director of Aperture and adjunct curator at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the book ends up being neither a serious survey of photography in India nor yet another pretty picture book, but an odd combination of both. Indian photography has suffered from an Orientalist vision for years—Westerners never seem to lose their fascination for Pushkar, Banaras ghats, snake-charmers and yes, Maharajas. India has these in abundance, with Raghu Rai’s Banaras burning ghat on the cover, and not just one, but two pictures of the Maharaja of Banaras. To be fair, there’s a more serious intent to India. Of the 23 photographers, about half are Indian. Besides Rai, there are other big names—Henri Cartier-Bresson, Sebastiao Salgado, Sunil Janah. Yet even their work suffers by being placed in a motley collection which seems to have no underlying concept.

The long introductory essay by Victor Anant, The Sacred and the Secular, sets the tone. It begins with a vision of a sadhu who exclaims Dharam Karo and thereby "bestows on me the right—the task—to tell the story of that morning (August 15) in the metalanguage of my ancestors". Ancestors certainly figure in the piece from beginning to end—Anant doesn’t let us forget "we Brahmins are born old, like the Jews". And old he must be, or else all his Brahmin learning at the feet of his mother would have led him to remember that Yashoda was not the Pandavas’ mother, nor was Gar-uda the "eagle of the Ramayana". Anant was a volunteer in the Congress and relates his personal experience along with a history of the national movement. Yet his piece has an oddly ’50s feel to it, and he writes condescendingly of his low-caste companion who appears in one of his many dreams.

WHY photography in India inspires so many dreams (Dreams of India, Land of Dreams,Fantasy), I’ve never understood, as it’s perhaps the most precise artistic medium. Anant’s is an odd piece to read in the age of Mayawati and Laloo, where mysticism means Chandraswami for many! Recently rediscovered pictures of Gandhi’s last years by Kanu Gandhi and Homai Vyarawalla illustrate the text. Both deserved to be presented in a large format. The handful of pictures by Mrs Vyarawalla give no feel of the wonderful collection she had of the public life of Delhi in the ’40s and ’50s.

The images begin with a set of 10 pictures shot by Sunil Janah from the ’40s and ’50s. Most are of leaders and their meetings, one of a communist peasant march in Punjab. Yet he is ill-served by the selection here in what seems a token representation. Cartier-Bresson’s well-known Indian work has been seen here in his book (Thames and Hudson, 1987). In the one wonderful unknown image of the crowds at India Gate during Gandhi’s funeral, the caption transforms King George V into Queen Victoria (in one of Raghu Rai’s pictures the Calcutta docks are captioned Delhi. The Bangladesh war in Hoffman’s afterword takes place "earlier this century"). One doesn’t expect such errors in such a well-printed and lavishly produced book. Margaret Bourke-White, the third photographer most associated with Partition, is not included.

Almost a quarter of the photographers are from Magnum, the photo agency co-founded by Cartier-Bresson, and apart from him and Rai, they should have found no place in this book. In fact, much of the colour work included is eminently forgettable, though Alex Webb’s high-contrast and hotly coloured pictures do have a graphic zest. Sanjiv Saith’s four colour pictures are a relief—simple pictures of his parents and street scenes which revel in the quotidian. Prashant Panjiar’s essay on the travails of former royalty and their descendants—an unromanticised, alternative look at a favoured subject—has been given short shrift, squeezed magazine-style into a double spread. Raghu Rai has the biggest spread with over 30 pictures. His black and white work, recently seen in his retro at the NGMA, is far better than his colour. It includes many familiar images, including a powerful portrait of Mrs Gandhi. Dayanita Singh and Ketaki Seth show black and white images documenting an urban milieu. Both have been developing a snapshot style and their pictures of movie sets, parties and their own class capture pieces of India not usually seen in picture books. At their best, their images are witty and ironic. Pamela Singh shows images of urban women—pilots in training, a fashion model. But, sandwiched as they are between pictures of the Taj, steam engines and snake-charmers, they seem to be floating in confusion.

 Salgado’s pictures here are from his series on labour, and are made in the now-unfashionable, gritty, black and white photojournalist style of ‘concerned photography’. His images are a Dickensian view of the toiling man in rural and urban India, and tend to be a touch romantic.

The real surprise is late William Gedney’s black and white pictures of Banaras. His images of the everyday and the mundane have the sharpness of a poet’s vision and an obvious empathy, in a city which has tripped up many photographers with its dramatic sensuality.

Ultimately, it’s the uneven choice that undermines this project. Some photographers have as few as three pictures; others like Cartier-Bresson, Rai and Mary Ellen Mark have a mini survey of their work. Salgado and Panjiar have a specific theme and Swapan Parekh and Dario Mitidieri have mini photoessays. Together, they don’t make a whole.

The major colour photographer, Raghu-bir Singh, is missing from this show, as are Kishore Parekh, T.S. Nagarajan, Jyoti Bhatt and Marc Riboud. India would have benefited from tighter editing and texts to place each photographer’s work and concerns in a perspective. An Indian curator would also have helped. A real survey of photography in India will have to come from here. This isn’t it, though it’s to Aperture’s credit that it made the attempt. Finally, my nationalistic impulses come to the fore—though Indian photographs may not be selling or being seen widely in galleries around the world, the best commercial images of the surface of the earth are being made by our very own IRS 1C satellite, and are being sold through a US company! Perhaps some should have been included.

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