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The Self, Out There

A new, personal credo takes Indian photography to far shores

The Self, Out There
Bharat Sikka
The Self, Out There
From the Noorderlicht Photofestival in the Netherlands and the Lille 3000 festival in 2006 to the prestigious Rencontres festival in Arles, France, this July and the special exhibition at the Newark Museum, US, in September, contemporary Indian photography has suddenly caught the international eye. In the past, iconic images of photojournalists like Raghu Rai and Raghubir Singh offered the world its sole glimpses into Indian life, chronicling tragedies, public figures, or life on the street. Today, though, the spotlight is on the work of experimental photographers, replacing the documentary lens with the refracted, the personal, the playful.

Some dwell on banalities of urban existence like tangled cables and teeming faceless crowds, others offer up narcissistic self-portraits, tender studies of gay lovers, or masquerades questioning Indian attitudes towards sexuality, nationhood and femininity. Still others step into the uncomfortable shoes of the marginalised—ragpickers, hijras, or beggars.

The new lens, in other words, is the self, and how it mediates with a complex, rapidly transforming India. Says Gayatri Sinha, curator of the exhibition at the Newark Museum, "It's a more energetic, youthful India that's willing to take many creative risks. Ten years ago, the participation of Indian photographers in shows abroad was very modest, but today the excitement about it is huge!"

A 2005 show in Paris

This new international interest, fuelled by availability of funding, could be attributed to India's booming economy. As Alain Willaume, co-curator for the Indian line-up at Arles, points out: "This emergence of a new stream of Indian photographers since 3-4 years coincides with the visible consequences of the opening up of the country's economy." That is a reality that Anay Mann, a 33-year-old photographer whose work will be exhibited at Arles, depicts, as it's one he's most familiar with. His previous series depicted successful Indian CEOs, rock bands, tattooed youth lounging in cars, kicking footballs about or chatting on cellphones, and androgynous nymphets playing video games—images of the "burgeoning middle and upper-middle class" that he identifies with. About Nitika, constructed yet intimate portraits of his wife and their newborn, to be exhibited at Arles, acquaint the viewer with a deeper, personal reality. "My lifestyle in an urban city, my family, these are part of my life, and photographing them is not work at all, it's fun!"

Bharat Sikka

Also exhibiting his work at Arles this year is Bharat Sikka, 34, an accomplished commercial photographer whose Indian Men series—candid portraits of his father, friends, father-in-law, in their environments—took New York by storm in 2003. With them, Sikka wished to dispel stereotyped images and opinions: "Indian women were exotic beauties, and the man was a snake-charmer, sadhu or the guy in a slum." The Space In Between, his series of urbanscapes to be shown at Arles, documents the rapidly changing face of Indian metros—Calcutta, Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Nagpur and Goa, which, Sikka observes, are "caught in a kind of vacuum—they're developing rapidly, but it's not a balanced growth".

Graphic designer and art photographer Avinash Veeraraghavan shares this fascination with the urban. While his book of graphic images I love my India celebrated billboards, street-life, kitsch and popular culture, his Homesick series – exhibited at the Frankfurt Book Fair’s Fotografie Forum International in September 2006 – shifts the focus to intensely individualistic visions of identity and perception. "This present time of hi-speed exchange of opinions and hybrid values makes the question of identity more pertinent," says Veeraraghavan. "I feel international attention is often given to artists who are able to articulate this complex condition."

Whether they're dealing with issues of identity or the urban landscape, long-established art photographer Dayanita Singh, whose own enigmatic series Go Away Closer is to be exhibited at Arles alongside her mother's photographs, is happy that younger photographers are experimenting with style and subject matter: "Finally there is a glimmer of hope and we seem to be moving away from 'inspired' photography to a more personal point of view, both in subject matter and treatment."

An image from Dayanita Singh's Chairs series

The attention lavished on contemporary Indian photography also owes something to the soaring fortunes of the Indian art market. While a painting is one of a kind, photographs are sold in editions, which bring them within the reach of far more prospective buyers. As Dayanita Singh puts it, "Do remember that until two years ago, magazines and newspapers were the only outlet for photographers in India. It is only after the art market here boomed and paintings became unaffordable that galleries and collectors turned to photography. This has been an opportunity for photographers to present their own voice, though too often presented and edited as they would a magazine spread."

A picture from Phantom Lady or Kismet, a Photoromance.

That's an accusation that could never be levelled at sculptor-turned-photographer Pushpamala N's photo performances. In Phantom Lady or Kismet: A Photo-Romance, one of her works chosen for the Newark Museum exhibition this September, she alternately masquerades as a gangster's moll and masked adventurer; twins separated at birth, no less. While this is a tribute to the vintage films of Fearless Nadia, Pushpamala's other works draw from a wide range of forms, including ghost stories, sentimental romances, ethnographic portraits and '50s-vintage recipe books, through which she questions notions of femininity, the nation, the native, the gulf between rich and poor, and the place of the big city in the imagination.

Pushpamala N

Her work has won the admiring attention of collectors abroad and in India, due to its freshness, irreverence and flexibility. A success she attributes to not having a background in photography. "Artists aren't obsessed with technical details, but the pure idea. We use photography like clay or any other medium. Conventional photographers have so many rules and regulations: they won't crop or touch their images, but I even paint on my photographs!"

Gigi Scaria

Young Gigi Scaria, whose short video on ragpickers A Day with Sohail and Mariyan is among those whose work will be shown at Newark, agrees that technical training inhibits creativity in photography: "There will always be daring photojournalists, and issues for them to cover, but what interests people more is art—photographers who show social transformation with an aesthetically involved mind." Initially trained in fine art, Scaria won a scholarship to learn video art in Italy, and trains his lens on migrant workers, scavengers, and hotchpotch constructions in big cities. "My focus is broadly the existence of different kinds of communities co-existing in a big city; the stark contrasts between them, and the tension through their encounters."

A videostill from A Day With Sohail and Mariyan

The wide range of work that draws international attention, in other words, is anything combining a lens and a spirit of enquiry. Most contemporary Indian photographers have their diaries booked chock-a-block for individual shows, and a slew of group events in Spain, London, Germany and Austria follow those at Arles and Newark. As Arles curator Devika Daulet-Singh puts it, "Indian photography is coveted now because it speaks in a different voice from a decade ago. Eternal and exotic India are no longer the only sites to excavate meaning."

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