January 24, 2020
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Through The Raj Lens

Indian photography has yet to recover from the colonial obsession with the exotic Orient

Through The Raj Lens

More than 150 years after the advent of photography in India, do our photographers continue to see India through western eyes, as their colonial forerunners did? Are the glossy coffee table picture books of Raghu Rai, Raghubir Singh and others merely modern avatars of the exotic photo albums of Samuel Bourne and other 19th century photographers? And does the state too continue to document and use images of tribals and rural folk for its propaganda in much the same way as the British did?

A year-long travelling exhibition of photographs from the British Library's India Office Collection, 'A Shifting Focus: Photography in India 1850-1900', has sparked off a controversial debate on the roots of current trends in Indian photography, and on whether our photographers are at all concerned with current issues and if they have evolved an indigenous vision of contemporary reality. The answer is a definite no.

According to the exhibition's curator, John Falconer, early colonial photography had two main uses: validating colonial rule by documenting a dilapidated architectural heritage and the racial 'inferiority' of the natives, and by highlighting the glory and achievements of the Raj. The idea was also to market unusual images of India in Europe.

Photographer and freelance curator Satish Sharma fires the first salvo, accusing contemporary Indian photographers of looking through their viewfinder as neocolonial outsiders. "They still shoot for a western market and compete for honours from England's Royal Photographic Society. Exhibitions and coffee table books by eminent Indian photographers contain nothing but picturesque images of India."

 A lot has to do with the fact that the bulk of photography today is done for a living rather than for its own sake. Says Delhi-based German photojournalist Dieter Ludwig: "To make a living, one has to see what the international market wants. So when we photographed poor people, we ignored the men in nylon shirts—there was no demand for their images. In today's television age people are bored with 'reality' and, other than the National Geographic, only the tourism industry is interested in such images."

 Dayanita Singh, an independent photographer who spent two years photographing AIDS victims in Bombay and has of late been documenting the middle and upper classes, learnt the hard way that there were few takers for such images. Says she: "While my AIDS work was well received abroad, nobody in India was interested in it. But my cur-rent work on the Indian middle and upper class world, which is seldom documented, has interested neither the picture editors of western magazines nor Indians. Publishers of picture books too don't want it as they say the market is tourism-oriented."

 Of late, a shrinking market for images of Oriental exotica and third world poverty in European and American magazines has been offset by the Indian urban elite's yearning for a slice of their cultural heritage and a concern for "vanishing" living cultures. "We have begun to sell our own living history to ourselves as the romantic past. It's the Hauz Khas village phenomenon wherein ethnic chic is fashionable and a status symbol," says Sheba Chachhi, a feminist photographer and a multimedia artist.

Renowned historian Sumit Sarkar points out that just as the 'garibi hatao' agenda led to the propagandist use of images of poverty, the Festivals of India abroad resulted in the projection of a timeless India. Says he: "Till the late '70s, we saw a crude propaganda about how poverty was being tackled by government programmes. The Festival of India culture comprised abstracts from poverty and folk culture and promoted an exotic image that was aesthetically pleasing not only to the western eye, but also in the gaze of urban folk like us who don't suffer from problems of poverty and deprivation." The Government's neo-colonial attitude, adds Sharma, was reflected in the way "live human specimens were flown out to perform on the streets of London and Paris".

Rajasthan is the perfect example of the overkill of romantic nostalgia and is still the favourite theme of coffee table books, followed by Benares, the Ganga, monuments such as the Taj Mahal, the Khajuraho temples and royal palaces.

However, Raghu Rai believes that India being "the most exotic country in the world" is bound to lend itself to such depiction. But he hits out at the "failed and frustrated photographers who have become curators and critics" for accusing him of peddling exotica and insists that his older works on the Taj Mahal and Khajuraho are his own "personal statements" and not dictated by anybody. "My latest book, Delhi, and Raghubir Singh's Ganga are totally different from and surpass our earlier works."


Disputing the premise that contemporary photographers are continuing the colonial tradition, he claims they cannot be accused of having any direction or perspective whatsoever. Says Rai: "Colonial photographers at least had an agenda and a sense of purpose, but contemporary photographers have none at all and mostly try to copy styles and themes that I did a long time ago. Photojournalism, in particular, is bullshit and all you see are smart alecs trying to outdo each other in catching politicians pissing, yawning or taking a tumble. The bulk of them are illiterate and have become photographers by accident."

Chachhi points out that while documentary photography today may not go to the extremes colonial ethnographers did in their studies of Indian races and tribes, particularly the Andamanese, the bulk of it continues to reflect urban biases and, often, a neo-colonial nationalist agenda. Historian tanika Sarker agrees: "tribals are invariably depicted as singing and dancing. There is little to show them in protest movements. The Indian elite want to convince themselves that the tribals are a happy lot, use their images to demonstrate the success of government policies and engage in a kind of voyeurism by depicting them as frozen in time; people among whom we can go to refresh ourselves when we tire of our cities. We need to think of ourselves as colonisers in our own right."

Colonialism, explains Sarkar, is not only about the West dominating the East, but function of existing power equations. "Just as the British colonised India, today parts of Indian culture (urban) are colonising other Indian cities (rural and tribal) and determining what aspects are to be photographed and documented, and how. An important difference, however, is that unlike in colonial times when, apart from exotica, visual documentation had an analytical content and focused on the natives' problems, since the Festivals of India, indigenous cultures have been presented as if they were frozen in time. There is an aestheticisation of 'vanishing cultures', a pure unanalytical nostalgia, as if they were vanishing out of natural causes," says Tanika Sarkar.

Chachhi adds that even when tribals have been documented with a "loving eye", as in the works of Jyoti Bhatt of Baroda and Haku Shah of Ahmedabad, it remains an "outsider's eye" that doesn't reflect the indigenous vision of the people being documented. Sharma, on the other hand, says that truly 'vernacular' photography carried out by kerbside photowallahs or 'rotigraphers' -- who, with the help of elaborate kitsch props, translate the dreams of ordinary people, whether they be of owning cars and telephones, romancing their favourite film heroines, wielding guns or rubbing shoulders with prime ministers -- are sneered at by mainstream photographers and ignored as a valid social document.

And there is little, if any, documentation of the current changes in urban and rural societies. "India has the biggest and richest middle class in the world, but very little visual material is available of these changes or of how the structures of an economic class system operate. Similarly, while one has seen a lot of stereotyped images, there is almost nothing on the changes in rural and urban structures as a result of the forces of economic liberalisation," says Michael J Watt, director of the f. Stop Gallery in Bath, UK, currently in India to research possible exhibitions on contemporary Indian photography.

Internationally acclaimed photographer Dilip Mehta agrees: "Other than in a few business magazines, you can't find a thing about contemporary Indian in an Indian bookshop, nothing on the yuppies and the new business classes. Most images just reinforce western stereotypes of India. Photographers need to be more honest to themselves than just produce what someone else wants to see."

And Dayanita Singh explains how her attempt to put together an issue of contemporary Indian photography for the Reporter magazine came to naught as she could not meet the editor's basic requirement: new subjects and new approaches to existing ones that could challenge the media image of India. "the sad fact is that there's hardly anyone with bodies of such work. And while it is easy to get a grant to document a vanishing tribe, no one in India or abroad is willing to give grants to document contemporary India."

Sharma and Watt concur that the lack of a formal critical discourse on photography in India, and the fact that no art college or university provides for study of photographic history and movements, accounts for the con photographers' inability to come to terms with current issues and those pertaining to the ethics and practice of documentation/visual representation. Most recent seminars or debates have ended amid abuse.

British curators at a photography symposium held in Delhi in mid-October were taken aback to see Indian photographers bicker in public about the lack of equipment, in public about the lack of equipment, the prevalence of "monopoly groups" of influential photojournalists, and who did or did not exhibit what and why. Indian photographers are divided into three broad factions constantly at loggerheads with one another. There are the hobbyist salon photographers who still proudly practise 195h century pictorialism, photojournalists and independent photographers.

While the latter two accuse the hobbyists of regurgitating "stale" works and of being caught in a time-warp, the hobbyists accuse them of spreading "malicious rumours" and claim to the true "creative" artists. Independent photographers accuse photojournalists of being "hegemonistic" and "manipulating" politicians to corner duty-free equipment import quotas. Photojournalists lists, in turn, accuse select "failed and frustrated" photographers of attacking them out of "professional jealousies".

"It's sad that photographers feel so frustrated that nothing seems to happen, and that everything goes wrong when it does," says Val Williams, a London-based photography curator and writer who has put together photography exhibitions for numerous British galleries and museums, including the Victoria and Albert Museum. "An identical situation prevailed in Britain in the '70s, but there were people who went out and made things happen. Factions are all right once things have been set up, but there has to be some kind of unity to make things happen."

Evidently, Indian photography is facing a deep identity crisis and it may be a long time before it overcomes it.

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