“India is Truly Syncretic; That's one of its Most Enchanting Qualities”

“India is Truly Syncretic; That's one of its Most Enchanting Qualities”
A photograph from Karen Knorr's India Songs series titled Shakti, taken in Sheesh Mahal, Dungarpur's Juna Mahal in 2013 and Banerghatta National Park , Photo Credit: Courtesy of Karen Knorr

London-based and German-born acclaimed American photographer Karen Knorr tells us about her work India Song, her trips to India, and why she absolutely loves Rajasthan

Karan Kaushik
October 27 , 2020
10 Min Read

What made you think of juxtaposing palaces with wildlife?
One thing about India I had noticed in the past was that there was like a stereotype for what India is for people, and it was either the very poor or the too wealthy. The thing I missed in the story until I travelled to the country was this extraordinary wildlife that India still has, despite its ever burgeoning population.

When I first travelled to India in 2008, I visited many cities in Rajasthan. It is one of the largest areas of India so I also missed out on many places even though I have been coming back for the last 12 years.

Animals become like characters that reference sometimes the myths, and sometimes they also stand for lower caste as well for people who are not allowed in places, for example,  in museums. There is a thing about access to these places and the money required to visit the places, which sometimes keeps even Indians from visiting these places. So I wanted to make a work that brought this extraordinary contrast together and was also telling stories about India and the clash of culture and nature.

I am using the interiors because I found out that there were not a lot of images of interiors. I wanted to do something to celebrate the visual culture of India. I studied miniature paintings and used those animals in my photographs.The Lovesick Prince, Juna Mahal, Dungarpur 2013 There are two origin stories that people grow up listening to in India. A bit like the western Christian Bible. Hindu culture is very old, some of it predates Christianity, and so it comes out of a storytelling culture. The Mahabharata and Ramayana are the two stories that I sometimes refer to for my photos. For example, one of my photographs is called Arjuna’s Arrow, which is about Arjuna having to prove that he is a worthy groom for Draupadi. In Hampi, the destruction of Vijayanagar intrigued me.

But I haven’t finished the series yet. The Islamic culture here is also blessed with many stories. I need to be very careful about what animals I will choose to show inside a mosque though.

The religious tolerance in northern India is fascinating. I have been to Jama Masjid in Delhi. I visit these places like a properly attired pilgrim because there are a lot of cultural norms that I have to respect.

Your images exhibit a dose of fantasy with the real. How do you balance this?
I think you need to understand the strategy of the work. The work cannot always be direct  because it wants to broaden its audience. So sometimes it uses a story to tell another story. For example, my work called The Lovesick Prince not only refers to another miniature (I have studied miniatures called lovesick princess, where there is a princess). So there is a certain playfulness and doubling of stories going on and to strike a balance, I don’t know whether it is always important to strike a balance. The strategy is evolved out of a documentary side of my work and my work has changed over the last 40 years. The only thing that is similar in my work is there is always a certain kind of disruption.The Sound of Rain, Badal Mahal, Junagarh Fort, Bikaner How difficult is it to photograph animals and where all did you go to photograph them in India?
Some of the animals were photographed in zoos like the Delhi Zoo, which is one of the most incredible zoological parks in India. I keep going back there and it has improved a lot over these years. Some people still don’t know how to respect animals. But I love the environment. It is a bit chaotic, and I find it rather charming when I see people sitting on the ground and enjoying a nice picnic with their families.

To capture tigers, I have been to Ranthambore and Bandhavgarh. Bandhavgarh is amazing. I have also been to Bannerghatta National Park on the outskirts of Bengaluru to photograph lions. Taking a jeep safari is not all that easy.

The challenge is that I have to go back many times to get a perfect shot. I am often in the jeep with guys with long zoom lenses but I wonder how they can photograph while moving. Photographing animals is incredibly difficult.

When I photograph the interiors, I use natural light and I don’t use flashlight. I am also aware and critical of the fact that my white privilege allows me to get access to the palaces of Rajasthan like not everyone does. My photos are like a dream space but it’s still a documentation of the heritage and I want more people to visit these places.

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A post shared by Karen Knorr (@karen1knorr) on Aug 15, 2020 at 5:38am PDT

How did you zero in on Rajasthan?
I was interested in its rich and hybrid cultural heritage which includes sacred and secular architectural space. The architectural space I encountered from Ranakpur Tirkha to Mandore to the havelis of Shekwati attracted me with a mixture of elements: gendered space (zanana and mardana); and also a mixture of architectural styles borrowed from Islam, Hindu and Greek mixed with local Rajasthani elements such as chhatris and jharokhas.

The region also has wildlife like leopards and black buck, demoiselle cranes and sarus cranes that are now rapidly disappearing because of development. Even the old and stunning Aravali mountain range is now under threat from excess quarrying.

India Song is the name of the series. I wanted to bring together two different registers, culture and nature that are having difficulty in coexisting in our contemporary age of economic development and expansion. There is advisable erosion of the landscape by mining now occurring in Deogarh which I returned to this year (before Covid) after nine years of absence. Farmers in Rajasthan are having problems because of climate change, development and locusts. I recently included a locust in one of my new works taken in a small jewel-like room in Udaipur called “The Locust Eater”. The references are Indian miniatures such as the ragamalas and also Jataka stories such as the story of the lion and the peacock. I also took landscape photographs in Deogarh, Nawalgarh and Dungarpur but all this is changing and not always for the best. Photography will fix this beauty for prosperity I hope.

It will soon be time for a second edition of India Song with the new work since 2014! ‘Sita’s Wish’ is one of the images also in Dungarpur Palace that figures an episode of the Ramayana where Sita is tricked by a golden deer sent by Ravana.Sita’s Wish, Juna Mahal, Dungarpur 2012There is no one theme in India Song but many threads of weaving stories which celebrate Indian heritage and its visual culture. I became interested in the origin myths of India such as the narratives of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata which underpin the stories depicted in miniatures and wall paintings found in temples and palaces.

The notion of hybridity and mixtures of Muslim, Hindu, Jain, Buddhist and Parsi culture visible in the architecture impressed me. India is truly syncretic and that is one of its most enchanting qualities in my opinion. I also wanted to explore caste and women’s space in Indian society without resorting to stereotypes but using humour and magical realism. 

How many months/years did it take to complete the project?
I have visited every year since 2008. I have visited Rajasthan and other areas of India such as Karnataka, Uttar Pradesh, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Madya Pradesh, and Gujarat over 20 times. I always return to Rajasthan.

The series is not complete. It continues as long as I can work on it. I just need any excuse to revisit. There is always a new place or city to explore and reflect upon. I recently discovered Bundi in 2017 and I very much enjoyed photographing the Chitrashala in Bundi Palace.

I love the stories that are told by the paintings: the everyday life of the court and the mythical stories depicted from the Ramayana (Rama the exiled prince with his brother Lakshama and wife Sita escape to the forests, Sita’s abduction and her vindication and return to mother earth. Along the way, it teaches Hindu life lessons) and Mahabharata (its protagonists Krishna and Arjuna are painted on the walls of havelis and palaces). These two are epic poems that were memorised and transmitted orally and through dance and performance over centuries. They are part of world literature which started as oral storytelling like Fables by Aesop, Jataka stories and alongside the Quran, Torah and Bible. The Locust Eater, Udaipur City Palace, Udaipur 2020 Tell us about your travels through the state. 
We first travelled 2,000 kilometres across Rajasthan in a small Maruti Suzuki with Annu from Shimla as our young driver. Juliette Wilson, a close friend travelled with me. We split the costs of the trip customising our travel itinerary across Rajasthan starting in Delhi and ending at the Imperial Hotel in Delhi for our last night. We left London on September 29 and the 2008 as the world financial crash happened in October.

We travelled to Samode Palace (Samode an hour’s drive from Jaipur) followed by Jaipur, Ramgarh, Fatehpur, Nawalgarh, Bikaner, Phalodi, Jodhpur, Osian, Jojawar, Udaipur, Deogarh, Bharatpur, Agra and back to Delhi.

During this 21-day journey we only had one tyre change! I had never travelled to so many locations staying one or two nights, but yet I got my reconnaissance shots and a real taste of Rajasthan. I continue to visit and will return with my husband Geoff, who records me photographing and keeps records of our trips over the years in a small diary.

Where were you staying on your trips?
Mostly in wildlife reserves such as Satpura National Park (Reni Pani Lodge), Bandhavgarh (Samode Safai Lodge), Keoladeo Bird Sanctuary in Bharatpur (The Bagh). We stayed in the Lutyens Bungalow in Delhi and with friends in Bangalore. I loved staying in Udai Bilas Palace in Dungarpur.Friends in Need, Juna Mahal, 2020Any particularly memorable incident while travelling?
A frightening moment… a tiger almost jumping into the jeep in Bannerghatta Safari Park in Karnataka (see feature image for the tiger’s picture). I remember celebrating my husband Geoff’s 60th birthday at The Oberoi Vanyavilas in Ranthambore. The hotel staff wrote “Happy Birthday” with flowers on the doorstep of our tent.

Did you pick up any souvenirs from Rajasthan?
My photographs serve as both memory and souvenir. 

Check out Karen Knorr's work here.

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