A shot in time
IT is undeniable that photography bears a unique burden – that of accurate representation – separating it from the other arts. One of the first issues Susan Sontag tackles in her seminal treatise On Photography is ‘the presumption of veracity that gives all photographs authority, interest, seductiveness.’
This burden of veracity weighs more in India than elsewhere and in particular the developed countries. It stems from India’s crushing poverty and, more recently, unpalatable communal violence. A photographer in India cannot, with any degree of comfort, altogether ignore the country he lives in. And this is partly due to the flexibility of the medium itself – the fact that photography facilitates rich relationships between artist and environment and between environment and audience.
Interestingly, photography shares an important similarity with the saffron brigade – both thrive on diversity. But unlike the saffron brigade, which derives its sustenance from combating India’s diversity, when a photographer shoots the unfamiliar it is an act of embrace. A photograph finds elements of interest in the most mundane. It can extract heterogeneity even when it seems there is none available. This is particularly true of art photography – work that, if commercial or journalistic, is not primarily so. There is, therefore, an urgent need for it to enter the Indian mainstream.
Traditionally, many among the steady stream of western photographers tackling India have fallen into the tempting trap of simplistic summarizing rather than incisive exploration. When the Swiss photographer Robert Frank published The Americans in 1959, he was commended (and derided) for, among other reasons, suggesting that a collection of photographs could somehow encompass the essence of a country as varied as the United States. Similar spreads on India do not generate these reactions.
There is a plethora of photography books with the simple but arrogant title ‘India’, in which the country (and sometimes the subcontinent) is simplified into a ‘sea of smiling faces’ or something of the sort. But Ayodhya is not Ahmedabad, and Kashmir is not Kerala. Bengali legend has it that when Alexander arrived in India through the Himalayas, he scanned the entire country with a sweep of his eyes and exclaimed, ‘Satya, Seleucus, ki bichitra ei desh! (Honestly, Seleucus, how diverse this country is!)’ If Alexander’s eyesight is to be trusted, careful studies along geographic and thematic lines must precede ‘definitive’ works on India.
On the other hand, the Indian approach to India (through photography and film) has frequently rested on escapist fantasy rather than a confrontation with reality. This in itself does not contradict the goals of art. Take, as an illustration, the studio photographs by Seydou Keita, the Malian photographer. A quiet unassuming man, he refused to philosophize about his work, insisting that his goal was simply to make his clients look their best. Yet his beautiful photographs are full of empathy and infuse the fantasies of the photographed with great dignity. This tradition of studio photography (and similarly, Bollywood cinema) is only natural in countries like Mali and India, where people need a diversion from the struggle of their daily lives.
But such an atmosphere can stifle alternate approaches to the arts – those that might fulfil other social functions. Susan Sontag writes of China: ‘The only use the Chinese are allowed to make of their history is didactic: their interest in history is narrow, moralistic, deforming, uncurious.’ While in China the government creates the obstacles to art, in India it is the gigantic, influential and homogenous popular culture that does the same.
The relative paucity of audience interest, however, has not prevented contemporary Indian photographers from creating a formidable, if small, body of work. Since the camera is a recent European innovation, it is only natural that these photographers should be partly influenced by the Europeans who first brought the camera to India. Three photographers from the second half of the 19th century stand out as being particularly instrumental to the growth of the field in India – Felice Beato, Samuel Bourne and Donald Macfarlane.
Felice Beato was one of the world’s first ‘war photographers’. While most contemporary war photographers are anti-war, Beato was quite the opposite. One of his best known photographs, made in 1858, is entitled ‘Interior of the Secundra Bagh after the Slaughter of the 2,000 Rebels by the 93rd Highlanders and 4thPunjab Regiment. First attack of Sir Colin Campbell in November 1857, Lucknow.’ For this set-up photograph, Beato brought in human skeletons and scattered them across the courtyard in front of the bullet-ridden walls. To add to the air of English glory, he threw in a few defeated looking Indian men standing languidly in the background. In his essay on Beato, David Harris asks, ‘How does one reconcile the serenity and order of this image with the graphic and repellent descriptions of four hours of continuous slaughter…?’ Perhaps this is not possible, and one can only hope that civilizational progress renders some artistic legacies dead (or, in our case, modified into the more benign culture of escapist studio photography).
Macfarlane and Bourne mark the advent of street photography in India. The photography historian Jane Ricketts writes that Macfarlane wanted to ‘[discover] his personal vision of the picturesque in the superficially uninteresting surroundings of Calcutta.’ Indeed, his brilliant abstraction in ‘Rocks, Darjeeling’ and his depiction of neglected beauty in ‘Tolly’s Nullah, Calcutta’ are refreshingly democratic and free of colonial hang-ups, reminiscent of Eugene Atget’s serene Paris streetscapes from the late 19th century. Bourne too had a fine eye for composition and was quite taken by India’s natural beauty. A master of understatement, he went so far as to declare that the Ganga was a ‘not altogether unpicturesque object.’
It took one more European to significantly influence modern Indian photography – the Belgian master, Henri Cartier-Bresson, who made the first of his several trips to India just after independence. He coined the term ‘decisive moment’, an approach to street photography that would inspire generations of photographers across the world. Satyajit Ray described him as ‘the greatest photographer of our time’ and attributed to him ‘the skill and vision that raise the ordinary and the ephemeral to a monumental level…’ Cartier-Bresson achieved even greater brilliance when photographing events that were themselves monumental – the aftermath of partition and the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi. There is the photograph of Nehru standing perched on the gates of Birla House, announcing to the anxious crowd that Mahatma Gandhi is indeed dead. A diffused light falls on Nehru’s face. The picture is slightly shaky. Completely unprepared for this event, Cartier-Bresson has tried to steady his camera by placing it on what looks like the roof of a car.
And in another photograph, we have Nehru in an altogether different mood. Standing between Edwina and Lord Mountbatten, he is doubling over with laughter, his eyes on Edwina. The photograph is erotica at its finest and most unexpected. I remember a scene from the documentary Three Women and a Camera, in which the photographer Homai Vyarawalla complains that she doesn’t like this photograph; it is undignified. That it may be, but we should thank Cartier-Bresson for allowing our prime minister’s undignified doings to be fair game for a photographer. More importantly, the image of Cartier-Bresson roaming the streets of India, searching for the decisive moment in the cities and villages, capturing the tragic optimism of independence, is an affirmation for the compatibility of photo-journalism, art, and high emotion in one package.
In a country where so much meets the eye, the early practitioners of Indian art photography (working from the ’60s into the ’90s) readily took up where the Europeans left off, but this time tackling the ‘street’ on their own, in more personal, terms. It is only very recently that a new trend towards abstraction and introspection has emerged. Though it is difficult to make a comprehensive list of prominent names from the last 40-odd years, some that come to mind are Sheba Chhachi, Nemai Ghosh, Sunil Gupta, Sunil Janah, Samar Jodha, Swapan Parekh, Ram Rahman, Raghu Rai, Sanjeev Saith, Dayanita Singh, Pamela Singh, Raghubir Singh and Homai Vyarawalla. Of these, three who are sure to leave behind strong artistic legacies are Raghu Rai, Dayanita Singh and Raghubir Singh. Not only are they extremely talented photographers, but their intimacy with the western art world will ensure that their work lives on in numerous well-produced books.
Ihave heard stories from shopkeepers on Delhi’s Chandni Chowk about a photographer who is regularly amongst them – sipping tea, making friends, and taking pictures. I like to believe it is Raghu Rai they are talking about. Rai is a member of Magnum, the most prominent photojournalistic agency in the world (co-founded by Cartier-Bresson and famous for war photographers like Robert Capa and, more recently, James Nachtwey and Gilles Peress). A large part of Rai’s work is in black and white and, more than any other Indian, he has made an art out of photo journalism. His black and white pictures, which I think are his best, are grainy, full of contrast, and often dark. By doing away with the colour that is so integral to Indian life, he ends up with sad and surreal landscapes.
He has written, ‘People say that a good picture is worth a thousand words; I feel at times, a thousand words are a lot of noise, how about capturing some silence?’ This silence is palpable in his 1965 photograph ‘Outskirts of Delhi’, shot at dawn, which resembles a sprawling Japanese Zen garden with cows. Rai has extensively photographed old Delhi in all its faded splendour and has also completed portrait projects of both Mother Teresa and Indira Gandhi.
Dayanita Singh has taken documentary photography out of the street and into homes and communities. She had the courage (some say audacity) to photograph her upper-middle class relatives and friends sitting smugly in their drawing rooms and looking jadedly into the camera. Her photographs insist that the upper-middle class belong to India as much as anyone else, and as if to strengthen this claim, she has also built moving photographic collections of hijras and prostitutes. Her most recent book, Myself Mona Ahmed, comprises portraits of Mona Ahmed, a eunuch, spanning several years of her life. By photographing different classes of people separately and empathetically, Singh effectively highlights the unpleasant social demarcations that plague India today.
Raghubir Singh, until his premature death in 1998, was a prolific street photographer. He was a professed fan of Cartier-Bresson, but openly defied him by using colour. In Singh’s opinion, ‘Unlike those in the West, Indians have always intuitively seen and controlled colour… The fundamental condition of the West is one of guilt, linked to death – from which black is inseparable. Psychological empathy with black is alien to India.’ This may be an overstatement, but Singh’s photographs are unmistakably buoyed by colour. His 1994 photograph, ‘Crawford Market, Mumbai’ displays his mastery over the decisive moment – a chaotic colourful marketplace, five straw baskets balanced on five heads perfectly captured in mid-motion, one man drinking water from a kettle, and another pouring tea into a cup (this photograph bears a striking resemblance to a 1966 shot of Jaipur by Cartier-Bresson, and I suspect this may be Singh’s private homage to him).
Elsewhere, Singh’s mastery over colour is useful in demonstrating the lack of it, for example, in a shot of a corpulent middle-aged man in a dreary Bombay Dyeing office. One characteristic of Singh’s photography that sets him apart (for better or worse) is his framing. The borders of his photographs deliberately leave the viewer unsettled. Arms are cut off, necks sliced, and legs broken. Singh refuses to submit to the simple pleasures of clean geometric framing and uncluttered straight lines.
Of the more introspective photographers, I feel it is instructive to mention Sunil Gupta. The London-based photographer has addressed homosexuality in India through several collections of photographs. One of his early series, Exiles, contains portraits in quotidian urban settings that potently depict the resounding clash between homosexuality and the Indian mainstream. His later series are more abstract and incorporate montage and multiple exposures. His work indicates an interesting shift in approach from the methods of street/portrait photography to more private musings through abstraction. While doing so, however, Gupta avoids the trap of self-pity, and his sociological observations are all the stronger for it.
John Szarkowski, a well-known photographer and art theorist, writes of ‘a fundamental dichotomy in contemporary photography between those who think of photography as a means of self-expression and those who think of it as a method of exploration.’ A cruder way to put it would be to separate photography into ‘introspective’ and ‘street’. Szarkowski himself admits that the boundaries of these categories are blurry and there is definite overlap. However, this distinction is useful, especially in the context of the maturing and diversifying of photography in India, as it allows us to ascribe to each school a set of goals and benchmarks for evaluation.
The task that the exploratory photographer sets for himself (rather, should set for himself) is not unlike that of the anthropologist. In a personal/anthropological essay about the Marxists of Bengal, Ramachandra Guha describes the three ‘births’ of an anthropologist, an idea he attributes to M. N. Srinivas. A ‘once-born’ anthropologist is eager to learn about a tribe but is as yet unaccustomed to its ways. A ‘twice-born’ anthropologist is one who has immersed herself in the ways of the tribe she is studying – she sees from its point of view and is loyal to its members. And an anthropologist is ‘thrice-born’ when she is back in the university, ready to dissect what she has learned with an academic but sensitive eye. At the end of this three-tiered approach, ‘the allegiance to one’s tribe can never be entirely abandoned, but now one can at least hope to achieve partial objectivity: the mark of a scholar, as distinct from a partisan.’
Such an approach to exploratory, or street, photography will help the photographer to bypass an ethical dilemma about partisanship discussed by Sontag: ‘The history of photography discloses a long tradition of ambivalence about its capacity for partisanship: the taking of sides is felt to undermine its perennial assumption that all subjects have validity and interest.’ Guha’s approach successfully separates the notions of partisanship and empathy.
Szarkowski cites Alfred Stieglitz as the model for the introspective photographer, but Stieglitz’s approach to photography was arguably more over-arching. Stieglitz, in the early 20th century, almost single-handedly brought about a revolution in America’s perception of photography. He argued eloquently for photography’s role as a vehicle of social change and campaigned for an appreciation of its unique aesthetic potential. His enthusiasm for ‘equivalents’ is part of the reason Szarkowski names him as a father of modern introspective photography. An equivalent, in Stieglitz’s words, is a photograph that evokes feelings ‘about something other than the subject of the photograph.’ Szarkowski adds that an equivalent is ‘fundamentally romantic… and profoundly self-centred.’ Stieglitz’s defining characteristic, however, was his obsessive quest for beauty, which he even imparted to students like Dorothy Norman (best known in India for her delicate portraits of Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi).
Guha and Stieglitz help us to establish certain ideals – the first for the exploratory photographer and the second for art photographers in general. Against this backdrop, we can look at the specifics of photography in the Indian environment. Both Raghubir Singh and Raghu Rai have written about the practice of photography in India. While their photographs betray their divergent approaches to street photography, it is also instructive to look at their writing.
Raghubir Singh has unambiguously stated his desire to celebrate the good in India, by highlighting what separates it from the West. To him, ‘Beauty, nature, humanism, and spirituality are the four cornerstones of the continuous culture of India.’ He writes about his travels across India with the American photographer Lee Friedlander who ‘was often looking for the abject as subject.’ Singh argues that Friedlander’s approach of ‘beauty as seen in abjection’ is fundamentally western and suits neither him nor India.
Raghu Rai, on the other hand, embraces black and white and is willing to paint a considerably grittier picture of India. While most pictures in Singh’s book on Calcutta, for example, are loud and boisterous, the inhabitants of Rai’s equivalent book frequently look forlorn.
Rai has written on the need for artistry and honesty in both art photography and photojournalism. Like many photojournalists, he asserts that the notion of authorship is out of place in photography: ‘…when I am told that people can distinguish my work from others, it is not very good, because it means I have imposed myself on the pictures so that traces of me can be seen.’ On this topic, Susan Sontag writes, ‘Insofar as photography is (or should be) about the world, the photographer counts for little, but insofar as it is the instrument of intrepid, questioning, subjectivity, the photographer is all.’ This is an apt observation.
The simple fact of Singh’s rejection of black and white and Rai’s successful adoption of it asserts some notion of authorship. This is not at odds with Rai’s concern for honesty, because honesty can accommodate subjectivity. So if we are to acknowledge that the photographer must leave a mark on her photographs, we must simultaneously reject Raghubir Singh’s claim that colour is better suited to the Indian psyche. It is the photographer’s psyche that counts. Colour could perhaps be defended on aesthetic grounds, but cannot on psychological grounds. Singh’s criticisms of both Friedlander and black and white are unconvincing because he focuses more on a photographer’s inclinations and the final product rather than on the sincerity of the process.
Raghubir Singh was, however, correct to caution the Indian photographer against blindly aping the standards of the West. In particular, he said that India is not ready for the individualistic introspection that is the trademark of post-modern art. But this still leaves room for a collective introspection through art, a dose of which the country sorely needs. A photographer should operate with the freedom to be pessimistic, the freedom to obsess over the unpleasant and the inhumane. Such an obsession does not indicate an aesthetic compromise.
Sebastiao Salgado, the economist-turned-photographer, has spent a lifetime photographing the world’s poor and dispossessed with an unflinching eye. His photographs are proof that one can beautify sadness without glorifying it, that a photograph can be delectable yet damning. The journalist P. Sainath, who doesn’t consider himself a photographer but is in fact a rather good one, takes pictures that also achieve this duality.
Needless to say, the language of photography is accessible to the literate and illiterate alike. While a painting frequently loses its impact when reproduced on a page, much less is lost in a good reproduction of a photograph. So a photograph’s sphere of influence is potentially enormous. I am sure that the photograph of Govinda in a Rupa ‘Frontline’ vest, asserting ‘Yeh aram ka mamla hai’ has inspired many a man to sprint to the nearest banyan store (myself included). To say that photographs are not capable of inducing change in society would be to confuse photography with lack of publicity.
Raghu Rai, for instance, has lamented the reluctance of popular publications to print controversial photographs (this problem is significant enough to merit its own essay, so I shall leave it out of this one). The Govinda advertisement is easy to publish because it generates no controversy other than, perhaps, some tension between those who wear VIP and those who wear Rupa. Bengalis still swear by ‘Gopal Genji’, but that is a regional quirk.
How can the potentially persuasive power of photographs be harnessed into a collective introspection? By allowing them to do what they do best – celebrate diversity, generate interest in the mundane, create empathy with the voiceless. It would be foolish to require all photographers to share a common agenda, but it is reasonable to expect them to be wary of infusing their work with an inaccurate optimism. If a photographer sees India’s saffrons in shades of grey, then let it show in her work. If a photographer sees in the spectrum of the population a spectrum of colours, then let that show in her work.
Just as the English architect Herbert Baker went against Edwin Lutyens and the prevailing disdain for Indian architecture by insisting on adding chhatris to the secretariat buildings in Delhi, let us hope that photographers have the courage to fight some of the prevailing wisdoms of our times. If they achieve the beauty that Stieglitz envisioned, they are likely to have an audience. And if the exploratory photographers among them follow the methods that Guha promotes, then they may even mobilize this audience. Photographs are capable of moulding the relationship between an individual and his society, and might therefore be instrumental in preventing a society from imploding. At worst, they may shed some light on the peculiarities of a country where L.K. Advani calmly watches the Babri Masjid going down while his daughter is safe in Paris, studying French.
And occasionally, a photographer might find, in an unlikely place, a strand that unexpectedly weaves through this giant population. Raghubir Singh’s posthumously published book, A Way Into India, does just that. It is a book of pictures taken from and of the Ambassador car. To conclude, an excerpt from his introductory essay about the car: ‘It is now a part of India’s long journey. It is an organic part of bird shit and cow dung-coated India. It is the good and the bad of India. It is a solid part of India that moves on, even as it falls apart, or lags behind. In its imperfection it is truly an Indian automobile.’