Review: Docu Tour

This review was first published in Caravan.

Beyond Photoshop

In an age when Photoshop has become a commonly used verb, the idea of a photograph documenting reality is almost quaint. It seems photography is all about manipulation, whether it’s at the early stages of framing a photograph or later when it’s adjusted, or photoshopped, on a computer. In case if Docu Tour, curated by Bose Krishnamachari, presently on display at Gallery BMB in Mumbai, there’s an additional layer of adjustment. According to the gallery handout, the exhibition “seeks to explore various formal strategies that are employed to transform the photo document into an artwork.” This time, instead of the subject, it is the photograph itself that is being manipulated so that it belongs in a gallery. As documentation, these photographs belong in newspapers, catalogues and photo albums. Instead, they are in the white cube of the gallery, fashioned into art.

The four photographers who have contributed to Docu Tour have little in common. Although Vivek Vilasini and Gauri Gill’s photographs are shot in black and white, Vilasini’s are large-format photographs and the contrast is cranked up to make the darker tones more emphatic. Gill’s, on the other hand, are smaller and look as though they’ve been bleached. Anup Mathew Thomas’ two sets of photographs appear in Docu Tour, one a colour series based in Kerala and the other a collection of almost candid photographs of his family. Shankar Natarajan’s work in the show is a large installation, made up of photographs he’s taken since 2006.

Vilasini’s three photographs are the first works the viewer sees upon entering the gallery. Their size makes them seem like windows looking out at the city. For those familiar with Vilasini’s style, the gentle humour and ironic tone will be familiar. A headless figure clutches the Constitution in ‘Unconstitutional.’ ‘Do Not Urinate Here’ shows the familiar site of a wall with religious symbols painted upon it as deterrents to desperate bladders. But Islam’s star and crescent moon, the Christian crucifix and the Hindu Om are in a crowd of stains and garbage, relegated to being part of the ugly clutter of modern India. In ‘Gandhi Street,’ a kitschy statue of the father of the nation stands in front of a building’s gates. He looks like he is about to leave the building (like Elvis, perhaps) but is rooted to his spot because the statue has no feet. It’s as though the cement has sucked him in so that all he can do is stand in an abandoned street, unable to escape this world that has turned him into a caricature of himself.

Whereas Gill, Thomas and Natarajan benefit from their works being displayed in close proximity to each other, Vilasini’s photographs seem out of synch with the rest of them, which is perhaps fitting because the tone of his photographs is very different. The humour in Vilasini’s photographs contrasts sharply with the melancholy in Gill and Thomas’ works in particular.

Shankar Natarajan’s ‘Photographs’ is a misfit, too, but for a different reason. There’s no ground to doubt the artistic merit of ‘Photographs’ as an installation, and it is an interesting and sophisticated piece, but the curator’s decision to include this work in a photography show is debatable. The pictures are the product of commercial assignments. They are not examples of fine art photography but simply of photographing fine art. Natarajan, who dabbled in painting and art criticism, has been photographing artworks for Mumbai galleries since 2006. One of Natarajan’s central concerns is with the issue that spurred Marcel Duchamp to turn a urinal upside down in 1917: non-art. His photographs, which were originally intended to be publicity images and were, therefore, non-art, become art just because they are brought to a gallery. Across six feet, Natarajan’s photographs are arranged in a geometric grid so that a band of images runs across the wall, like a giant contact sheet. ‘Photographs’ requires you to step up to the wall and see the images up close. Natarajan has shot works by almost every important Indian contemporary artist, including Anita Dube, Bharti Kher and TV Santhosh, and no image is repeated in the installation. Considering that it is made up of images taken to make a work look most saleable, the commercialism of the art world is an obvious aspect to ‘Photographs.’ However, it is also a timely reminder of the variety of work that has been produced in so short a time.

So far as Docu Tour’s announced intention of showcasing work that shows “the use of photographic documentation in the critique of socio-political structures” is concerned, the series by Gill and Thomas fit the bill perfectly. In a clever arrangement, the two artists are shown on either side of the corridor. Gill’s black and whites face Thomas’ vibrantly colourful photographs. In Gill’s work, the dry, dusty bleakness of rural Rajasthan comes across as all the more stark thanks to monochrome. Thomas, on the other hand, uses the distraction of colour cleverly. His photographs show the cheerful palette of a children’s book, only to draw the viewer closer and show them the melancholia of the people who live amidst that beautiful scenery. The effect of these two very different styles facing each other is dramatic, like walking into a bipolar mind. The juxtapositions are sometimes disturbing, like when Gill’s photograph of a boy with a plastic bag over his head—eerily reminiscent of Abu Ghraib detainees—faces Thomas’ shot of a beaming politician and his wax replica standing against lush greenery.

Thomas has been photographing Kerala for years now and Docu Tour includes images from his most recent series, View from Conolly’s Plot, as well as an older set from 2003, titled Well, Basically This is About Thomas Jacob, which chronicled nine months in Thomas’ father’s life. Thomas describes his father as a man who lives in Kottayam and works for a newspaper, gliding past the fact that his father is the editorial director of Malayala Manorama, one of the most widely circulated publications in the country. Although having 500 images in Well, Basically This is About Thomas Jacob is selfindulgent, the two-channel slideshow is an interesting look at two sides of Jacob, one when he is in Kottayam and the other when he and his wife visit their son (Thomas’ brother) in England. In Kottayam, Jacob is a figure of authority while in England, the same person seems almost helpless and reduced to being simply an old man in England.

The photographs from View From Conolly’s Plot are far stronger. Contained in his photographs are references to Kerala’s attempts to create a bridge between its past and its present, starting from the legacy of Henry Valentine Conolly, the Briton who set up the world’s first teak plantation in Kerala. Saint George’s Forane church turned from church to graveyard when its congregation outgrew it and moved to new premises. The collapse of the joint family system can be seen in the striking ‘House on the Roadside’ in which a home is physically cut in two.

Gill’s photographs, a selection from her Notes from the Desert, are the strongest in terms of narrative in Docu Tour. She began shooting in rural Rajasthan in 1999, originally with the intention of putting together a photo essay about rural education. As the subjects of her photographs invited her into their lives, the project spiralled out of control and over the next 11 years, Gill has collected thousands of images that chronicle the lives of the marginalised and the impoverished of Barmer. As a social documentary project, Notes from the Desert is remarkable and poignant. Without becoming oppressively grim, Gill presents a work that looks at the present mismanagement in the Rajasthani village. Her photographs also reference past traditions of imagemaking, subtly critiquing the practice of objectifying the poor as well as celebrating simple but relevant stereotypes like a mother’s love for her child. As photographs, they are beautifully composed and silvered with melancholia. They are intimate but Gill doesn’t ever try to create an illusion of being within the world being photographed, which is a smart aesthetic decision since to most viewers this unromanticised Rajasthan is an unfamiliar world. The viewer is always an outsider, but a welcome one. Sometimes, the outsider glimpses private moments, like Ismat at her daughter Janat’s grave, but a certain distance between the camera and the subject is carefully maintained.

With all the hue and cry that is made about the ability of photographs to manipulate reality and the glut of mindless visuals in contemporary media, perhaps it is worth remembering that photography has been an important truth-teller in the 20th century because of the space that was given to social documentation. Galleries like Gallery BMB, Photoink and Nature Morte must be applauded for providing a showcase for this genre of photography, but that such photographs need to be ‘transformed’ into fine art is far from heartening.

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On Kolkata’s Art Scene

This article first appeared in Mint Lounge.

The Kolkata Frieze

There are two “B”s in the Bengali alphabet. They look and sound exactly the same. The alphabet also has one obsolete vowel and a curious accent called the “biswarga”. The biswarga, pronounced “bishorgo”, can be replaced by the exclamation mark, making it one of those elements of the Bengali alphabet that isn’t essential. Kolkata-based artist Jayanta Roy punned on biswarga when he titled his 2009 exhibition B-Swarga.

The Cima art gallery. Indranil Bhoumik/Mint
The Cima art gallery. Indranil Bhoumik/Mint

“We say many big things about how art can change the world, but it’s as useless as thebiswarga because there are so few people who are actually interested in and affected by art,” says Roy. “If you look in Kolkata, they are only interested in nostalgia and pretty pictures, not contemporary art.” While his art has received acclaim, not many share Roy’s dismissive attitude towards the city’s art lovers. After all, Kolkata’s enthusiastic viewing crowd remains one aspect of the city’s art scene that hasn’t suffered a decline.

Despite the fact that it has thrown up barely a handful of reputed contemporary artists in the past 20 years, Kolkata retains the reputation of being the most cultured of India’s metropolises. “There’s such a strong cultural ethos in this city,” says Rakhi Sarkar, director and curator of The Centre of International Modern Art (Cima), Kolkata. Sarkar is also a managing trustee of the Kolkata Museum of Modern Art, which is expected to open in 2013. “People ask me why Kolkata should be the place for a museum of modern art and I tell them, it’s the only city in India that can sustain a cultural institution of this magnitude,” she says. Sarkar does admit, however, that the city’s art scene has suffered over the past decades. “There were a combination of factors, like the reticence of artists and the fact that Bengal went through an economic low since the 1960s,” says Sarkar. “It wasn’t that there weren’t good artists but they weren’t nurtured properly and there was little scope for them.”

Bengal art entered the spotlight in the early 20th century thanks to artists such as Abanindranath Tagore and Nandalal Bose of the Bengal School. By the 1920s, however, modernism was the new favourite. From the Calcutta Group of the 1940s to the pop modernism of Jamini Roy’s paintings and the communism-inspired idealism of Somnath Hore, Bengal Modernism spanned more than three decades and was a dynamic movement. The last of the golden years were in the 1960s. Artists such as Bikash Bhattacharya, Ganesh Pyne, Meera Mukherjee and K.G. Subramanyan had a lasting impact upon the next generation.

“The history of modernism in Bengal art is very strong,” says artist Paula Sengupta, who also teaches at Rabindra Bharati University and heads the Kolkata chapter of Khoj, the New-Delhi based collective that supports experimental art projects. “In fact, I’d say it was too strong. That was such a dominant period that a whole generation of artists, from the 1970s onwards and particularly in the 1980s and 1990s, spent their time following in those footsteps. That’s the beginning of the bleak chapter in Bengal art.” While the 1970s and 1980s saw artists elsewhere, such as Vivan Sundaram and Nalini Malani, experimenting with multidisciplinary practices, Bengal art, more so from the 1980s, curled into modernism and resolutely persevered with it, uncaring of becoming outdated.

With Indian art finding favour in the international market in the noughties, artists who had developed their styles in the couple of decades past rose to stratospheric heights. Established centres of art such as Mumbai and Vadodara attracted talent from all over the country and provided platforms for people with innovative practices such as Atul Dodiya, N.S. Harsha and Pushpamala N. Some emerged from places not known for modern art. Subodh Gupta, for example, studied at Patna University. When he decided to make a move, he chose Delhi over Kolkata. In 1997, he became one of the founding members of Khoj and developed his now-famous style of sculpture.

Bengal, by contrast, suffered a creative drought in the last two decades. “There was a waning where Bengal art was caught in its own vibe,” says art historian Tapati Guha Thakurta. “The art world in Calcutta became more impoverished, both financially and in terms of creativity. Bengal artists tended to fit into one of two moulds: that of Bikash Bhattacharya or Ganesh Pyne.”

Kolkata’s contribution in the past 20 years is limited to a handful of names, of which the most famous today are Chittrovanu Mazumdar, Jogen Chowdhury and Paresh Maity. None of Bengal’s younger artists have reached the international stature that the likes of Dodiya and Gupta have attained. Few have the reputation of being consistently innovative. “The modernist period was so dominant in Kolkata that those who were doing more contemporary practices found it difficult to find a voice,” says Sengupta. “What happened as a result was that these practices didn’t see gallery spaces but went on in campuses and fostered an environment.” Artists such as Partha Pratim Deb, who found little support from commercial spaces for his art in the 1980s and 1990s, turned to teaching. As a professor in Rabindra Bharati University, Deb has been the mentor to some of the most exciting artists working in Bengal today, such as sculptor Adip Dutta and installation artist Sanchayan Ghosh.

The silver lining is that some of those who persevered in the silo of Kolkata’s art world have developed distinctive styles. While the rest of contemporary Indian art races towards new media, Bengal artists are more interested in reinventing and reinterpreting conventional artistic practices, such as sculpture and painting. Dutta’s fascinating fibreglass and steel wool sculptures or Debnath Basu’s curious paintings exploring the mechanics of the human body and language are heartening examples of a contemporary Bengal school. However, these artists are far more low profile than their peers from other parts of India. Ghosh, for example, believes he should be undercover and only his art should be in public.

“I’d like to say there are exciting times ahead,” says Sengupta. “I think there are more of this younger generation doing contemporary work than there were from my generation.”

The current art scene is encouraging. While Kolkata is yet to shake off its modernist fascination, there are a few determined initiatives to introduce a contemporary flavour to the city by galleries such as Akar Prakar, Gandhara and Aakriti, along with the recently opened Harrington Street Arts Centre and Experimenter. Khoj’s Kolkata chapter was set up in 2005, and provided a platform for experimental works. In 2008, Cima began Studio 21, a non-commercial space for workshops and multidisciplinary works. “Things are changing,” says Noni Khullar. She and her husband Deepak opened the Harrington Street Arts Centre last year. “The visual register of Kolkata was quintessentially modern, but recently there has been an attempt to reconsider this visual register,” she says.

All the gallerists are buoyed by the enthusiastic responses they get from viewers who often return to see the same exhibitions. “I may not have a good quality printer here and most of our artists and curators may be from outside but the quality of interaction you get from the average Kolkata viewer is amazing,” says Priyanka Raja, who started Experimenter in 2009 with her husband Prateek.

The biggest challenge for gallerists, however, remains finding the talent. “From what we’ve seen, in Santiniketan, for example, they’re one generation behind,” says Raja. “The works done by the young artists mostly don’t compare with works done by similar age groups in the rest of the country and internationally,” she says. “Even if the practice is technically strong, there just isn’t enough awareness of the ideas circulating in the world around them. I don’t think they’re thinking.”

The concerns in Kolkata’s art circles today are no different from those of contemporary Indian art in general: how to develop an Indian visual art tradition that is distinctive, current and not derivative. “A lot of contemporary art from India being shown abroad and here in commercial metros is art by Indians for the Western eye, the way the West wants to see India and in the visual language they understand,” says Pratiti Basu Sarkar, chief administrator of Cima. She doesn’t believe the current trend-makers in art will lead the way because they are too involved in a system dependent upon Western approval and market forces.

It could be that Kolkata’s artist community will provide contemporary Indian art with a definitive direction. Perhaps the city’s distance from international trends and commercial success will prove to be a blessing in disguise. Perhaps the enthusiastic viewing culture will goad artists. “It’s been a late evolving for the later generations of Bengal artists,” says Guha Thakurta. “But the aesthetics are here. There are so many different registers of creativity in Kolkata. Everybody’s an artist here.”

On Art Photography

This article first appeared in Crest.

War of the poses

Photojournalists like to smirk at the beautiful, posed images of the commercial camera. But staging a photograph is no longer a no-no in Indian fine-art photography

DEEPANJANA PAL

Once upon a time, it was easy to tell one kind of photograph from another. Photojournalists documented real life while commercial photographers fabricated a happy one. The former relied on the immediacy of the camera’s image-making technology; the latter utilised its ability to lie persuasively. There was respect for the former and a certain contempt for the latter. All in all, the two genres of photography were as different as chalk and cheese. Then, in the 1960s, the third genre began to slowly evolve in the West: fine-art photography. These were artists who chose chemicals, silver and the camera as their tools. Their works were often journalistic, but there was also beauty in them.
Fine-art photography took almost forty more years to come to India. For a long time, the one well-known Indian camera artist was Dayanita Singh. Most gifted photographers, like Raghu Rai, made their reputations through photojournalism. With the exception of a few like Prabuddha Dasgupta, commercial
photographers were regarded disdainfully as fabricators of the pretty, soulless reality that a client demanded of them. But staging a photograph is no longer a no-no in Indian fine-art photography. The notions of what makes a photograph artistic are changing.
“When you say you are a fine artist, you are saying, ‘I am making this piece because it’s a representative of me and who I am’,” says photographer Manjari Sharma, a Mumbai girl now based in New York. “You have no one to hold accountable but yourself. What makes my style fine art is that when I’m making the picture, I’m aiming to fall in love with it myself.” In April this year, Sharma’s My Shower was showcased in Burn, an online journal edited by Magnum photographer David Alan Harvey. My Shower is a set of beautifully composed pictures that showcase Sharma’s talent for portraits. It began when Sharma noticed that for one hour every day, sunlight poured into her bathroom and transformed it. She started inviting friends to model for her in her bathroom.
As the series developed, Sharma felt as though she was creating a “personal mythology”. The tight frames have a tender intimacy to them and her models look like they’ve been gentled into a photograph, rather than captured. Their intensely private moments offer references that range from the purification of a baptism ritual to playful sensuality. My Shower is Sharma’s first major work and it has won her significant acclaim. It’s also a rare example of work that belongs in both the fine art as well as commercial brackets. Bathware manufacturers Grohe commissioned Sharma to create a similar set of images for an upcoming ad campaign. It appears the twain can meet. Sharma said her greatest challenges included packing a 30-person crew into a bathroom and “getting the models to relax and forget for a second that this is not a Liril commercial”.
The photographer acting as the director is a new phenomenon in Indian photography. In the past, fine art created with the camera was a solitary venture. For example, Raghu Rai’s famous photographs of Indira Gandhi emerged out of the photographer following her around. Similarly, the candidness in Pablo Bartholomew’s brilliant series on heroin junkies in Delhi’s Pahargunj came from the rapport he as an individual was able to establish with his subjects.
Today, however, there is a distinct move away from documentation in the traditional sense. Fine art photography has become a viable option and photographers like Bharat Sikka and Shahid Datawala make clear distinctions between commercial photography and the work of documentary photographers. Perhaps as a result of the unavoidable advertising imagery around us, there is a keener awareness of how artifice can be insightful. Whether it’s through performance in the works of artists like Pushpamala N and Tejal Shah or even Photoshop, which is gaining grudging acceptance, the artistic potential of fabricated reality is being celebrated by artists who use photography in their works.
Chennai-based photographer Nandini Valli Muthiah, for example, created the gorgeous The Definite Reincarnate series with the meticulousness of a feature film. She began the series in 2003, while completing her second BA in photography from the University of Bournemouth, UK (she originally studied English literature before stumbling upon photography). Her holiday project quickly became quite elaborate. The photographs show the Hindu god Vishnu transplanted in modern India. His costume would make producers of mythological serials envious and, dressed like this, he shows up in incongruous locations, like a hotel room and a swimming pool. The series splices together disparate ideas like kitsch in Tamil cinema, the changing notion of heroism and the relevance of old myths in contemporary society. Effortlessly, Muthiah finds equilibrium between different visual traditions — calendar art, classical imagery as well as a very current aesthetic. “I think the amount of time I take to make a series of photos and the thought process that goes into it makes my work more intricate than the average photograph you see,” said Muthiah.
Muthiah and Sharma belong to an upcoming generation that wants to create a visual vocabulary that will be distinct from that of their predecessors. It’s interesting to see the swerve towards the staged setup after the disdain it has received from photojournalists. Muthiah said that her all-time favourite was Lala Deen Dayal, the 19th-century father of Indian photography. It’s interesting to see how her fascination for studio photography from the 1860s has trickled into her new series on costumed children taking part in fancy-dress contests. The portraits have some obvious similarities with vintage studio photographs — pose and backdrop, for example — but there’s more at play here. “The competition is not just about getting dressed
up, but about the aspirations the parents have for their children and how much they coach them even for such an event,” said Muthiah, explaining why she became interested in the apparently banal ritual.
In 1963, photographer Diane Arbus, who would become famous for her eerie portraits of people on the fringes of society, applied for a grant from the Guggenheim Foundation. In her application, she wrote, “I want to photograph the considerable ceremonies of our present because we tend while living here and now to perceive only what is random and barren and formless about it.” Ending her proposal, Arbus wrote, “These are our symptoms and our monuments. I want simply to save them, for what is ceremonious and curious and commonplace will be legendary.” At the heart of photography is that quest for the legendary. Some, like Henri Cartier-Bresson, chanced upon it in decisive moments. Others, like Arbus, found it by patiently excavating people’s lives. Indian fine-art photography is still fiddling with its lenses. Wait and watch to see where the current generation of photographers end up finding their focus.