Thursday, January 28, 2010

Where Three Dreams Cross: Well Worth a Look!

Last week I walked around the newly refurbished Whitechapel Gallery in East London to go through an enormous exhibition of photography from the sub-continenent with over 400 images dating back over a 100 years. Phew!

First of all, yes, I wholeheartedly recommend Where Three Dreams Cross.  It ticks all the boxes: iconic photographs by master photographers like Sunil Janah and Raghu Rai; archival portraits of colonial era Maharajahs; stills and photographs of beloved movie stars; some really good sociological and documentary work; and of course, if you just love photography as an art form, some really amazing work that is at once passionate and intelligent.

As an exercise in highlighting photography from the region, this is an amazing project. One of the curators, Sunil Gupta, himself a photographer and exhibiting currently in London, explained that the project took nearly four years to bring life. And the hard work shows.

Now a couple of observations:

1. For an expat, and definitely a "new" (as in post-colonial, post-Partition) Indian, the ideological agenda for the exhibition is a bit troubling. An exhibition that somehow makes the three nations "look" so similar and thus blames the political divisions on history or some sort of false distinctions is problematic in itself. When that exhibition is held - with self-rightous glee - in the country that carried out that bloody process of history, then one is left feeling distinctly queasy.

Perhaps it is a generational issue: Sunil Gupta is of an earlier generation, and perhaps feels more nostalgia for a "united" India than most of us from the sub-continent. Moreover, I was left wondering once again why racial or cultural markers are somehow meant to make us so "similar." How often do we see an exhibition on the region of Savoy (divided between Italy, France and Switzerland) with a similar intent? Or on Catalunya (divided between France and Spain)? The implicit imperial conceit in erasing our contemporary political and national identity in favour of racial/cultural markers encodes us in well-known colonial boundaries. And those are not only out-dated but also grate.

2. Pakistani writer Kamila Shamsie has already expressed some of her unease in her piece published in Pakistan's Dawn and UK's Guardian. As I am not writing for mainstream press, I can be a bit more blunt. No, I didn't find myself trying to find images from India, but then that may be a function of our size.

I also realised that we - as in Indians - are better at representing ourselves than our neighbours. When we got the first camera, we immediately deployed it to "flatten" out the photographs to represent our cultural aesthetic instead of wielding it to re-create the western post-Renaissance three-point perspective.  We hand-painted the early portraits, overlaying technology with miniaturist precision to create images that were us.

Then in the 1930s, we took on German and Soviet oppositional aesthetics and deployed them for anti-colonial and then nation-building purposes.  The techniques were shorn of their Nazi (yes, that influence does not quite get a mention) and Communist agendas and used the way we wanted, for purposes that suited us.

Recent photographs reflect the same: we are good at representing ourselves, and more at ease being represented, than our neighbours. Perhaps it is a corollary of the past 60 years of democracy and republicanism, or merely our much-criticized hotch-potch secularism. But this exhibition definitely emphasises our love affair with the camera.

3. Another aspect that bothered me about this exhibition, and again I believe this resulted from its ideological impetus: India, at least it seems in the exhibition, ends in the south at Mumbai and in the east, at Bengal! I guess Tamil Nadu, Deccan, Kerala, North East's seven sisters don't quite allow for the easy racial/cultural markers of "unity" with Pakistan and Bangladesh.  However, this studied invisibility of our non-north/centrals parts really bothered me.

In making the Three Dreams Cross,  I feel that the Indian dream has been purposefully mutilated.

And that brings me to a final quibble: I understand the exhibition is about the three big countries in the sub-continent, but I would have liked to see more from other nations in the same region: Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, especially as, in the final case, issues of political borders formed by colonial heritage are still playing out in horrific bloody detail and are very much a colonial legacy for that that teardrop island nation as well.

Perhaps, I should just put aside my hopes and admit to the one fact I would prefer to forget: that like all exhibitions, this one says more about the curators who put it together than about the region it purports to show. 

PS: I spoke to Harriet Gilbert who presents the BBC World Service show The Strand about the exhibition. Fortunately, Sunil Gupta was also there. You can find the chat here (just let the player go past the 16:30 minute mark for the segment to begin).

Sunday, January 24, 2010

Pleasantly Surprised By Gordon

I don't normally watch television. And moreover, for the sake of my own sanity and blood pressure, I do not ever watch programmes made abroad about India as they all follow the well-worn loop: poverty; exotica; poverty; look an erstwhile royal; poverty, oh-wow-an-elephant; poverty again.

But when Gordon Ramsey's Great Escape ads started popping up on my facebook page (talk of advertising!) I was intrigued. After all, I like food and he is a famous chef.  But what clinched it for me was the relatively negative reviews the show got from the British press. With properly postcolonial reasoning, I decided that if much of the British press didn't like the show, there had to be something good about it.

So off I went to Channel 4 website to check out the three part series (apparently, there is a book of the same name but as I don't buy cookbooks, it doesn't really matter).

My reaction after watching all three episodes?

Well, he is brash. And he is foul-mouthed but not nearly as much as some of the Delhi taxi drivers I have encountered. And after all there is only so much offense the same recycled half-dozen four-letter expletives can cause, unlike the very graphic, very colourful Hindi or Punjabi di galis! One grows inured to them quite quickly.

Yes, he was a bit silly. Yes, he tasted food although he was eventually told off for it even on camera. Yes, he was the bumbling, slightly arrogant Englishman abroad, annoyed that people didn't speak English, or amused that they didn't speak it properly. Yes, this is part of the "gentler, kinder" Ramsey re-branding. But it all made for good television.

More importantly for me, was that there were genuine moments of loony happiness and Ramsey's ability to take pleasure in them was infectious!  Despite television's formatting, the enthusiasm and giddiness shone through: especially on his Nagaland and Kerala sections.

There were also oddly touching moments of vulnerability, and not only in the kitchen. It was kind of cute to watch Ramsey suck in his stomach, especially in profile.

And of course, hilarious to watch that Bollywood catch-that-train fantasy has permiated even British cooking shows. Yes, it was staged, and yes, he wasn't really missing the train but it was sweet to watch nevertheless.

Finally, full marks for going into Dharavi, explaining that it was where the abominable Slumdog Millionnaire was filmed and then not falling into the same trap! Ramsey cooked sambhar on the street with a famous Dharavi chef, played cricket and served food at the birthday party. Yes there was poverty but it was also a more "real" version of Dharavi than Boyle's one-sided take. Ramsey's team picked up on the Dharavi (and other slums) in India where there is joy, entreprenuership, pride in one's achievements, and aspirations alongside the hardships.

Just for that alone, Ramsey may have found a new fan!