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).

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