Photographs from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh

An exhibition at the Whitechapel captures the many faces of the subcontinent.


A man stands in shorts, facing the camera and arranging his very long hair, arms stretched to display his bare chest. This impressive self-portrait by the Punjabi philosopher and photographer Umrao Singh Sher-Gil is one of over 400 works by 82 artists from the Indian subcontinent on show at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.

"Where Three Dreams Cross" is a landmark exhibition that explores culture and modernity through the lens of a wide range of photographers from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

"One of the key things about the show," says Sunil Gupta, the show's co-curator, "is that it looks at native-born photographers.

"We are quite familiar with the history of photography about India as written mostly in Europe and America. But it has never been really about the people there and how they might see themselves, like in a mirror, and interpret their own experiences for their families and their context.

"In this show the focus is just on ideas of self-determination and self-representation."

The works on display range in date from the earliest days of photography in the 19th century to the present day -- from early 19th-century "ruh khitch" photographs (known as "spirit-pulling", because the photographer literally pulled the photographs out from his portable camera, and people thought their own spirits were in this way being abstracted) to Big Bird Retake II, a startling series of video stills representing the dance of an oversized naked body by the Indian-born artist Sonia Khurana.

"My work is about the body, the idea of beauty. It is about flying," she says. "We need to dismantle stereotypes of beauty, as well as to get rid of the stereotyped images that the western world still has of our country."

Khurana's stills are a good example of the way that multiple faces of the subcontinent are explored in this show, ordered according to five themes: portrait; performance; everyday family life; the street and the built environment; and finally the turbulent political history of the region.


Pink and blue

Among the most interesting works on display are some finely hand-painted archival images of the maharajas. These are juxtaposed with portraits of the contemporary descendants of royal families, displaced from their original settings and living very different lives from those of their forefathers.

There are other striking juxtapositions: for example, remarkable vintage albums about the "Hijra" community, documenting gatherings of people of the "third sex", are displayed alongside Karachi Lady Boy, a disenchanted examination of the lives of transsexuals in India today.

Some of these photographs are visually compelling. A spectacular blue-skinned Krishna towers over a pink silk background. Elsewhere, we are offered, seated in a bedroom, a domesticated, suburban and somewhat melancholic version of the same character.

The Indian artist Pushpamala N reimagines, to considerable effect, the populist genre of the Bollywood still. The photojournalist Raghu Rai catches Mother Teresa of Calcutta in a stunningly intimate moment. Sunil Janah is present, too, with his heroic pictures of the working class.

In his diptych Twins, the Pakistani artist Rashid Rana places large and small images in a fertile dialogue. The largest of the pictures is a sort of close-up of the façade of the twin towers in New York, while the smaller ones are of homes in Lahore. The message is that vertical cities, such as New York, Hong Kong or Dubai, are built by people living in the horizontal cities, the sprawling masses of the subcontinent.

Rana, incidentally, is among the artists chosen by the Saatchi Gallery to represent contemporary Indian art in the recently opened "Empire Strikes Back" exhibition, which I will blog about next week.

Streets washed by monsoon rains, ancient palaces, the silence of private homes, significant moments in politics -- all these are designed to steer us away from familiar post-colonial imagery and to deliver instead a sense of the sheer complexity and diversity of a huge region.

"This exhibition negates the borders between the three countries: India, Pakistan and Bangladesh," says the Karachi-based photographer Tapu Javeri, whose work is represented at the Whitechapel in a series of portraits of holy men. "It speaks of the photographic history of the whole subcontinent. I'm proud of being part of this."

"Where Three Dreams Cross: 150 Years of Photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh" is at the Whitechapel Gallery, 77-82 Whitechapel High Street, London E1 7QX, until 11 April.

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On the trail of Keith Jarrett's melodies

Lose focus for a second and you can quickly drop the thread of Jarrett's complex improvisational techniques.

“So, this is a piano,” said Keith Jarrett, sitting down at the one that had been placed centre stage for him in the Royal Festival Hall on 20 November. Blowing on his hands to warm them, he acted as if he had never encountered such an instrument before, raising a chuckle from the hundreds of fans who had turned out to see the man in the flesh. For 40 years, Jarrett has been giving concerts like this – alone with the piano, playing his improvised music to a room full of rapt devotees. Notoriously grumpy – and now as well known for his tirades against cameras and coughing audience members as for his early days playing with Miles Davis – he has an almost eerie focus onstage, relieving the tension only very occasionally with his barbed observations about the excellence of the instrument, or the shuffling in the auditorium.

Jarrett gave us a series of short pieces, each rendering separate and distinctive musical ideas. He began with an intricately woven flash of notes in both hands, criss-crossing the melodies that were by turns dark and haunting, or light and dancing. At particularly complex moments, when his arms were crossed over and the notes were flowing from his fingers faster than anyone could imagine them into existence, he leaned his ear down towards the keys, as if physical closeness could help his ideas more swiftly become sound.

A couple of folk-inflected ballads followed; heart-achingly sweet melodies picked out above rumbling, sour arpeggios. Like Glenn Gould, the Canadian pianist best known for his recordings of Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Jarrett can’t help adding vocalisations as he plays, which are all the more evident in his quieter compositions. He rose and fell from his stool; we heard his guiding hum along with the melody, as well as the odd strangled shout, yelp and grunt. He might insist on absolute silence from the audience but his own noises seem completely uninhibited as the music spins around him.

Although notorious for his curmudgeonly attitude to his fans, Jarrett was mostly restrained in this outing, allowing himself just one short, sweary outburst about killing a “f***ing camera”. At the age of 70 and with the power to sell out his concerts in just a few hours, you do wonder how much of the persona is genuine and how much of it is just giving the audience what it expects. A case in point came near the end, when he yielded to clamouring and gave a surprisingly simple and straightforward rendition of “Danny Boy”, an encore that long-time fans know well.

Given that this recital was under the auspices of the London Jazz Festival, there was surprisingly little in Jarrett’s programme that could easily be identified as jazz. One piece, full of brisk rhythms and chunky chords, gradually revealed itself to be based on a modified 12-bar blues structure and another had haunting overtones surely pulled from the classic American songs of the first half of the 20th century. Indeed, this musical ghosting becomes a major preoccupation when you see Jarrett live. It is too easy to distract yourself in trying to follow the auditory trail he has laid for you – was that a bit of Debussy, or Bach, or Glass just then? – and lose the thread of what he plays next. The improvisational technique might have more in common with jazz but now, 40 years on from his bestselling live recording The Köln Concert, it’s difficult to characterise Jarrett’s output as anything other than contemporary classical music.

If it needs a classification, that is. At one point, I became convinced that a particular piece was a Jarrett riff on Beethoven’s Bagatelle No 25 in A Minor – or Für Elise, as it is more commonly known. I was sure it was all there: the extended opening trill, the rising arpeggios in the left hand, the melody cascading from treble to bass and back again. Except, by the time I surfaced from my musing, there was no trace of Beethoven to be heard. A clashing, almost violent melody was dangling over a long drone in the bass. If you try too hard to pin down Jarrett’s music, it moves on without you.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Terror vs the State