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.

JAMES SPARSHATT/DESIGN PICS/CORBIS
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Skellig Michael is hardly an island - but it's the one I love most

On a rock in the Atlantic, I felt the magic of place.

I am on the vaporetto from Marco Polo Airport to the Venetian island of San Giorgio Maggiore, gulls and terns drifting back and forth over the boat, cormorants on the docks, wings spread to the sun, that late August light, unique to this place, shimmering over the waters. I haven’t been here in 20 years but I remember the greys and silvers of the terns (four species are recorded here, including the black tern, Chlidonias niger, which I find particularly elegant in flight) and the miles of tantalising reed beds, where anything might be hiding – only the city, when it finally emerges from the haze, is more postcard than recollection.

It’s a mental flaw, I suppose. I remember habitation in a formal, almost abstract way, whereas light – which is always unique to place – and flora and fauna are vivid and immediate to my mind. At the same time, every approach by water, anywhere in the world, reminds me of every other, whether it’s the crossing from Staten Island to Manhattan or the ferries that run up the coast of Norway, stopping in at one tiny harbour town after another along the way. So it comes as no great surprise, as I disembark, that I find myself remembering the island landing that I love more than any other, even though I have made that passage only once.

Skellig Michael is hardly an island. A thin needle of rock soaring more than 600 feet high straight out of the Atlantic, seven miles from the Kerry coast, it was once refuge to those contemplative monks whose desire for undisturbed reflection reached such an extreme that they braved the choppy waters common in these parts in simple coracles to settle, in tiny beehive huts, at the windy summit of the Skellig. On the day I made the crossing, most of the charter skippers refused to go out, citing the stormy weather, but I finally managed to persuade one man – whose name really was Murphy – to make the voyage and, though the water was indeed rough, the approach to the island and the hours I spent ashore were nothing short of beatific.

Nobody else was there, apart from two archaeologists who kept to their billet in the one stone house by the quay and the rabbits that had run wild and multiplied after the monks left. Halfway up the needle, I turned oceanwards as a pure light cut through the clouds, illumining the sky and the water so the horizon looked like one of those mysterious sea photographs by Hiroshi Sugimoto.

All through the crossing, gannets had swarmed noisily over the boat in spite of the weather, before dropping back, disappointed, to their colony on Michael’s sister rock, Little Skellig. Up here, however, at the top of the needle, everything was calm, almost silent, and inside the first of the beehive cells it was utterly still. I have no time for gods, as such, but I know that I was touched by something in that place – something around and about me, some kind of ordering principle that, though it needed no deity to give it power, was nevertheless sublime.

Back in Venice, as I changed boats at San Zaccaria, the noise and the crowds and the now golden light on the water could not have offered a greater contrast. Yet what was common to both landings was that quality of unique to this place, the sensation of the specific that makes any location – from gilded Venice to a bare rock, or a post-industrial ruin – magical. As long as we have such places, we have no real need of outside agency: time and place and the fact of being are enough.

Place, first and foremost, is what we all share, living and dead, in our griefs and our visions and our fleeting glory. It is what we should all strive to protect from the blandishments of commerce and the appropriations of agribusiness and other polluting enterprises, not just here, or there, but wherever our ferry boat puts in.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

This article first appeared in the 03 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Pope of the masses