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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Bertie Carvel's diary: What would the French think about infidelity to Doctor Foster?

The joy of debuting a new series, Rupert Murdoch's squeamishness and a sting in the tail.

According to the adage, the first thing an actor does when he gets a job is to go on holiday. And so, having finished our sold-out run of James Graham’s Ink at the Almeida and with the show (in which I play a young Rupert Murdoch) about to transfer into the West End, I’m packing my bags.

But before I can skip town, I’ve one more professional engagement: the press launch of series two of the BBC drama Doctor Foster, which we finished filming at Christmas. I’ve now seen the final cut of all five episodes, and I’m excited to share it with an audience. There’s no substitute for seeing other people’s reactions at first hand, especially with a show that got people talking so much first time around, and it’s electric to sit in a cinema full of expectant journalists and commentators and feel the room respond. Nothing beats this: to put so much into making a thing and then experience an audience’s unmediated, reflexive reaction. When it goes well, you feel that you’ve shared something, that you’ve all recognised something together about how things are. It’s a unifying feeling. A sort of bond.

Cheating spouses

Handling the interviews has been tricky, when there’s so little one can say without giving the plot away. (The first series began with Suranne Jones’s character Gemma, a GP, suspecting her husband Simon of having an affair.) What’s more, lots of the questions invite moral judgements that I’ve tried my best to avoid; I always think it’s really important not to judge the characters I play from outside, but simply to work out how they feel about themselves, to zero in on their point of view. There’s a sort of moral bloodlust around this show: it’s extraordinary. People seem to want to hear that I’ve been pilloried in the street, or expect me to put distance between myself and my character, to hang him out to dry as a pariah.

While I’m not in the business of defending Simon Foster any more than I’m in the business of attacking him, I am intrigued by this queer mixture of sensationalism and prurience that seems to surface again and again.

Shock horror

Oddly enough, it’s something that comes up in Ink: many people have been surprised to find that, in a story about the re-launch of the Sun newspaper in 1969 as a buccaneering tabloid, it’s the proprietor who considers dropping anchor when the spirit of free enterprise threatens to set his moral compass spinning.

I’ve never given it much thought before, but I suppose that sensationalism relies on a fairly rigid worldview for its oxygen – the SHOCKERS! that scream at us in tabloid headlines are deviations from a conventional idea of the norm. But what’s behind the appetite for this sort of story? Do we tell tales of transgression to reinforce our collective boundaries or to challenge them?

For me there’s a close kinship between good journalism and good drama. I’m reminded of the words of John Galsworthy, who wrote Strife, the play I directed last summer, and who felt that the writer should aim “to set before the public no cut-and-dried codes, but the phenomena of life and character, selected and combined, but not distorted, by the dramatist’s outlook, set down without fear, favour, or prejudice, leaving the public to draw such poor moral as nature may afford”.

So when it comes to promoting the thing we’ve made, I’m faced with a real conundrum: on the one hand I want it to reach a wide audience, and I’m flattered that there’s an appetite to hear about my contribution to the process of making it; but on the other hand I think the really interesting thing about the work is contained in the work itself. I’m always struck, in art galleries, by how much more time people spend reading the notes next to the paintings than looking at the paintings themselves. I’m sure that’s the wrong way around.

Insouciant remake

En route to the airport the next morning I read that Doctor Foster is to be adapted into a new French version. It’s a cliché verging on racism, but I can’t help wondering whether the French will have a different attitude to a story about marital infidelity, and whether the tone of the press coverage will differ. I wonder, too, whether, in the home of Roland Barthes, there is as much space given to artists to talk about what they’ve made – in his 1967 essay, “The Death of the Author”, Barthes wrote that “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”.

No stone unturned

Touring the villages of Gigondas, Sablet and Séguret later that evening, I’m struck by the provision of espaces culturels in seemingly every commune, however small. The French certainly give space to the work itself. But I also notice a sign warning of a chat lunatique, so decide to beat a hasty retreat. Arriving at the house where I’m staying, I’ve been told that the key will be under a flowerpot. Lifting each tub in turn, and finally a large flat stone by the door, I find a small scorpion, but no key. I’m writing this at a table less than a yard away so let’s hope there won’t be a sting in this tale.

Ink opens at the Duke of York Theatre, London, on 9 September. More details: almeida.co.uk

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear