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.