Letters From India: Indian Photography Comes Out Of Its Closet

From the photo series “Backdrop Series” by Raghu Rai/courtesy Delhi Photo Festival 2011

by Aparna Jayakumar

As a student photographer all of 21 (just about the time the first digital SLR had entered the Indian market), I remember being very eager to seek approval from veterans in the field. I made my box of prints and phone calls to all the Bombay big-shots I could find access to, and set out for my portfolio reviews. I met photographers over twenty years my senior, who, to my utter heartbreak, minced no words in tearing my work apart. I remember getting watery feedback like, “If I were to shoot this, I wouldn’t have included this woman’s hand.” What was one supposed to do with a comment like that? I hadn’t a clue.

I’m pretty sure my student portfolio was nothing to write home about, but the kind of feedback I got showed neither any serious engagement with the work nor the desire to help a kid, naïve but very enthusiastic, improve. Barring one or two, who told me I had potential, I encountered very little kindness or compassion. Some of the comments sounded like they had been made with the sole purpose of flagging my spirit.

I was shattered, but not about to give up. I continued shooting, and hungry for knowledge, read plenty on the Internet. It was lonely for an independent photographer in Bombay, so I tried to make connections overseas. I was audacious enough to cold-call a Magnum photographer, because I’d seen his work and read his biography and wanted to have a life exactly like his. Little did I think that he would actually reply! He wrote back not only with detailed feedback on every image but also with many words of encouragement. It was the biggest high! I had the good fortune of meeting him the same year when we were both in Italy and he has been my mentor ever since.

I remember wondering why it had been so hard to find a similar response from seniors back home. I waited for the day photography in India would be more open, democratic, and most importantly, generous.

Courtesy Delhi Photo Festival 2011

I’m glad to say that with the Delhi Photo Festival, that day has finally arrived.

India has had a legacy of photography that is as old as 150 years but curiously enough has never had a formal, all-inclusive platform for photographers to share their work and have an open dialogue. It seems rather odd that our neighbour Bangladesh has had a festival as explosive as the Chobi Mela (spearheaded by the visionary Shahidul Alam) for nearly a decade now, and we have had nothing!

The Delhi Photo Festival was a festival of many firsts. It was the first time such a diverse range of works from India was consolidated and displayed in one space. It was the first time nearly all of India’s most prominent photographers were seen under one roof at the same time. It is the first time senior photographers have ever been so open and accessible to young photographers. The staggering numbers at each of the artist talks and screenings were proof that photographers in the country had been hungry for an exchange of this kind. It was interesting to see India’s most celebrated photographers squeeze into corners of a packed hall just to have a chance to listen to their contemporaries talk about their work.

Courtesy Delhi Photo Festival 2011

The Habitat Center in Delhi is an elegant red-brick structure built by Joseph Allen Stein in the late 1980s. A popular hub for the arts and culture, spacious and well-lit, it served as the perfect venue for the festival. The curators and organizers – Dr Alka Pande, Prashant Panjiar and Dinesh Khanna – did well to use the space creatively and crafted some very interesting displays.

Kurt Horbst’s images from his ‘Bideshi Photostudio’ series were mounted on bamboo frames to replicate the rural photostudio in Bangladesh where he made the portraits. Lana Slezic’s portraits of Afghan women made with a local box camera were mounted on panels lit from within, creating a glow on the women’s wounded faces that make them look ethereal. Raghu Rai (one of India’s most well-known photographers and the only Indian in Magnum) had larger-than-life prints from his ‘Backdrop Series’ take center-stage as they were placed, on large metal frames, in the main atrium of the Center.

From the photo series “Kanu Gandhi” by Kanu Gandhi/courtesy Delhi Photo Festival 2011

The most treasured exhibition at the festival was ‘Kanu’s Gandhi’ — never-seen-before photographs of Mahatma Gandhi by his grandnephew, Kanu. The photographer’s keen eye and incredible access have made for some of the most intimate and historic photographs of the Mahatma we have known.

‘Photographing the Street’ was a finely curated exhibition of riveting street images made in Afghanistan, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India by photographers both local and Western, including Raghu Rai, Pablo Bartholomew, Balazs Gardi, Munem Wasif and Kevin Bubriski. “Despite the many differences in the eight countries,” writes Devika Daulet-Singh in her curatorial note, “there are narratives that overlap, intermingle and are reminiscent of our shared histories.”

From the photo series “The Threshold” by Sudharak Olwe (with Zarina & Parvez)/courtesy Delhi Photo Festival 2011

One of the most moving exhibitions at the festival was Sudharak Olwe’s ‘The Threshhold’, a set of timeless photographs that follow the love story of Zarina and Parvez, an HIV+ couple, through their days in a gritty Bombay brothel to finding a home of their own and a life of dignity and freedom.

Amongst the younger photographers, the works that stood out were Sean Lee’s quirky and curious portraits of his family members (‘Homework’), Kannagi Khanna’s black-and-white portraits of women from a slum in Ahmedabad who believe they are look-alikes of Hollywood stars (‘Hollywood’), and Raj Lalwani’s dark and unsettling tale of alienation inside his family home (‘Not Quite a Family Album’).

From the photo series “Hollywood” by Kannagi Khanna/courtesy Delhi Photo Festival 2011

Documentary photography remained the genre of choice for Indian photographers through most of the festival, while many of the more inventive conceptual works were made by foreign photographers. Swiss photographer Simon Rimaz’s portraits of ripped in-seams of high-heeled shoes (‘Kythira’s Watchtowers’) and Austrian-born Klaus Pichler’s staged photographs of stuffed animals in the basement of the Natural History Museum in Vienna (‘Skeletons In the Closet’) were some of the most well-crafted works in the conceptual genre. Indian photography comes largely from photojournalism and there have been few Indian artists who have experimented with the photography beyond the realm of the ‘real’.

Raghu Rai in conversation with Devika Daulet-Singh ©Aparna Jayakumar

The Delhi Photo Festival was monumental because it helped demystify Indian photography and put it within a framework, building a foundation on which it can now move forward. The next most important step, as was brought up in an open forum at the festival, is the establishment of a serious and dedicated photography school in the country.

The lack of open dialogue thus far, or of a real movement of any kind, is probably why we don’t have a uniquely Indian aesthetic in photography yet; but now that Indian photography has “found a home”, as the Director of the Habitat Center, Raj Liberhan said, we are hoping this will change.

Sudharak Olwe, Pablo Bartholomew and Sooni Taraporevala, friends and contemporaries ©Aparna Jayakumar

  • Aarti Gosain

    Unfortunately, much much remained inside the closets of Indian photographers as the Delhi Photo Festival accentuated more than 70% on foreign participants. Word already out in several media and groups is the festival smacks of coterism, factionalism and selection based on ‘scratch my back and i will scratch you back’ basis.  So much more is to photographic genres which were not even given a thought by the organisers. To the big photographic community that India has, it was sheer failure nobody would like to see again.  Its time the organisers wake up and take notice and get out of their coteries and cartels.