Nov 20 2012

The Photograph as Sculpture, Encounter and Invitation: Five Takes on Contemporary Photographic Practice in India

by Jyoti Dhar

Speakers at the symposium “Contemporary Photography: Artistic Coincidence and License” at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), New Delhi, 2012. Courtesy KNMA.

With Indian photographer Dayanita Singh being selected in September to show her work as part of the Germany Pavilion at next year’s Venice Biennale, and a recent proliferation of photography exhibitions within India (including the Raghu Rai retrospective “Divine Moments” at Tasveer Gallery; the quirky “Home Memories” at Abadi Art Space; and the grand “Dawn Upon Delhi: Rise of a Capital” at the National Galleries of Modern Art in Delhi and Mumbai), it seems timely to advocate more critical discourse on the medium. With this in mind, curator Gayatri Sinha conceptualized “Contemporary Photography: Artistic Coincidence and License,” the fourth in the “KNMA Museum Document” symposium series at the Kiran Nadar Museum of Art in Delhi. Despite being staged at a private art institution looking to collect more of this increasingly popular medium, the focus of this symposium remained on discussing photography outside the constructs of commerce and the exhibition. Instead the talk addressed whether contemporary production and reproduction brought into question notions of temporality, originality and influence, along with the potential limitations of immediacy and artistic license in photography.

Gayatri Sinha chose five practitioners whose work collectively spanned the past three decades, which, as she explained in her opening remarks, was “a period of intense volatility and change” for photography in India. The symposium’s panelists included activist and photographer Ram Rahman, feminist documentary filmmaker Sheba Chhachhi and eco-installation artist Ravi Agarwal, each of whom act as interlocutors for anthropological, political and social issues through their multidisciplinary practices. The other speakers were Monica Narula from the artist-trio Raqs Media Collective and Rahaab Allana, curator of the Alkazi Foundation for Arts—both often work with archives, literature and contemporary modes of photography concurrently.

Sheba Chhachhi presenting during the symposium “Contemporary Photography: Artistic Coincidence and License.” at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), New Delhi, 2012. Courtesy KNMA.

Presenting himself as “the most conservative of the group,” Ram Rahman began by stating that he believed the still image retains a certain primacy and charge that is directly related to its power as a form of document. Reminding us that some of the most iconic images of the 20th century happened to be of war and conflict—citing examples from 1960s Vietnam to the 2002 Gujarat riots in India—he proposed that, whereas moving imagery could be fleeting and more easily forgotten, photography was like sculpture. Juxtaposing such examples with highly personal portraits of several seminal Indian artists, Rahman also talked about the cultural memory, social signals and history that can be embedded in such images. One of his most evocative examples was a black-and-white photograph taken in 1937 of dancer Tanjore Balasaraswati and singer MS Subbulakshmi wearing men’s striped pyjamas and smoking cigars, which would have been considered highly radical at the time.

Sheba Chhachhi was more interested in mounting a critical enquiry into the notions of “the indexical, the evidential and the truth as documents of the photograph.” Through her progressive work over the last 30-odd years, Chhachhi has been exploring the relationship between the real and the referent, looking at how photography can be an act of fiction rather than fact. Her initial experiments with theatrically staged portraits looked at this interstitial space between the subject and the camera, a potential space of “inter-subjectivity,” as she calls it. She reminded us that “today the staged portrait is ubiquitous, but at the time I was treated with great suspicion by fellow photographers.” Her recent installation work involves complex layering with sculptural elements, time-based imagery and digital photography, aiming to create “an immersive experience, an encounter” for the viewer. For Chhachhi, these additional elements act as a built-in delay, functioning as annotations or sub-texts to the main photograph. What is intriquing about Chhachhi’s practice is how it comes full circle, with her recent piece Record, Resist: Second Wave (2012), which reconfigures and revisits her archive of photographs of the India Women’s Movement from the 1980s.

For Ravi Agarwal, who addresses issues on ecology both through his photography and the environmental NGO “Toxics Link,” the development and expansion of photographic practice in India can be summed up by the language we use. “We used to take photographs, and then we made photographs, now we work with photographs.” Although there is still one lab in Delhi that develops films for professional photographers, Agarwal believes that it is no longer relevant whether the photographic image was produced digitally or in a dark room: “It’s a false debate,” he plainly says. Agarwal’s early work involved walking the streets with a “fixed film, fixed aperture and fixed lens” and taking images of urban life as he encountered it. After this he went on to produce photo-essays on migrant laborers, having developed a relationship with several “subjects” over the course of two and a half years. His current work involves installations that explore environmental concerns and interventions in forest spaces—a more “strategized practice,” as he puts it. Agarwal concluded by saying that, even in an age where the idea of the doctored is inherent in the image, you still cannot look at a photograph without reference to the real.

For Monica Narula of Raqs Media Collective, the photograph is more than what manifests itself as the surface of the image; a photograph, as she sees it, is an invitation to explore what lies beyond that plane. Practising as artists, theorists, editors and curators, Raqs often engage with concepts of temporality and historicity through their work. Narula urges us to approach the possibilities of photography from another perspective. “When encountering images, the question of what is the time of the photograph has to be de-articulated and taken away from the simple polarities of a forever, timeless image or an urgency—that this is an event,” she says. “The photograph can be a possibility for a re-imagination, an animation or an unmooring of time in terms of the seepage, the leakage and the bleeding of different temporal registers—past, present and future.” Using Raqs’s work An Afternoon Unregistered on the Richter Scale (2011) as an example, Narula talked about how making an image from an archival photograph involves listening to the picture and translating “its silence into other kinds of speech.”

Ravi Agarwal speaking at the symposium “Contemporary Photography: Artistic Coincidence and License.” at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), New Delhi, 2012. Courtesy KNMA.

Monica Narula at the symposium “Contemporary Photography: Artistic Coincidence and License.” at Kiran Nadar Museum of Art (KNMA), New Delhi, 2012. Courtesy KNMA.

Also interested in ways of bringing the archive into the present was Rahaab Allana, who, along with his work for the Alkazi Foundation for Arts, also edits and publishes PIX, a quarterly periodical covering contemporary photography. “PIX is about diagnosing and gauging saturation levels in current practice,” he said in his talk. “I’ve begun to think of condensed, empty space, shadow lines, a restless horizon, the deadpan and the accident when I think of the contemporary.” Both PIX and the Alkazi Foundation’s archive confront existing notions of the contemporary and the ancient, challenging the space they supposedly inhabit. Allana began to think of the afterlife of an image, asking questions such as, “What happens to an image when it is over? And what happens to an archive when it becomes what it should not: pure nostalgia?” For Allana, resurrecting and conserving an archive is fraught with possibilities and casualties in equal measure; it is a chance to remember and a chance to forget. As he puts it, “For me, stepping into the life of an [archival] image in the contemporary was about being born . . . I saw the archive as a point of return.”

Narula cited this symposium as one of the most interesting in the “Museum Document” series, giving her a sense of how and why her peers practice in the way they do, while other panelists discussed the possibilities of the younger generation forming different relationships with photography in an age where newer technologies and older material—including archives within India that have not been seen before—are increasingly accessible. Curator Gayatri Sinha ended by saying that during the course of the evening she had been struck by the generosity of the photographic image. Within the span of the two-hour symposium, we had heard of its ability to stretch, bleed, extend itself, absorb, deplete and even disappear on occasion.