A sharper focus


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CONTEMPORARY Indian photography in its current avatar is a child of its earlier history. For many years, photojournalism was not only a genre where a professional was able to earn a living, it was a platform for show-casing work to a very wide audience. In the first half of the last century, there was a fairly widespread ‘pictorialist’ tradition, where photographers with artistic ambitions found a home. After independence, the new industries provided a base for a developing industrial and advertising photography scene. But never through all those years was photography afforded a place in the nascent art gallery scene.


For many years the debate on ‘whether photography is an art form’ continued in India despite having died a natural death decades ago in Europe and the US. The work of mid-century photographers like Sunil Janah and Margaret Bourke-White vanished from public view along with the magazines they were published in. The few books they had done also went out of print. Few people even know of the work done in India during the war years by Cecil Beaton. Edward Steichen’s ‘The Family of Man’ presented by The New York Museum of Modern Art in the fifties toured five cities in India. Ironically, the one known Indian photograph in it was by Satyajit Ray, a black and white still from ‘Pather Panchali’, with actors representing a village family! This tour had a huge impact in India and led to a desi version of the show called ‘Images of India’ with 250 images in 1960. The pioneering Marg devoted an entire issue to this show. It show-cased a mix of both the pictorialists and hard core photojournalists on one platform – Al Syed, R.J. Chinwalla, J.N. Unwalla, Jitendra Arya and Sunil Janah, amongst many others. But all this is, in many ways, a ‘lost’ history of Indian photography.

The increasing controls on the economy in the sixties, in particular import and customs regulations, imposed a severe restriction on the availability of cameras, lenses and equipment, and film and photo chemistry. The generation which came of age then had to struggle to obtain the tools of the medium and it usually implied a fairly privileged social background. Known across the world as a revolutionary, democratic ‘peoples’ medium, photography became an exclusive preserve in India. This had a severely limiting effect on practice and specially on any critical or theoretical discourse. The contrast with cinema, its sister medium, and its trajectory in the subcontinent, could not have been sharper. The Illustrated Weekly of India was the main journal to showcase photography in those years, thankfully beautifully printed in photogravure.

Some Indian artists of the post-independence generation had also worked with the photographic medium in the sixties – Krishen Khanna, Jyoti Bhatt, Tyeb Mehta and of course M.F. Husain, who left his mark on every medium he touched, including cinema. But their photography always remained in the shadow of their paintings. The art critic Richard Bartholomew was a serious photographer, but his work was not seen in public. Nasreen Mohamedi’s graphic and minimalist black and white photos, an extension of her spare vision in the real world, were known only to a limited audience. In recent years though they have had a new life in the gallery world as posthumous prints.


In the late sixties a handful of photographers from the photojournalist stream began to gain international critical attention. Kishore Parekh, S. Paul, Raghu Rai, Raghubir Singh were among the better known. The brothers T.S. Nagarajan and T.S. Satyan produced work both in North and South India. This generation was able to place its work in international publications through the growing agency networks, besides working for national publications or government agencies. Raghubir uniquely, began shooting only in colour and emigrated in the seventies. Living in France, he enjoyed the advantage of both exposure and access to a sophisticated photography culture in Europe and the US. There were photography studios in many Indian cities which spawned entire families and generations of photographers – Delhi Photo Studios, Kinsey Brothers, and Mahatta’s in Delhi, Mitter Bedi in Bombay, G.K.Vale in Bangalore to name a few. These have an important place in our photo history and remain to be critically assessed.

Coming to the seventies, Richard Bartholomew’s rebellious son Pablo decided school was not for him and started photographing while in his late teens. Photographing his contemporaries, theatre in Delhi, cinema in Bombay, the hippie and druggie culture in Delhi and Bombay, he charted his own path, and started photojournalist work for international agencies. Along with my immediate contemporaries Ketaki Sheth, Sooni Taraporewala and Mira Nair, I started studying photography and its history in formal programmes in the US in the mid-seventies. Probably we were amongst the first to be exposed to the American documentary tradition and its increasing presence in the gallery scene. Mira, of course, shifted mediums and remained in the US.


We were followed a few years later by Dayanita Singh who studied at the ICP in New York and assisted photojournalist Mary Ellen Mark. This was in contrast to the earlier generation (Kishore Parekh had formal training in California), who were mainly self-trained. We were all working on our own independent projects in the eighties. I earned a living as an architectural photographer, while Dayanita did photojournalism.

Dayanita Singh

Though the Alkazi’s Art Heritage Gallery in Delhi would occasionally show photography, there was little support then for exhibitions and many of us did a few on our own. The Piramal Gallery opened at the NCPA in Bombay and at the time was the only one dedicated to the medium. By the late eighties, we were selling our prints for Rs 1200 – that is, when we did sell any! This group is now termed ‘independent photographers’ as it was not linked full time to either publications or agencies and also pursued its own projects.


The boom in the American photography gallery market started in the mid-seventies, with numerous exclusively photographic galleries opening across the US. Much of this show-cased work drew on the strong American documentary tradition, and most of it was in black and white. American art museums had strong photography departments which supported curators, collecting and publishing. The power and impact that the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York had on the cultural scene was almost unprecedented. It was only later, in the eighties and nineties, that art galleries who had painters and sculptors on their rosters, began to add photographers too. This was also when artists coming out of art school began using photography and later video as their primary medium. Many found it a perfect medium for conceptual work, far removed from its earlier documentary lineage. In fact, in the nineties it almost seemed as though galleries and museums across America were only showing photography.

The opening up of the Indian economy in the last decade had a major impact. Cameras and equipment were allowed entry and suddenly the previous lack of access to equipment vanished. The market in both amateur and professional cameras and processing machines boomed, fuelled by the growing buying power of an expanding middle class. The demands of the advertising industry also exploded. As the fashion industry became more high profile and professional, it opened up a new arena, particularly for younger photographers.


Meanwhile, the photo world had begun to shift from film to digital imaging. This was accompanied by India’s boom in the IT industry. Personal computers, scanners and printers became widely available. Mobile phone cameras too became ubiquitous. Suddenly, photography became a democratic medium. Numerous glossy amateur photography magazines entered the scene, and business trade fairs proliferated across India. This has led to a complete change in the photographic culture of the subcontinent. Photojournalism, which was always powerful, has now to contend with the explosive growth of television news channels and their instant image culture.

In the art world, artists followed the western trajectory; many trained in art schools began using lens based media which had now become more accessible. Digital printing technology with large format and archival papers and inks enabled rapid printing even as silver film and papers were becoming extinct. The internet allowed young artists and art students access to gallery and magazine sites across the world, and unlike earlier generations, younger artists were instantly plugged into developments across the global photo world.

Newspapers and magazines rarely publish any photographs which deal with the widespread social problems plaguing the country. Rural India has virtually vanished from our sight and even the urban India we see is only of interest to the consuming classes. The huge Maoist insurgencies, revolts against the SEZs or caste uprisings like the recent Rajasthan events make only a token appearance.

From the late nineties, International biennale and exhibition curators started descending en masse to look for artists to place in their increasingly competitive exhibitions, showcasing their own vision and take on what was happening in the art world. Previously marginalised cultures became more fashionable to showcase in the exploding marketplace. It was no coincidence that biennales and nation-specific exhibitions started exploding in countries newly opening up to global business and lucrative arms deals.


There has been a growing debate in Indian art circles on a ‘Biennale aesthetic’ being imposed on art practice here which is leading to production of work that is slick, easily slotting into a new Orientalism, now in its consumerist global market avatar. In photography circles, the previous generation was accused of being purveyors of an ‘exotic’ fakir-filled India steeped in colourful riverside rituals, or quaint Bollywood – that was the India in demand around the world. Is it then surprising that the demand for images now is for the ‘new’ middle class and elite young India – consumers of Chanel, Nokia, Honda, readers of Indian editions of Elle, Conde Nast Traveller or L’Officiel? Do these images provide a reassurance that the world is becoming less complex and differentiated and more comfortably mono-cultural? Photography and video have became the ‘new media’ for the international art world to discover.



The boom in the contemporary Indian art market has had a decisive impact on what one can call ‘art’ photography for lack of a better word. Painting has become hugely expensive. Younger collectors are now buying photography, partly because it is cheaper, partly because many have studied in the West and are aware of the position of photography in the world market. It has become fashionable to collect. Galleries and collectors are learning the lingo of limited editions, archival printing and provenance. The more serious are beginning to search out earlier bodies of work like the interiors by T.S. Satyan.

The entry of photography in the art gallery scene here was facilitated by artists who started using the medium. Pushpamala started making performance-based work in collaboration with still photographers, developing from her interest in cinema history. More recently, she has evolved an elaborate practice of photographic image-making which reinterprets ethnographic, press and popular historical photography and painting. Anita Dube has used the medium as an extension of her object based work which has often used popular ritual ephemera in a startlingly radical formal vocabulary. Their photography was shown by galleries which had already exhibited their art.

Peter Nagy has a more personal interest in the medium as a curator and began showing photographs in lively group shows in his Nature Morte gallery which had numerous avatar’s before settling down in Niti Bagh in Delhi. ‘Photosphere’ was a breakthrough exhibition he curated in a trashed Golf Links house in 2003. Nature Morte is one gallery which has regularly shown photography.

Younger generation artists like Subodh Gupta, Bharti Kher, Jitish Kallat, Riyas Komu, the Raqs Collective began making photographs while senior Vivan Sundaram reinterpreted his grandfather Umrao Singh’s family photographs in a series of digital photomontages playing on personal and art historical themes. Ranbir Kaleka also ventured into still photographic imagery besides his elaborately constructed video work.


What this led to was a burst of imagery in the galleries quite unlike documentary photography which had formed the spine of Indian photo culture. Younger artists like Tejal Shah started making images of performance tableaux of sexual transgressions. Gigi Scaria used subtle digital manipulation in documentary images. Art critics, already familiar with the oeuvre of these artists, found it easier to write on their work. The critical discourse on straight or documentary photography or any writing on recent photo history though has remained dismal. In India, the documentary tradition of the photojournalists or the independent photographers rarely entered the new gallery scene. The few exhibitions which show-cased this work were usually ‘issue’ based.


One peculiar result of the experience of a few of our younger documentary photographers being included in exhibitions abroad has been the shift in their work to more ‘personal’ or ‘self-expressive’ forms, almost as though the photograph as document was less artistic. We have also remained relatively cut off from Asian photography. Few have seen the amazing explosion of Chinese photography which has been supported by the proliferation of sophisticated photography schools across China. The long history of contemporary Japanese photography is also relatively unknown. Maybe there will be a greater Asian connect to our photography following on the heel of the art scene experience.


Raghubir Singh, Delhi, 1983

Of late there is an increasing buzz about photography both in India and worldwide. The Netherlands Noorderlicht Photo festival focused on India a couple of years ago. Dayanita Singh had a major museum show at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin. I had one at the Cleveland Museum. This year the Photography Festival in Arles had a major focus on India, including shows by Raghu Rai, Pablo Bartholomew, Dayanita Singh, Anay Mann, Umrao Singh, Sunil Gupta and a historical collection from Ebrahim Alkazi’s huge archive of early Indian photography. Raghubir Singh’s work has had numerous appearances since his premature death. The Newark Museum in the US opened the biggest show of contemporary Indian photography and video in mid-September. This will travel to the NGMA next year. Marg will be publishing the accompanying book. Sunil Gupta, photographer curator, is curating a big group show for the Vadehra Gallery in March of next year. There have been symposia inviting Indian photographers to MoMA in New York, the Tate Modern in London, London Photo Fest, and at Newark and Harvard in the US.


Newer Galleries like Bodhi are building a roster of photographers including those from the documentary tradition and publishing elaborate catalogues. A collective multi-city gallery, Tasveer, solely dedicated to photography, has started operating in Delhi, Mumbai, Bangalore and Calcutta. However, Alkazi’s Sepia Gallery which has become a fixture in the New York photo scene, has shown very few contemporary Indian photographers. And the National Gallery of Modern Art in Delhi and Mumbai has only a handful of photographs in its collections and no proper acquisition policy.

From a situation of being treated as a pariah, photography is now talked about as ‘the next big thing’ on the Indian market. The operative word is ‘market’. But we will need a much broader based expansion of publication, education, critical and historical theory for our photographic culture to emerge as a truly powerful cultural force.