Those Other Stories

Memories of decades worth of summers, winters and monsoons

Boys cooling off on a summer day in Bombay, 1970. TS SATYAN, COURTESY PODDAR COLLECTION, BANGALORE
01 May, 2010

THERE IS A STRIKING PHOTOGRAPH by the pioneering photojournalist Homai Vyarawalla at the exhibition of South Asian photography at London’s Whitechapel Gallery.  The year is 1961 and the sun shines bright on the crowds at the new steel plants at Durgapur. A quick glance at the curator’s notes and we learn that the crowds are there because Queen Elizabeth II is visiting. And there she is, her plump pale face positioned neatly at the centre of the long-distance shot. But some trick of composition draws the eye away—to the turbaned traffic policeman in front of her car, to the boys at play among the pylons, and to the giant smokestacks towering over them all.

In this photograph, as in history, the old authorities can no longer monopolise the frame. They must make room for other things: industrial modernity, mass democracy, and the fascinating miscellany of everyday life on the subcontinent.

The exhibition—tagline: ‘150 Years of Photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh’— starts from “the crucial moment when the power to hold a camera, frame and take images was no longer exclusively the preserve of colonial or European photographers.” This moment of artistic liberation, which came in the second half of the 19th century, made it possible for photographers to tell that other story, of political liberation. The exhibition, which has brought together 400 photographs, has a tumultuous century and a half’s worth of stories to tell—some are familiar, others much less so, and sometimes, many coexist in one frame.

The curators, who admirably manage to keep the gallery free of Raj nostalgia, opt for a decidedly anarchic arrangement. The exhibition’s five themes—The Portrait, The Performance, The Family, The Street, and The Body Politic—are clearly not mutually exclusive. This will prove bewildering for the historically untutored, many of whom might have appreciated a little more from the captions in the way of context. But the exhibition is not trying to educate, and perhaps, in its defence, some of the most compelling photographs simply defy captions and categories.

Here, for example, is Indira Gandhi facing arrest in Raghu Rai’s iconic photograph from before the Emergency. Her face is partially obscured and difficult to read. The foreheads of the men around her are tense. The photograph is filed under Portrait, but it belongs equally among the mass rallies of the Body Politic or Street section. And what can a caption say of this moment’s drama, so arresting that it might have been staged?

And here is Benazir Bhutto in the middle of her first election campaign. Her head is covered, her mouth opened wide. Flirting with the cameras like a starlet at Cannes, she is demure and outrageous at the same time. This is politics, but the photograph would be just as much at home in performance. Consider the photograph of Nehru giving his school-age grandsons an ‘informal botany lesson.’ Given that the frame contains one prime minister, one future prime minister, and yet another that might have been prime minister but for fortune, it is not out of place in Body Politic. But this is, equally, a picture of Family: for in the political history of the subcontinent, family is often just dynasty pretending to be on holiday. Conversely, the family portraits of erstwhile royals from the old princely states are so comical in their studied and staged solemnity that someone must have forgotten to tell them they’re not a dynasty anymore.

The Family section affords us other instances of subversion. Here, we begin predictably enough, with a series of wholesome images of middle-class north Indian nuclear family life, exemplified by Nony Singh’s ‘My sister Guddi, posing as Scarlet O Hara [sic] from Gone With the Wind’ (1962) and Anay Mann’s more recent ‘About Neetika’ (2005). But not far away are photographs of Pakistan’s hijra community in Asim Hafeez’s ‘Karachi Lady Boy’ series. Why are these photographs in Family, we wonder? To which the answer, given the pluralism in subcontinental ideas about family life, is: why ever not?

Perhaps it is churlish to complain about omissions in so ambitious an exhibition, many years in the making. But if Kulwant Roy’s images of the Bhakra Nangal dam under construction in the 1950s show us something of the youthful optimism of India’s experiment with industrial modernity, it is odd to see nothing of the dark side of that dream, as exemplified by the 1984 tragedy in Bhopal. Few tragedies have been more thoroughly, and powerfully, documented on camera, indeed by photographers such as Raghu Rai and Pablo Bartholomew whose works are well represented here. But one wonders what to make of the near total absence of images from India’s northeast, a region of political ferment for most of the last century, and equally popular with photographers.

Instead, the exhibition finds place for some odder eggs from the experimental end of the contemporary scene—such as Sonia Khurana’s Big Bird Retake II, a series of video stills populated by flailing naked limbs, which brings us back to the world of photography as high art. No doubt some people like this sort of thing, but devoid of context, they feel out of place here (and some of us will be forgiven for thinking them pretentious).

It is the least self-conscious photographs that are the most affecting. Representative of this charmingly artless approach are three photographs of unnamed boys, each image evoking a strong sense of déjà vu, yet poised on the brink of a cliché. For each image is a sort of archetype from the annals of subcontinental photography. The first is TS Satyan’s ‘Boys Cooling Off on a Summer Day in Bombay’ (1970). The elements are all in place: the heat, the grubby yet inviting water tank, and the cheeky adolescents caught mid-dive. A staple of newspaper front pages on the dry news days of early summer, Satyan’s work here is exemplary of the genre.

The second photograph is by Mohammad Arif Ali. A winter scene, it shows tense gloved hands seen through one side of a set of whitewashed barricades. One person has managed to get his head through the parallel bars, a teenage boy, with a star and crescent drawn unskillfully in white and green facepaint on his cheek. A protest, perhaps? Apparently not. This one is titled ‘Crowd/Spectator During a One Day International Cricket Match in Lahore’ (2008).

The third, also by Ali has a city street on a rainy monsoon evening. These are the streets of Lahore, the curators inform us, but the photograph might have been taken anywhere. A little boy has barged into the middle of the frame, his back to us, his kurta and pyjama soaked through, cars braking at the edge of the frame to let him pass.

There is something unutterably moving about these images. Perhaps they bring back our own memories of decades worth of summers, winters and monsoons. Perhaps we recognise in these clichés something of the radical hope bubbling beneath the surface of everyday subcontinental life. Perhaps we sense the political symbolism, for these are, in their twee way, images of liberation.

Where Three Dreams Cross, Whitechapel Gallery, London, 21 January to 11 April.