To celebrate the 60th anniversary of India’s independence, it was only natural that the Rencontres d’Arles should draw up an initial inventory of contemporary photographic creation in India. You are invited to discover a hitherto unseen panorama thanks to the precious help of Devika Daulet-Singh who has been tirelessly working towards the renewal of Indian photography and who is the inspired director of the Photoink agency.
The winds of change are about to strike India’s photographic scene. This is very good news because the latter has hitherto been hiding its light under a bushel. This breath of fresh air is being simultaneously enhanced by both an international art market eager to acquire works and media coverage in magazines prompted to monitor the rapid changes the country is undergoing.
It is quite a paradox that for so many years such an immensely photogenic country as India has been represented photographically in such a fixed and timeless way. Gripped by the staggering and stunning effect this country has on the Western mind, a legion of image-makers, travellers or voyeurs, be they professional or amateur, have been chasing rainbows, focusing on the picturesque aspects of poverty and on the country’s striking vernacular culture. The worshippers of “Eternal” India were bent on only one thing: stripping the picture of all traces of modernity.
Since the turn of the millennium, under the combined influence of the documentary style and of staged photographic works, a new approach is gaining ground. Both in India and abroad, another generation of photographers impervious to the opium of exoticism is beginning to address the issues of progress and of the difficulties generated by the country’s economic, social and cultural changes1.
Photojournalism that has dominated the photographic scene in India since its independence has been drastically shaken: the constructed image has now made its stage entrance2. This is a far cry from the contrived sets in the popular studios (that have now mostly been converted into digital ones). These new scrutinizers of the “Age of Emptiness”3, bearing witness to militant thought on their society’s evolution and using their private lives as material for their works, now delve into their immediate environment for inspiration: consumer individualism, new prosperity, urban territories, sexuality and, above all, family life.
This new photography is the star witness to the irreversible expansion of “Westoxication”4, a kind of reverse Orientalism characteristic of the country’s present history. Collateral damage: this change of perspective sends back to the Western mind echoes of its own erring ways and of its cathodic disenchantment.
For these authors, for ourselves, for all of us, this perspective will have lasting consequences on the future of the country’s (self-)portrayal. For a long time now, India has allowed the West to penetrate the illusion or the hope of its spiritual worlds. Today, India’s outlook is changing direction.
The urgency with which this turning point in history is being documented and interpreted is shaking the post-colonial romanticism that up to now has been so highly acceptable to each party. There is no longer any question of opposing or uniting Tradition and Modernity, memory and strategy. Standing alone in the heart of the battlefield of a hitherto sparsely documented Reality, the sensitive and lucid outlook of these pioneers is thought-provoking. The mirror has become the hammer, as is so often the case in photography5.
1. On this subject see the collective book India Now, edited by Alain Willaume, to appear to be published soon in Editions Textuel (foreword by Pavan K.Varma).
2.After the remarkable Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, a pioneer of the genre of mise en scène between 1889 and 1950. For a long time he remained in the shadow of his iconic daughter Amrita, one of the pioneering figures of pictorial modernism in Indian Art. Today he is considered by some to be the first “modern” in the history of Indian photography. A retrospective of his work is being presented in Arles for the first time this year.
3. Gilles Lipovetsky, L’ère du vide, Poche, 1989.
4. This is a term quoted by Parvan K. Varma in Le défi indien (Being Indian), translated from English into French by André R. Lewin, Ed. Actes Sud, 2006. This term was first used by the sociologist Dipankar Gupta in Mistaken Modernity and the latter borrowed the term from the Iranian intellectual Jalal-e-Ahmad.
5. An allusion to “Art is a hammer to beat the world not a mirror to reflect it”, a famous quotation attributed to Vladimir Maïakovskij, Bertolt Brecht, Marcel Duchamp, etc.
Exhibition Curator: Alain Willaume, in collaboration with Devika Daulet-Singh.
Exhinition presented with the support of the French Embassy in India.