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Documentation of life

GAYATRI SINHA looks at the works of two visual composers, in Berlin — photographer Dayanita Singh and curator Geeta Kapur.


Gandhi's Room, Anand Bhavan, Allahabad, 2000, Dayanita Singh.

OBLIQUELY, the image relates to the three graces, the inspirational grouping of three fabled figures, an image that enjoyed great popularity in European art through the 18th Century. Transposed in an upper class Indian home however, a completely different construct comes alive. There is a measure of relaxation in the groupings of women in threes. But there is also a degree of tension, in the taut bodily lines, the apparent "dressing up" for the photograph, the implicit familial and social narratives that can be "read" into the photograph.

Dayanita Singh's photography is the art of visual seduction. Britta Schmitz, curator at the Hamburger Bahnhoff, leading contemporary art museum in Berlin, sifts through her oeuvre to create a visually stunning exhibition, "Privacy".

Through references like the three graces, or the visual sumptuousness of the wealthy Indian home, she creates an image montage completely unfamiliar to European viewers. Consequently, Singh is the first Indian photographer to enter the European museum circuit with such self assurance.

Dayanita Singh, at 42, has chartered a career that defies predictablility. She has dislodged the glass ceiling that has kept most Indian, and particularly women, photographers tied to the hegemony of news She usually works serially, engaging with a single subject intensely, until it is dislodged — apparently seamlessly — by another. Schmitz's selection rests on Family Portraits and what Dayanita describes as Empty Spaces, or interiors that speak of human absence. On a shooting stint in Goa, as Dayanita writes: "I realised that I could make a portrait without a person in it. I started to make photographs of spaces without human beings, yet peopled by the unseen generations who had lived there before. Very soon I was consumed by this seeming emptiness; beds of those who had passed away, but that were still made everyday, beds turned into shrines, with photos and sandals on them and of course beds of the living, but without their physical presence."

From one vantage point in the Hamburger Banhoff gallery, one could count 11 such beds. Testimonies to India's gift for object veneration, they document the movement of life from grihastya to sanyaas. As empty spaces, they carry an impress of the pure sterility imparted by death — the sense of the ascetic and the pure that comes with too many washings of the same white sheet. The bed as empty, but silent, witness to moments of unspoken privacy and eros also appears. The empty spaces, essentially interiors, as photographed by Dayanita, trace silent histories. Chairs that remain rooted to the same spot, surviving generations of occupants, quaint memorabilia associated with Bapu in the Gandhi Smriti, paintings by Norblin (that look like a bad marriage between Art Nouveau and the Bengal school) in the Morvi palace bedrooms. Dayanita treats empty spaces like a visual index of Indian taste — the lace covers, rosaries and bleeding hearts of Christian images in a Goan household, the touristic gew gaws of a family that looks as if they have been on an African safari are all photographed with a degree of earnest engagement. Almost artlessly, through family portraits, we are treated to an index of Indian upper class visuality and art. In the background to her subjects appear paintings of Hemen Mazumdar, gods and gurus, portraits of royals, national leaders and the family departed. They enter the frame, thus creating an essay of the image within the image. .

When Dayanita does people her pictures, it is with a distinct class of PLUs — that her curator Schmitz describes as "people who have time, money, servants, palatial homes and well bred dogs". Dayanita had already trod the well intentioned path of Indian photography (prostitutes, AIDS, musicians, Bollywood) when with the encouragement of Colin Jacobson, picture editor of The Independent, she decided to represent her own world. In her own words, "there are many versions of India and this is mine".

The Family Portraits are in a curious mix of suggestively close readings and formal portraiture. Singh's upper class subjects dress up and pose, but relax sufficiently before her lens to afford slivers of psychological insight.

Dayanita is quick to foreground innuendo, sexual or otherwise, nuances of social hierarchy, ironies implicit in the making of "good" taste. The formally composed family tableaux in square format scrambles categories: thus the portrait may be in the intimate suggestive space of a bed room. It may formally represent a family but the little girl in the frame appears like a Nabokov creation, impelled by a mind far beyond her years. Obviously these pictures take a position that in a western gallery mediates for the other India, one that is insulated from disasters, disease, subcontinental chaos.

Inevitably Dayanita, placed within a museum context will invite comparison.

Britta Schmitz for instance compares her documentation of Indian life with August Sander who documented life in pre- and post-war Germany in 600 genre portraits, taking in everyone from the village idiot to the soldier.

Dayanita's work is far from straight forward documentary, neither is it a pictorial catalogue of India's rich and famous. More specifically her family portraits would locate her in the line of Diane Arbus or even Nan Goldin. I would argue that such comparisons are simplistic and Dayanita's own development will render them redundant. Dayanita's particular quality is the enigmatic mix of ease and tension that she seems to draw out of her subject, even as she fixes them with a degree of informed objectivity that approximates the documentary style. Yet it is in the absent self that suggests that she is somehow herself within each frame ... .

* * *

THE other more heterogeneous, complex view of Indian art is currently on view at the House of World Cultures, in the exhibition "sub Terrain" curated by Geeta Kapur. Such representations that are based on a nation's art production are inevitably challenging. Kapur's curatorial choices rest on the transgressive rather than the normative.


The devastated body, as in Atul's work.

Both the essential components of "body" and "city" are open to lateral interpretations — of body-self, body politic, city-street, both individual and social mappings.

The entry into the subject can be through the person or the body per se.

Kapur filters the subject through the artist as subject/interpreter, thus pitting the heroic self against the city as amorphous construct. Atul Dodiya mediates this through Gandhi and his father as symbolic of aspiration, disease and dismemberment; in Vivan Sundaram's "Room with a Bed" four known figures, as sites, in Indian media and art practice become the absent presences, here evoked through an imaginary bedroom. For instance, the photographer/activist Ram Rahman's bedroom contains a bronze cast of his underwear, and clusters of photographs pinned up on the wall. Here there is both document and voyeurism, private fantasy and objective record on view. The movement in the show is from the evacuated body, to its insistent presence. The most poignant mark of this evacuation of course is sudden and violent eruption.

Issues of identity as in Vasudha's creation

Navjot's piece "Lacuna in Testimony" conflates such moments of social crises — Auschwitz with Gujarat's great ethnic purge. Repeatedly, in rhythm to the waves of the Arabian Sea, a child's plaintive cry plays. It is an incomprehensible sound, the missing testimony of the one cannot or will not testify. Navjot's work compliments Nalini Malani's Hamlet-machine, one of the most uncompromising and vocal statements on the rise of fascism, in the parallels it draws between Nazi Germany, imperialist Japan and fundamentalism in India.

Kapur in her essay "sub Terrain": artists digs the contemporary locates the Indian artist "in an uneasy `subterrain', in the `dug-outs' of the contemporary where s/he reclaims memory and history; where the levelling effect of the no-history, no-nation, no-place phenomenon promoted by globalised exhibition and market circuits is upturned to rework a passage into the politics of place". Not all the works in the exhibition satisfy such a well conceptualised criterion. And the question that whether Indian art has risen in new media in particular has risen to its full potential, whether the artist has what David Sylvester describes as "fearlessness; a profound originality, a total absorption in what obsesses him, and above all, a certain authority and gravity" are critical. Even if post modernism readily swaps wit and subversion for gravitas and rubbishes the idea of the "original" in art, the question is not invalid.

In the context of "sub Terrain", the body as metaphor is a dominant leit motif. The persistence of desire and the transformation desire affects on the depersonalised space (Bhupen Khakhar, Sonia Khurana, Ranbir Kaleka), issues of identity (Vasudha Thozur, Subodh Gupta) the devastated body (Raghu Rai, Atul Dodiya) are dominant themes. The affective content of the works, the emotional charge that they convey varies. Perhaps the fact that such representation is afforded at all provides occasion for celebration and some introspection.

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