Spanning 150 years of photography from India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, this ambitious survey of historic and contemporary works includes over 400 images by 82 artists. Using ‘shared culture’ as a parameter, it is the first comprehensive vision of South Asia to be presented in the West; these images are not ‘about’ the region and there are no European perspectives to be seen. Indeed, those looking for a text driven, ethnographic narrative of an ex-colonial world will sadly be missing the point.
Installed in a bastion of Western art ? London’s Whitechapel Gallery ? 63 years after Indian Independence and the subsequent dissolution of the British Raj, this show aspires to explore its topography with decidedly indigenous eyes. Of course, politics is inherent in picture making ? our ‘ways of seeing’ and the context in which we see them pose fundamental issues. Refreshingly, this is a case of self-discovery, a kind of meditative picturing of a collective self and its geographical truths, where the ‘other’ is observing from within.
Images like Mohammad Ali Salim’s Worker’s at a city construction site? (Bangladesh, 1980) and Mohammad Arif Ali’s Rainy Days Image of Lahore (Pakistan, 2008) are not invested in archetypal victims or street urchins. While they do not ignore the pain or the facts, they offer a purposeful and frequently hopeful alternative to the media driven images of death and destruction, which have arguably desensitised audiences on the ‘outside’. The curators have set out to question and even defy our received notions of the Subcontinent, presenting a sort of counter-colonial response to the official Western history of photography. They are asking us to celebrate South Asia’s contribution, beginning in India in 1850, and in this sense the show becomes a pioneering catalyst, inspired by the gaps.
The curatorial line wants to trace the finer social and creative turning points inherent in each body of work. Sunil Gupta references a particular instance in how transsexuals are depicted in the context of the historic “fluidity of sexuality in India”, previously outlawed under colonial law. While homogenisation is an obvious danger, he is quick to remind us that “culture cannot be partitioned”, and the power of photography to engage contemporary audiences is such that ‘Westerners’ are likely to notice the similarities between these nations, while ‘South Asians’ are necessarily sensitive to their differences. But the landscape is shifting, as ‘majority world‘ issues are increasingly addressed by those who understand them most and can no longer be ignored. More representations of the internal structures of hitherto ‘foreign’ realities will eventually balance out those one-dimensional visions of systems, symptoms, and conflicts. If there is a trend in the emergence of ‘indigenous photographers’ it is that they are able to achieve an intimacy with their subjects which enhances their humanity. For me it is this authenticity of image making that carries the editorial eloquence of its subject matter.
Paradoxically, despite its thriving art market, photography as a discipline is still emerging in India. And in Pakistan interest in this medium by a new generation of artists is a promising but recent phenomenon. Bangladesh has led the way with an established international festival – Chobi Mela – and Dhaka’s dynamic Drik gallery (Sanskrit for vision) which has represented local professionals for more than 20 years.
This show is arranged in five thematic sections, which inevitably blend into and across national stories: the portrait, the performance, the family, the street, and the body politic.
Legendary photographers from Bangladesh, such as Amanul Huq and Nasir Ali Mamun are presented?alongside their present-day counterparts, such as?Abir Abdullah, Shumon Ahmed, and Shahidul Alam.
There are works from the early 19th century from the renowned Alkazi Collection in Delhi, the Abhishek Poddar Collection in Bangalore, and the White Star Archive in Karachi, and many previously unseen works from family archives, galleries, and established contemporary artists. We see hand-painted images of courtesans and families by anonymous photographers in the very first Indian-run studios, journalistic depictions of key political events (Rashid Talukder’s Sheikh Mujibur Rahman returns to his homeland? in 1972 and Benazir Bhutto’s arrival at Karachi airport in 1988), and cutting edge reconfigurations of the built up environment (Farida Batool’s “Nai Reesan Shehr Lahore Diyan” 2006, and Rashid Rana’s Twins 2007). As virtual co-protagonists in the unfolding of these stories, viewers are left to provide their own social critiques.
Fantastic circus acts (Saibal Das’s Matinee Show 2001) and glamorous Bollywood stars (Dev Anand and Meena Kumari in the 1950s) capture portraits within portraits, reinforcing photography’s ability to empower the object of its gaze. Here is a region reconstructing its own image, touching on castes and sexuality as naturally as geopolitics and environmental disasters. It is not the ‘otherness’ we need to consider, but rather our willingness to become re-acquainted with what we have presumed to know.
Echoing the literary musing of one of the curators, Radhika Singh, who titled the show on a line from T.S Eliot’s Ash Wednesday (1930) – “This is the time of tension between dying and birth; The place of solitude where three dreams cross?” – I can’t help recalling William Blake’s Letter to Revd Dr Trusler (1799) – “As a man is, so he sees. As the eye is formed, such are its powers”. Packaging imagery and argument is always problematic, but this show’s self-assured and celebratory tones manage to amaze both aesthetically and intellectually. As if the collective lens were refocused on the circulation of discourse and the forging of transnational connections between people across time. It’s a pity this exhibition is not, at least at this stage, travelling to places like Birmingham or Leicester, where the fields of vision from within contemporary Britain would no doubt offer even richer educational perspectives.
Rosa Maria Falvo
Independent writer and curator, with a focus on Asian contemporary art. She is the Asia-Pacific Publications and Projects Consultant for Skira International Publishing in Milan. Podcast of my talk at a symposium at the show in Fotomuseum Winterthur Symposium at Fotomuseum Winterthur First published in Nafas Art Magazine a project of the Institute for Foreign Cultural Relations (ifa, Germany)
The first Friday of every month, we would clear out the furniture of Bijon Da?s ?Boithok Khana? (drawing room), move some of the chairs out to the verandah, and set up a table for the speakers. People would invariably arrive in dribs and drabs, but pretty soon, the rickety chairs would get filled up and the crowd would spill over into the verandah. This was where Manzoor Alam Beg held court.
Young photographers with their first black and white prints, would mingle with the likes of Rashid Talukder and Anwar Hossain. The ever young Dr. Ansaruddin Ahmed would hand out his pristine prints. The crowd would wait in expectant silence for the results of the monthly photo contest. The monthly photographic newsletter, then without pictures, would be distributed. Invariably, there would be a speech or two. It was a camera club, trade union and a hangout joint, all rolled into one. Despite the mix, the salon smell hung in the air. Much was made of acceptances in salons. A gold medal, a bronze, or even an honourable mention, was celebrated. Winners were generously applauded. Outside of the salon circuit we knew little of what was going on elsewhere, but if it was a well we were living in, it was a nice well. That monthly meeting meant a lot to all of us.
There were few who remained from the old school. The recent split from Pakistan meant that the established studios like Zaidi?s had gone. But the war of liberation changed the Bangladeshi psyche. 1947, while of immense significance to South Asia, meant little to Bangladeshis. History books barely touched upon it. There were few references to it in literature. 1971 on the other hand was a lived experience. Unsurprisingly therefore, apart from the early photographs of Golam Kasem Daddy, dating back to 1918, there are few early photographs from Bangladesh.? There followed a romantic period where photographers like Amanul Haque and Naibuddin Ahmed produced stylized landscapes and carefully set up idyllic images of people. Nawazesh Ahmed and later Anwar Hossain, began to adopt a more contemporary feel to their images. Bijon Sarker and Manzoor Alam Beg, combined elements of classical pictorialism with the curiosity of an experimentalist. Sayeda Khanam was the lone woman of that era. Doggedly pursuing an almost entirely male profession.
1971 was a turning point. Rashid Talukder?s nose for a picture and his journalistic instinct, ensured that he was at the right place at the right time throughout Bangladesh?s turbulent history. Having had no formal education in photography, Talukder was freed of the compositional binds that many contemporary image makers were trapped within. The 2 ? square had its own aesthetic, but Talukder and other photojournalists used the balanced frame to capture some of the most disturbing images of the 20th century.
Talukder?s dismembered head of a slain intellectual, framed by bricks and their sharp shadows, being perhaps one of the most powerful images of the 20th century. Talukder, Mohammad Shafi, Jalaluddin Haider, Aftab Ahmed were amongst the press photographers who documented some of the everyday events of 1971. But Talukder?s picture of the bayoneting of Biharis, had been hidden from public sight until Drik published it in 1993. Kader Siddiqui, the man responsible for the killings, was too powerful a man to antagonize, and until then, no publication had been prepared to take the risk. A similar frame by Michel Laurent, had meanwhile won a Pulitzer. Talukder?s dismembered head too, had been passed by the the authors of the Century Book. Others, had recorded 1971 in their own way. Taking great risks as amateurs, preserving a history of our birth pangs, knowing it could signal death.
? Shehab Uddin
Photographers then started specializing. S S Barua, and Nawab became the bird specialists, to be later followed by Enamul Huque and Shehab Uddin. Consumerism had approached, and photographers in the new nation were turning to fashion. Shamsul Islam Al Maji brought a modern touch to glamour, but Amanul Haque in his classical style also painted a rural Bangladesh, complete with the beautiful farmer?s wife, her red sari provided by the photographer, her gourd plant, planted by him a year ago, so it would be the right height at the right time of the year.
Then came the salon era. Mohammad Ali Selim, Kazi Mizanur Rahman, Kashi Nath Nandy, Abdul Malek Babul, Debabrata Chowdhury were all fine photographers, but their arena was the camera club contest. The rule of thirds, the well placed diagonal, the balanced image, was what everyone was making. They entered contests, won prizes, vied for medals and certificates. This was a world in itself. The Bangladesh Photographic Society became the launchpad for the contest winning photographers. The stickers at the back of the prints were often more important than the images themselves. The society newsletter proudly boasted of salon acceptances. Strategies for winning contests were hotly debated at the monthly meetings. Stardom was based on number of medals and not on quality of content. Pretty pictures ruled.
Woman voting at a ballot both. Election 1991 ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
While photojournalists had recorded street life and political strife, and a few photographers had addressed poverty, there was no culture of documentary practice. No personal projects. Photography was still seen as an illustration, meant to fit in with a predetermined caption. The movement against General Ershad changed all that. Resistance had been building, and the iconic image of Noor Hossain, with ?Let Democracy be Freed? painted on his back, was a turning point. In 1971, the photographs were taken surreptitiously, under fear of death. In the new movement, the photographers were in the fore. They were the witnesses of the people and empowered by people?s will. Ershad clamped down on the media, enforcing censorship. The media responded en-masse, stopping publication in protest, but the photographers continued to work, and when the general fell, and an impromptu exhibition was organized of pictures of the movement, the queue outside Zainul Gallery was nearly a mile long. There were near riots as people stormed the gallery to get a glimpse of their hard earned victory.
Hasan Saifuddin Chandan controllling the crowd at the entrance to Zainul Gallery. 13th December 1991. ? Shahidul Alam/Drik/Majority World
The struggle for democracy had an obvious impact on the photographic movement. 1989 was a significant year. 150 years after the birth of photography, the region?s first photo library, Drik, was set up. The Bangladesh Photographic Instititute was set up. After sustained lobbying by photographers a bill was passed in parliament for a department of photography to be set up in Shilpakala Academy, the academy of fine and performing arts. That too was in 1989 though it was never implemented. The workshops at the Bangladesh Photographic Institute and at Drik showed there was another way of working and that photography had more to offer than simply producing pretty images or winning awards. Photography was also trying to move away from the shadows of painters who still ruled supreme. The success of a photograph had always depended on how well it resembled a painting. The medium began to find its own identity, and while photography was still not considered art, photographers were now not so concerned about the label. So photographers found their own solutions. They did what other artists and media professionals had failed to do. They aggregated, and made up for lack of external support by supporting each other. A revolution was in the making.
But there were other pressures too. Most photographers still found it difficult to make a living and the lure of ?bidesh? (foreign lands) was too much for many to withstand. Several of the young photographers who were making the transition away from Salon photography, decided to try their luck overseas. Years later, not one of them has been successful in establishing a career in photography. Nasir Ali Mamoon was an exception in some ways. Portraiture had always been his forte. While others drove taxis, worked in petrol stations, or temped in low paid jobs, Nasir took this opportunity to produce portraits of people he admired. Ginsberg, Gunter Grass and many others filled his album. While unsuccessful commercially, he was able to expand his photographic repertoire and eventually, when he decided to leave the others behind and return to his native land, he was able to establish himself as THE portrait photographer of the era. Fine portraits adorned the newspaper he worked for, and while the post was largely ornamental, he was made the first picture editor of a newspaper.
There followed a resurgence in the media. With the return of democracy, new newspapers filled the newsstands. There was also another movement taking place. The nation?s first picture library had been set up. While international media had no interest in the democratic struggle in Bangladesh, the cyclone in 1991 that followed was familiar fodder to world media and their appetite was insatiable. There was a difference though. This time the work of local photographers also filled the pages of the New York Times and the Newsweeks of the world. Mostly they were similar images different only in having been taken by locals, but soon the content and the focus also changed. The New York Times published a full page on their Sunday Week in Review on the 1991 cyclone which did not show a single corpse. There were pictures of fishermen rebuilding their boats, farmers replanting seeds, villagers rebuilding their homes. The world began to engage with a new story teller. One with local roots. The first fund raising photo exhibition took place in 1991 and raised over 4000 dollars for cyclone victims.
The newly formed agency Drik, began to bring in photographers from all over the globe to conduct workshops. Its regular calendar became a showpiece for Bangladeshi photography. Well printed postcards and posters, complete with credit lines for photography. Photographers learnt to protest when their pictures got stolen. A movement was taking shape. It crystallised with the formation of? Pathshala. The South Asian Institute of Photography. The setting up of the school represented a clear move away from Salon photography. Documentary photographic practice complete with the engagement it involved became an emerging trend. Soon a few women joined the ranks, and the photo stories ranged from the usual ?subjects? of international photographers like prostitution and floods to the more personal representation of family life, and the search for identity. The students were hungry, and the explosive mix of inspiring teachers and driven students soon created the photographic explosion that was inevitable. Bangladesh emerged in the world of documentary photography as no other nation had. Before 1998, no Bangladeshi photographer had ever won an award at World Press Photo. Shafiqul Alam Kiron?s winning entry on women victims of acid attacks was soon followed by Chobi Mela, the first festival of photography in the region. The heady mix of great photographers walking down the streets of Dhaka. Showcasing work on the same gallery walls with the best of the best, would have to be inspirational. Meanwhile the school continued shaping their craft, pushing them to their limits. Some made it to Masterclass, others were star students of the seminar programmes. Time Magazine, Newsweek, The Guardian, Le Monde, and other leading publications across the globe suddenly woke up to this great wealth of photography in Bangaldesh.
Then things got stuck. Success is a hard act to live with, and the rapid recognition of the star photographers created a flock of clones who followed. Some found their own identity, but many were just following. Again it was Chobi Mela to the rescue. The identity of the festival itself was changing. Drik?s success had given it the overall stamp of documentary practice, but slowly other photographic genre was creeping in. Fine art, conceptual work, the odd installation, began to work its way into the gallery spaces. The level of intellectual engagement drew many others besides photographers. Practitioners from Africa, Latin America and Australia joined the Europeans and North Americans, and of course Asians who regularly joined the festival. Speakers like Noam Chomsky had conversations with regional legends like Mahashweta Devi. This was all the spark that was needed. A resurgent Pathshala, started producing more provocative work, and broached new territory. It was a movement in the making and the rules were being made as one went along.
Chobi Mela V tours to Kathmandu
The Bangladesh segment of the exhibition “When Three Dreams Cross” tries to map this journey, through the images that formed the milestones of this movement. There are significant departures from the mapping we had attempted to follow. The irrelevance of 1947, and the huge presence of 1971, has played a role that is to be expected. Other less expected characteristics have been the absence of the physical representation of habitats, artefacts, and mementos that are often a part of vernacular photography. Until recently, even family photographs, weddings and the many other everyday things that always been the visual basis for understanding cultures has largely not been preserved. Waqar Khan, has made an important contribution by collecting old photographs, mostly from aristocratic homes, which documents some aspects of this history. But the warm humid climes of this delta, has led to the erosion of much of our physical heritage. The shifting of the rivers has led to an uprootment of many who no can no longer relate to a homestead they can call their own. This transience and the nomadic existence that follows has perhaps led to the loss of a need to preserve. Very few archives exist. Not only in visual terms, but in music and film and many other art forms. This absence, in a way, documents a mode of thought and a way of life, that perhaps tells more about Bangladesh than the missing photographs might have done.
Not every artist is featured, but every influence is present through what they, or others who were inspired by them, produced. The early work of Golam Kasem and the establishment of the Camera Recreation Club had a distinct influence. Manzoor Alam Beg?s steadfast role as a mentor and an organizer, held the community together for many years. The Ahmed brothers brought out the first book on photography, and Nawazesh Ahmed, an agronomist with a PhD, brought respectability to the medium and at least for him, an acceptance within academia. Anwar Hossain was the enfante terrible who brought immediate attention through his arresting images, his controversial statements, and his maverick lifestyle. Sadly he too lost the edge that was his hallmark and has largely retired into oblivion. Hasan Saifuddin Chandan and the string of fine photographers who produced evocative images in the early nineties, also lost their way, though the Map Agency, set up by Chandan and a few other talented photographers continues and has made a valuable contribution. Sayeda Farhana, Sanjida Shaheed and a few other photographers, mostly women, began to explore the edges of contemporary photography, using their training as social scientists, fine artists, and in other areas of learning to inject into photography, a tertiary value which the more straight laced, mainstream photographers had failed to achieve. But the moment still belongs to the young crop of photojournalists who have recently emerged from Pathshala. Abir Abdullah, GMB Akash, Saiful Huq Omi, Munem Wasif, Khaled Hasan and other emerging photographers, all photojournalists of exceptional talent, made the world sit up. The wealth of exceptional photography emerging from this small nation has taken the photojournalism world by storm. There are those who feel there is a sameness in their approach that they would like to question and Shumon Ahmed and Momena Jalil are amongst the photographers who have ventured outside the tried and tested path to find other modes of expression. But this incomparable strength in photojournalism cannot be denied. Many of these former students are now the new mentors. The traditional forms of apprenticeship might have been lost over the years, but a more classic form of pedagogy has led to a learning environment that will surely take the world by storm.
Written for the catalogue of “Where Three Dreams Cross: 150 Years of Photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh” 21 January 2010 – 11 April 2010 Galleries 1, 8 & 9 at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. Photographers Naibuddin Ahmed and his younger brother Nawazesh Ahmed, passed away between the time this article was written and when it was published.
So much for the post-national, globalised world. Looking through hundreds of photographs from?India,?Pakistan and?Bangladesh, which will go on show at the Whitechapel Gallery in London this month, I find myself unable to follow the curators’ lead. Wisely, they have chosen to group the images thematically, rather than according to nationality; but almost immediately I am looking hungrily for Pakistan (my homeland), largely ignoring India, and pausing longest at pictures of Bangladesh from 1971, the year in which it ceased to be East Pakistan.
It isn’t that I don’t find anything of interest in India or in photographs of it. But of the three nations, India has always been the most visually reproduced; many of the photographs taken there feel over-familiar. This is not the over-familiarity of a scene I’ve personally witnessed or inhabited: it is the compositions or the subject matter or sometimes the photograph itself that I feel I’ve seen time and time again. There is Gandhi stepping out of that train; there are the Mumbai boys leaping into a body of water on a hot day; there is the movie poster in the style of movie posters.
It is something of a surprise to find how intent I am on tracking down pictures of Pakistan. I have spent the greater part of my life there and will be returning shortly, but neither homesickness nor estrangement lie behind my wanting to see more. It is the role of photographs themselves in Pakistan that may serve as explanation. There is still very little appreciation of photo-graphy as an art form, so pictures tend to fall into three categories: private celebrations, news ? and cricket. I have seen countless pictures of weddings, of burning buses, of a fast bowler winding his arm over his shoulder at the end of his run-up. Life’s more quotidian details occur away from the lens, and so feel unacknowledged. Pakistan is a nation tremendously poor at acknowledging what goes on when it comes to individual lives, and bad at acknowledging the sweep of its own history. Great areas of the past and present remain away from the nation’s gaze.
If there is one period in history from which Pakistan most adamantly averts its eyes, it is 1971. That year, Pakistan ceased to be a nation with two wings, and the state of Bangladesh came into being. And so I turn to the Bangladeshi photographers in order to fix my gaze on that blood-soaked epoch. I don’t even realise I’m doing this, at first. I think I’m looking at a man’s head, cast in marble; the sculpture is cheek-down amid a cluster of stones, almost camouflaged by?them. Then I read the caption: “Dismembered head of an intellectual killed 14 December 1971 by local collaborators of Pakistani army. Bangladesh.” It is extraordinarily eerie, and sad. There are other pictures of that period, too. Many, if not all, will probably be familiar to anyone from Bangladesh; none are part?of Pakistan’s consciousness.
Pakistan’s erasure of its own muddled history is the subject of Bani Abidi’s witty series of photographs, The Ghost of Mohammad Bin Qasim. In?the nation’s attempt to create an official history, which focuses on Muslims in the subcontinent (rather than Pakistan’s geographical boundaries), the Arab general Bin Qasim (712 AD) was lauded for being the first Muslim to successfully lead a military campaign in India ? even though he did little to consolidate his position. In Abidi’s photographs, a man in Arab dress is shot at different locations in Karachi, including the mausoleum of?the nation’s secular founder, Mohammad Ali Jinnah. The man is clearly Photoshopped in, deliberately so: he represents the attempt to graft a false history on to Pakistan, linking it to the Wahhabism of Saudi Arabia.
While Abidi’s work asks the viewer to engage with history and politics, there are others that draw a more visceral response. Mohammad Arif Ali’s photograph of rain in Lahore captures the size and force of raindrops during the monsoons; the vivid colours at the edge of the frame also evoke how startlingly rinsed of dust the whole world looks. The boy darting out into the downpour, ahead of a line of traffic, his shalwar kameez plastered to his skin, is both lord of the world and a tiny creature, in danger of being crushed. It brings a familiar world vividly to mind. And yet, of course, exactly this scene could be played out ? and photographed ? in Delhi or Dhaka. It is foolish of me to think of it as quintessentially Pakistani. Sometimes these countries are three; sometimes one: the movement between three distinct nations and one?region is impossible to pin down.
Away from the pictures of 1971, the Bangladeshi images are both unfamiliar (Munem Wasif‘s picture of a Burmese worker struggling through bushes in Bangladesh) and familiar: notably, Abir Abdullah’s Women Working in Old Dhaka, which shows two women making chapatis together, though their positioning suggests distance rather than camaraderie. Is their lack of proximity a consequence of class or personality?
I turn back to the pictures of India and am almost immediately struck by Ram Rahman’s Young Wrestlers, Delhi: two boys, each wearing a pair of briefs. It is mystifying that I didn’t notice before how one of them stares assertively at the camera, his muscles relaxed, in the most casual of poses. The other’s eyes are unsure, his muscles tensed, he is trying to suck in his stomach and puff up his chest, and there is a rip, it seems, in his briefs. The boys are touching but it’s clear they aren’t friends ? not at the moment, at least. I worry for the tensed boy. He is going to lose his wrestling match; he is going to lose it badly.
And then there is Anay Mann’s picture of a breastfeeding woman with headphones over her ears: she looks wary, her head angled away from the camera. Is there someone in the room, just out of the camera’s reach? Or has she retreated into her own thoughts? And why is it that children’s toys can add such menace to a picture, as is the case with the yellow smiling object, its head bobbing, at the edge of the image?
I would see this exhibition differently if it were in Karachi. Or Mumbai. Or Dhaka. In London, I am so far removed from these landscapes I’m aware of the photographs’ “otherness”. But there’s also this: any kind of simultaneous engagement between these three nations, with so much in common and so much that sets them apart, is almost unheard of within the subcontinent itself. In Karachi, Dhaka or Mumbai, I would spend a very long time watching people look at these photographs. How we see ourselves; how we see each other ? these two questions would be politically charged where they are not here. Strange that, only 63 years after the Raj, London should seem such a historically neutral venue, comparatively speaking.