In 2015, the American artist/photographer Richard Prince stirred up a hornets’ nest when he exhibited a collection of photos from strangers’ Instagram feeds. He enlarged the images, complete with comments, put them in a show, and sold several of them for $100,000 each.

Critics and peers instantly took to Twitter and blogosphere to either denounce Prince as a thief or to sing his praises as an artistic visionary. Interestingly, one of the unwitting subjects of the controversy, a woman whose Instagram photo Prince had appropriated (below), did not raise a fuss and seemed pleased to bask in a bit of reflected glory.

Neither was this Prince’s first brush with the art police. And nor was he the only famous artist to lift, steal or borrow other people’s work for their own masterpieces.

Appropriation in art has a long, well-established history. Its practitioners include some of the greatest names in 20th century art, such as Picasso, Duchamp, Cindy Sherman and Andy Warhol. Many artists and critics believe that in this digital age, with easy access to images, bit torrents and ubiquitous invitations to download, there is no object or image that is not available for the picking.

Of course, those whose works find their way into the art of others, without permission, are less charitable. Lawsuits are lodged and courts often decide in their favour. But the practice persists and probably will as long as humans exist.

A critical factor that judges refer to in deciding whether an artist is a genius or a thief is the concept of “fair use”. Has the photographer or artist transformed the original sufficiently to create a new and fresh work of art? Or has he lazily decided to ride on the coattails of someone else?

Question of appropriation

Growing up in India, I was a fan of Hindi movies, and though I did not understand exactly who she was at the time, Helen, the “Queen of the Nautch Girls”, was a big part of the attraction.

In more recent times, I have found Helen to be an enormously inspiring subject.

As she has danced and vamped and swayed across the internet on YouTube, I have tried to capture her in full flight as if she were a flitting butterfly.

And, in the process, my mind has turned to the question of appropriation and fair use. Am I creating something new and fresh? Or am I merely an obsessed fan stealing glimpses of my idol, like a silent Peeping Tom?

Helen and Rajesh Khanna
Helen and Rajesh Khanna

This picture is from an item number in The Train, a 1970 thriller starring Rajesh Khanna and Nanda. What I love about this image, and why it is a good example of appropriation, is the way in which the context and meaning have been changed. What was a split second in a fast-moving dance sequence has been altered to an eternal day dream. Rajesh Khanna has his eyes closed, as if asleep or fantasising, and Helen hovers close. But she is more apparition than flesh and blood. Her body, especially her hand around his neck, is insubstantial. Her face shimmers with the energy coming of the computer screen, infusing her with an otherworldly vibe.

A tightly-wound sari and backless blouse are all that are required to convey the essential point of an item number.

Helen is so endlessly photogenic for so many reasons, not the least for her absolute ability to inhabit any outfit, be it a bikini or a demure long frock. With one arm raised a la Statue of Liberty, the Dancing Queen strikes a pose that is somehow assuring, protective and provocative all at once.

Helen appeared in more than 500 item numbers, according to some sources. The disco and nightclub were her natural element. Here she merges with the atmosphere, as if she herself were nothing but pure light.

Some say dance is divine. But in a nightclub? Helen’s captured shadow in this image has always struck me as having god-like qualities.

Though Helen used her entire body in her art, for me it was always her eyes and smile that were the most attractive. In close up, one of her green eyes has turned indigo in the low light of a discotheque.

Though others frowned upon her career, confusing her characters with her person, Helen was always very clear that her screen persona was nothing like her. She went to church, exercised religiously and ate healthy foods. “I never thought that what I was doing was immoral,” she once said. “It was work and that was my approach always.”

This image is one of my favourites. It captures her natural, irrepressible and joyful exuberance. What a gift she has been for Indian film lovers.