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Photos of long-forgotten books by long-dead authors preface a memory-themed festival in Mumbai

The contrasts in works reveal how differently photographers encounter the world they archive.

To all the ways in which a human may cease to be, we have added a new category, that of the “selfie death” – in which the pursuit of a great self-portrait, framed just right, leads to the accidental death of the photographer.

What a cultural setting then, in 2017, to consider a photography festival and reprise the role of being simply a viewer, experiencing a series of images in whose creation and selection, one has played no role, and which needs be encountered on its own terms – as an art object inviting thought and interpretation, swipe-able neither left nor right. The third edition of the Focus Photography Festival, which opened this past weekend in Mumbai, across several venues, features photographers both known and unknown, concentrated around the theme of memory. A subject particularly suited to photography that has been interpreted by the organisers and artists, in interesting and surprising ways.

One such is the exhibit In the City, a Library by photographer Chirodeep Chaudhuri, created in collaboration with writer Jerry Pinto. The work is a result of a 15-month-long exploration of a public institution at the heart of old Bombay – The People’s Free Reading Room and Library, one of the few public libraries in Mumbai.

In the City, a Library is unusual for a photography exhibit. The visual subject here are books, more specifically, pages from open books containing illustrations or whole bodies of text. Amidst the less trodden aisles, on dusty shelves, undisturbed by a human hand in decades (which describes the greater percentage of shelves in the library), Chaudhuri and Pinto found books long forgotten, by authors long dead.

The exhibit is a small selection from the several hundred photographs. It speaks an elegiac poem to an ageing library that scarcely sees readers curious to know its heart. As one moves through the gallery, taking in the photographs, this indulgent charm with these books that no one reads anymore is layered by something more profound – that knowledge accrues, moves on and leaves behind. That a book that once informed a reader about the world, in the fullness of time, turns inward to inform about itself and the time it comes from.

In the City, a Library. Image credit: Chirodeep Chaudhuri. Courtesy: FOCUS Photography Festival, 2017
In the City, a Library. Image credit: Chirodeep Chaudhuri. Courtesy: FOCUS Photography Festival, 2017

The People’s Free Reading Room and Library dates back to 1845. The old forgotten books seen in the exhibit are largely European texts from the colonial era. These books were forgotten not just because of our society’s tenuous connection with curiosity and reading, but also because the world has moved past the theories, opinions, analysis and descriptions of the world that are contained in them. So when you look upon the technical drawing for an industrial process, as featured in one of the photographs, or the illustrated comparisons of the ear muscles of man and ape, as featured in another, you are struck by how irrelevant that technical knowledge is to the engineers and biologists today.

A similar thing happens when you read the anthropological texts on display – like the orientalist description of a street in Peking, by an enthusiastic European, writing far before anthropology evolved to its present level of sophistication and subtlety. When you read the doggerel verse titled Tennis Chokras and Bengali Babus under a caricature of Indians, it does not sting, because these are books that have lost their seriousness. Their ability to inform about their subject matter stands discounted by time and progress.

In the City, a Library. Image credit: Chirodeep Chaudhuri. Courtesy: FOCUS Photography Festival, 2017.
In the City, a Library. Image credit: Chirodeep Chaudhuri. Courtesy: FOCUS Photography Festival, 2017.

Through the composition of images, and the fauna which makes up the ecosystem of the library, the artwork evokes a specific site: there is the reader who leaves her mark, sometimes in a flower used as a bookmark in an old copy of Shakespeare’s Richard III. Or a scathing review scribbled under the title page of a thriller warning future readers of the abysmal writing to follow. Like the silver fish that’s left its mark on a page titled Pages of War, it is no accident that this photography show required a collaboration with a writer. How wonderful would it be if these photographs, eventually found a permanent home in The People’s Free Reading Room and Library.

Part of FOCUS this year are two exhibits within walking distance of each other, which should ideally be seen one after the other – My Analogue World at Max Mueller Bhavan and Gedney in India at the Nicholson Jehangir Gallery at Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj Vastu Sangrahalaya. Both exhibits feature black and white portraitures of people and place, pictures of India in the 1970s and 1980s, and instances where the photographers were working far from home.

Tokyo Subway. Image credit: Sooni Taraporevala
Tokyo Subway. Image credit: Sooni Taraporevala

With so much in common, the contrasts in these works reveal how differently two photographers encounter the world they archive as seen in the stories that they capture. My Analogue World, a series of prints from Sooni Taraporevala’s early career, were taken in the 1970s and 1980s, at home and abroad. The conceit of the exhibit is to simulate the pre-digital, silver-gelatin print days of photography, which comes together best in the slide show at the back of the gallery. In a sectioned-off corner, an old-school projector creates nostalgia, to the mechanical sound of changing slides, as it beams pictures from the Parsi neighbourhood of a bygone Bombay. Taraporevala’s photographic gaze is playful, particularly when she turns her eye to her own community. There is a humour and familiarity to her photographs of the Parsis.

However, the photographs to seek out in My Analogue are a set of photographs she took abroad – three large format prints from France and a set of smaller prints from Tokyo. In each of the large prints, human subjects are foregrounded against a backdrop that locates them in their world. Two shepherds caught mid-banter, as their sheep graze in the middle distance, framed against an immense valley. Taraporevala is particularly alive to capturing children: a masked child laughs into the camera, as adults dance in the town square beyond. A delectable picture of childhood in rural France – two boys with their play hats on, holding a conference mid adventure, holding their rakes like antennas. A little schoolboy captured in all his impishness, as he paces the subway steps in his schoolbag.

Roshan Seth. Image credit: Sooni Taraporevala.
Roshan Seth. Image credit: Sooni Taraporevala.

William Gedney worked from the mid-1950s till the mid-1980s. He won the Guggenheim and the Fulbright fellowships, was held in wide acclaim by noted photographers of his day but was a recluse who gained little recognition outside photography circles while he was alive. Today he is seen as a key figure in American black and white street and documentary photography. He visited India twice. Once in 1969-’71, when he stayed with a local family in Benares, and then again a decade later, when he visited Calcutta. Gedney in India is a show featuring exclusively the work he did in these two cities.

Gedney is noted for the intimacy in his photographs of people and communities. His photographs put people centre stage and imbue individuals with tremendous character, whether it is someone looking straight into the camera, or caught in a private moment on a public street. In the show, for instance, is a powerful photograph of a hand-rickshaw puller on a Calcutta street in the 1980s – topless, his intricate muscles glistening in the rain, caught by Gedney in a moment of private reflection in a momentary pause on a busy street. Or those of the two bespectacled sari-clad college girls, sipping a cola, unable to take their eyes off something in the distance. Or that of a man, leaning in slightly to listen to what the shopkeeper is telling him. These photographs feel intimate to the viewer because Gedney makes you feel like you know the kind of moment the subject is having in the photograph. His photographs feel sombre because of the psychic depth in them.

Benares, India, 1969-1971. Image credit: William Gedney. Courtesy: The David M Rubenstein Rare Book Manuscript Library at Duke University.
Benares, India, 1969-1971. Image credit: William Gedney. Courtesy: The David M Rubenstein Rare Book Manuscript Library at Duke University.

Gedney is also known for his architectural studies of neighbourhoods in the quiet and dark of a night. There is a superlative example of this in the show of a photograph of a ghat in Benares. It’s quiet, all the shops are shuttered, the steps are empty and there are a few lonely figures (an old man and a widow) turned away from the camera and each other in quiet contemplation on a bamboo float. Gedney takes this photograph from the water, frames it such that you can’t see the sky and turns this scene into something surreal, intricate and otherworldly. In Gedney in India, you see a photographer who came to India, found magic in the everyday, instead of the exotic. When Gedney died in 1989 of AIDS, he left his prized possessions – 924 books on analogue photography and his camera – to a little institution in Kolkata.

FOCUS also features some photo-journalistic work. Of particular note is Before now, then by Yuki Iwanami and Kota Kishi, showing at the Bhau Daji Lad Museum. It is a powerful photo-narrative work telling little stories of people whose lives got caught up in the 2011 tsunami which devastated Japan and led to the nuclear disaster in Fukushima. There is text to introduce the individual subjects to go along with sets of photographs. The show captures the mood of loss, the loss of anchor following a bereavement and the story of individuals needing to move on but unable to let go following a disaster.

Benares, India, 1979, Bathers by the Ganges. Image credit: William Gedney. Courtesy: The David M Rubenstein Rare Book Manuscript Library at Duke University.
Benares, India, 1979, Bathers by the Ganges. Image credit: William Gedney. Courtesy: The David M Rubenstein Rare Book Manuscript Library at Duke University.

The Focus Photography Festival is on till March 23.

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“My body instantly craves chai and samosa”

German expats talk about adapting to India, and the surprising similarities between the two cultures.

The cultural similarities between Germany and India are well known, especially with regards to the language. Linguists believe that Sanskrit and German share the same Indo-Germanic heritage of languages. A quick comparison indeed holds up theory - ratha in Sanskrit (chariot) is rad in German, aksha (axle) in Sanskrit is achse in German and so on. Germans have long held a fascination for Indology and Sanskrit. While Max Müller is still admired for his translation of ancient Indian scriptures, other German intellectuals such as Goethe, Herder and Schlegel were deeply influenced by Kalidasa. His poetry is said to have informed Goethe’s plays, and inspired Schlegel to eventually introduce formal Indology in Germany. Beyond the arts and academia, Indian influences even found their way into German fast food! Indians would recognise the famous German curry powder as a modification of the Indian masala mix. It’s most popular application is the currywurst - fried sausage covered in curried ketchup.

It is no wonder then that German travellers in India find a quite a lot in common between the two cultures, even today. Some, especially those who’ve settled here, even confess to Indian culture growing on them with time. Isabelle, like most travellers, first came to India to explore the country’s rich heritage. She returned the following year as an exchange student, and a couple of years later found herself working for an Indian consultancy firm. When asked what prompted her to stay on, Isabelle said, “I love the market dynamics here, working here is so much fun. Anywhere else would seem boring compared to India.” Having cofounded a company, she eventually realised her entrepreneurial dream here and now resides in Goa with her husband.

Isabelle says there are several aspects of life in India that remind her of home. “How we interact with our everyday life is similar in both Germany and India. Separate house slippers to wear at home, the celebration of food and festivals, the importance of friendship…” She feels Germany and India share the same spirit especially in terms of festivities. “We love food and we love celebrating food. There is an entire countdown to Christmas. Every day there is some dinner or get-together,” much like how Indians excitedly countdown to Navratri or Diwali. Franziska, who was born in India to German parents, adds that both the countries exhibit the same kind of passion for their favourite sport. “In India, they support cricket like anything while in Germany it would be football.”

Having lived in India for almost a decade, Isabelle has also noticed some broad similarities in the way children are brought up in the two countries. “We have a saying in South Germany ‘Schaffe Schaffe Hausle baue’ that loosely translates to ‘work, work, work and build a house’. I found that parents here have a similar outlook…to teach their children to work hard. They feel that they’ve fulfilled their duty only once the children have moved out or gotten married. Also, my mother never let me leave the house without a big breakfast. It’s the same here.” The importance given to the care of the family is one similarity that came up again and again in conversations with all German expats.

While most people wouldn’t draw parallels between German and Indian discipline (or lack thereof), Germans married to Indians have found a way to bridge the gap. Take for example, Ilka, who thinks that the famed differences of discipline between the two cultures actually works to her marital advantage. She sees the difference as Germans being highly planning-oriented; while Indians are more flexible in their approach. Ilka and her husband balance each other out in several ways. She says, like most Germans, she too tends to get stressed when her plans don’t work out, but her husband calms her down.

Consequently, Ilka feels India is “so full of life. The social life here is more happening; people smile at you, bond over food and are much more relaxed.” Isabelle, too, can attest to Indians’ friendliness. When asked about an Indian characteristic that makes her feel most at home, she quickly answers “humour.” “Whether it’s a taxi driver or someone I’m meeting professionally, I’ve learnt that it’s easy to lighten the mood here by just cracking a few jokes. Indians love to laugh,” she adds.

Indeed, these Germans-who-never-left as just diehard Indophiles are more Indian than you’d guess at first, having even developed some classic Indian skills with time. Ilka assures us that her husband can’t bargain as well as she does, and that she can even drape a saree on her own.

Isabelle, meanwhile, feels some amount of Indianness has seeped into her because “whenever its raining, my body instantly craves chai and samosa”.

Like the long-settled German expats in India, the German airline, Lufthansa, too has incorporated some quintessential aspects of Indian culture in its service. Recognising the centuries-old cultural affinity between the two countries, Lufthansa now provides a rich experience of Indian hospitality to all flyers on board its flights to and from India. You can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalized by Lufthansa to the extent that they are More Indian Than You Think. To experience Lufthansa’s hospitality on your next trip abroad, click here.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of Lufthansa as part of their More Indian Than You Think initiative and not by the Scroll editorial team.