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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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From catching Goan dances in Lisbon to sampling langar in Munich

A guide to the surprising Indian connect in Lisbon and Munich.

For several decades, a trip to Europe simply meant a visit to London, Paris and the Alps of Switzerland. Indians today, though, are looking beyond the tried and tested destinations and making an attempt to explore the rest of Europe as well. A more integrated global economy, moreover, has resulted in a more widespread Indian diaspora. Indeed, if you know where to look, you’ll find traces of Indian culture even in some unlikely cities. Lisbon and Munich are good cities to include in your European sojourn as they both offer compelling reasons to visit, thanks to a vibrant cultural life. Here’s a guide to everything Indian at Lisbon and Munich, when you wish to take a break from all the sight-seeing and bar crawling you’re likely to indulge in.

Lisbon

Lisbon is known as one of the most vibrant cities in Western Europe. On its streets, the ancient and the modern co-exist in effortless harmony. This shows in the fact that the patron saint day festivities every June make way for a summer that celebrates the arts with rock, jazz and fado concerts, theatre performances and art exhibitions taking place around the city. Every two years, Lisbon also hosts the largest Rock festival in the world, Rock in Rio Lisboa, that sees a staggering footfall.

The cultural life of the city has seen a revival of sorts under the current Prime Minister, Antonio Costa. Costa is of Indian origin, and like many other Indian-origin citizens prominent in Portugal’s political, business and entertainment scenes, he exemplifies Lisbon’s deep Indian connect. Starting from Vasco Da Gama’s voyage to India, Lisbon’s historic connection to Goa is well-documented. Its traces can be still be seen on the streets of both to this day.

While the Indian population in Lisbon is largely integrated with the local population, a few diaspora groups are trying to keep their cultural roots alive. Casa de Goa, formed in the ‘90s, is an association of people of Goans, Damanese and Diuese origins residing in Lisbon. Ekvat (literally meaning ‘roots’ in Konkani) is their art and culture arm that aims to preserve Goan heritage in Portugal. Through all of its almost 30-year-long existence, Ekvat has been presenting traditional Goan dance and music performances in Portugal and internationally.

Be sure to visit the Champlimaud Centre for the Unknown, hailed a masterpiece of contemporary architecture, which was designed by the critically-acclaimed Goan architect Charles Correa. If you pay attention, you can find ancient Indian influences, like cut-out windows and stand-alone pillars. The National Museum of Ancient Art also has on display a collection of intricately-crafted traditional Goan jewellery. At LOSTIn - Esplanada Bar, half of the people can be found lounging about in kurtas and Indian shawls. There’s also a mural of Bal Krishna and a traditional Rajasthani-style door to complete the desi picture. But it’s not just the cultural landmarks that reflect this connection. The integration of Goans in Lisbon is so deep that most households tend to have Goa-inspired textiles and furniture as a part of their home decor, and most families have adapted Goan curries in their cuisine. In the past two decades, the city has seen a surge in the number of non-Goan Indians as well. North Indian delicacies, for example, are readily available and can be found on Zomato, which has a presence in the city.

If you wish to avoid the crowds of the peak tourist season, you can even consider a visit to Lisbon during winter. To plan your trip, check out your travel options here.

Munich

Munich’s biggest draw remains the Oktoberfest – the world’s largest beer festival for which millions of people from around the world converge in this historic city. Apart from the flowing Oktoberfest beer, it also offers a great way to get acquainted with the Bavarian folk culture and sample their traditional foods such as Sauerkraut (red cabbage) and Weißwurst (a white sausage).

If you plan to make the most of the Oktoberfest, along with the Bavarian hospitality you also have access to the services of the Indian diaspora settled in Munich. Though the Indian community in Munich is smaller than in other major European destinations, it does offer enough of a desi connect to satisfy your needs. The ISKCON temple at Munich observes all major rituals and welcomes everyone to their Sunday feasts. It’s not unusual to find Germans, dressed in saris and dhotis, engrossed in the bhajans. The Art of Living centre offers yoga and meditation programmes and discourses on various spiritual topics. The atmosphere at the Gurdwara Sri Guru Nanak Sabha is similarly said to be peaceful and accommodating of people of all faiths. They even organise guided tours for the benefit of the non-Sikhs who are curious to learn more about the religion. Their langar is not to be missed.

There are more options that’ll help make your stay more comfortable. Some Indian grocery stores in the city stock all kinds of Indian spices and condiments. In some, like Asien Bazar, you can even bargain in Hindi! Once or twice a month, Indian film screenings do take place in the cinema halls, but the best way to catch up on developments in Indian cinema is to rent video cassettes and VCDs. Kohinoor sells a wide range of Bollywood VCDs, whereas Kumaras Asean Trades sells Tamil cassettes. The local population of Munich, and indeed most Germans too, are largely enamoured by Bollywood. Workshops on Bollywood dance are quite popular, as are Bollywood-themed events like DJ nights and dance parties.

The most attractive time to visit is during the Oktoberfest, but if you can brave the weather, Munich during Christmas is also a sight to behold. You can book your tickets here.

Thanks to the efforts of the Indian diaspora abroad, even lesser-known European destinations offer a satisfying desi connect to the proud Indian traveller. Lufthansa, which offers connectivity to Lisbon and Munich, caters to its Indian flyers’ priorities and understands how proud they are of their culture. In all its India-bound flights and flights departing from India, flyers can expect a greeting of Namaste by an all-Indian crew, Indian food, and popular Indian in-flight entertainment options, making the airline More Indian than You Think. And as the video shows, India’s culture and hospitality have been internalised by Lufthansa to the extent that they now offer a definitive Indian flying experience.

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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.