Photography

India at 70: Photographers trace the nation’s evolution without showing any of its historic events

An exhibition in Wales depends on the experiences of artists to depict the changes in the life of independent India.

Amid the din made by those who want to appropriate histories comes an exhibition that baulks at a reading of the past that privileges some views. A Million Mutinies Later – India at 70, a show of lens-based works by 14 contemporary Indian artists, looks at history as something that transpires in liminal spaces – not at the end of revolutions, but in between and alongside them.

“Usually we see a revolution as an event that has already happened – it is the victory of an idea or a people,” said Anshika Varma, one of the show’s three curators on phone from Cardiff, where A Million Mutinies Later is on at Ffotogallery till July 22.

But the way the curators see it, India has been constantly shifting, forever moving its entire independent life. In the past 30 years alone, change has arrived via economic liberalisation, and through the spread of cellphones, internet and social media.

“For us as curators, what was important was this flux,” she said.

Photo credit: Monica Tiwari
Photo credit: Monica Tiwari

A Million Mutinies Later has many associations. For one, it is part of the biennial Diffusion: Cardiff International Festival of Photography, organised by Ffotogallery. For another, it is part of Dreamtigers, a year-long collaboration between Ffotogallery and Nazar Foundation, which holds the Delhi Photo Festival. Besides these, it is also on the itinerary of events being held in the UK to celebrate 70 years of India as an independent nation: India-UK Year of Culture.

The show’s idiom is inspired by the theme of the 2017 Diffusion festival – revolution. In the concept note, the curators, Varma, Bhooma Padmanabhan and Iona Fergusson, elaborate on the idea in the Indian context:

“As a modern nation and global economic player, India has been seen on the threshold over the last thirty years – with liberalisation making way for a constant barrage of reforms and revolts, spurred on by the massive changes brought on by the coming of information technology, urbanisation, and a renewed sense of nationalism… A Million Mutinies Later – India at 70 is an enquiry into not only the real India but the equally present and significant other, i.e. the imagined India, which has significantly evolved and transformed itself in the public sphere and the minds of Indians over the years.”  

Photo credit: Anushree Fadnavis
Photo credit: Anushree Fadnavis

Though the focus is on changes in India over time, the show isn’t chronological, according to Varma. Nor does it exhibit works that directly correspond with news events that heralded historic changes. Instead, the references come through in the experiences and creative expressions of the artists.

Anushree Fadnavis, for instance, takes pictures on a mobile phone in her ongoing series about passengers in the ladies’ compartment of Mumbai’s suburban trains. Another photographer in the show who shoots mainly on the cellphone is Reshma Pritam Singh, although her context is very different – self-portraits.

“The medium affords a kind of intimacy,” said Varma, of cellphone photography.

Photo credit: Arko Datto
Photo credit: Arko Datto

Still photography is among the many mediums at A Million Mutinies Later that also include videos and dummy photobooks that use archival material. As varied as these mediums is the show’s lineup that includes Ryan Lobo, Bharat Sikka and Sohrab Hura, besides several artists who aren’t renowned internationally.

David Drake, the director of Ffotogallery, said of Sohrab Hura’s work: “[It] certainly packs a punch, in terms of the combination of appropriated material [from archives] and new photography, and its treatment with the harsh jump cuts, sublimal images and pounding rock soundtrack.”

Matter. Photo credit: Bharat Sikka
Matter. Photo credit: Bharat Sikka

Drake also cited the example of Bharat Sikka’s Matter as a work that uses lens-based art in interesting ways. “He showed me a book dummy for the Matter project when I was in Delhi earlier this year. The virtually monochrome imagery in Matter has a poetic, minimalist quality, and I like the way he mixes studio and location photography, different genres and various presentational formats such as combining images pasted directly to the wall with framed prints.”

To Varma, this multiplicity of styles itself is an extension of the theme of flux. “Photography as a medium has also changed,” she explained. “From a journalistic tool, it has become a medium for artistic expression.”

Photo credit: Anushree Fadnavis
Photo credit: Anushree Fadnavis

A Million Mutinies Later – India at 70 is on at Ffotogallery in Cardiff, UK, till July 22.

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