Thursday, August 19, 2010

The Foto8 Summershow 2010: Or why I'd give Poulomi's exhibition a go

Best Ear Cleaners by Nick Cunard
Poulomi messaged excitedly on Tuesday. Her photo was being displayed at the foto8 summershow exhibition at the Host Gallery, and she wanted me to come for the opening. “There’ll be wine, canap├ęs and lots of industry people,” she said by way of enticement. I didn’t go. Because Sid came back home looking rather miserable, and I didn’t want to leave him alone to noodle soup and bbc iplayer. (What to do? I like Sid, he’s nice to me.)

But l am also a loyal friend so I diligently registered my footprints at the exhibition the next day.

What took me by surprise was that 15 of the 153 works of photojournalism on display were shot in India – meandering between Kashmir, Rishikesh, Varanasi, Bhopal, Rajasthan, Ahemdabad, Jharkhand, Mumbai and Goa. No, no, they were not shot by Indians, silly heads, only shot in India. There was only one photograph actually taken by an Indian, and the honour went to my friend, Ms Basu (pronounced Boshoo, thank you.)

Now, I dislike whining postcolonialists enough to agree that yes anyone – Indian or otherwise – has the right to come to India, take our pictures, and display them in London galleries. And they should be allowed to shoot what they think is interesting, and celebrate it as such. What I was interested in was what I, as an Indian in a London viewing these images, should get from them? Do they observe and single-out things that I as an Indian – born and bred in India – do not or cannot notice myself?

The first image of India that caught my eye was of the ear cleaners of Rishikesh? Oh no, I thought. Aesthetics aside, haven't I seen ear cleaners being shot and documented (as a lovely, quirky anachronism) by other Indian photographers already?

Next came the train ride. Ok, nice enough shot but as social documents go the great Indian railway journey is a bit overdone, I think.

The three shots of Bhopal Gas Victims. Well, at least it keeps a controversial, unresolved issue in the limelight.

I began to get intrigued when I found myself face-to-face with a black-and-white close-up of a school girl from Varanasi – her face tightly framed by her ungainly woollen scarf. Shot by Kathryn Obermaier, the portrait reminded me of how I used to dress with no sense of fashion whatsoever when going to school – hair tied in tight plaits, red ribbons, long skirts, long socks, oily hair, tight woollen scarf and a deadly scowl. If I looked anything like her than I was absolutely lovely in my unassuming ugliness. I’m glad such innocence lives on.
Courtesy: Poulomi Basu

Poulomi’s photograph of the women of the Indian Border Armed Forces as they trained before being deployed to the line of control between India and Pakistan stood out too. Who would know, if it wasn’t for Poulomi, that such a battalion exists. Yes, a battalion of women soldiers in a country where women are still being burnt alive for dowry! Nice contradiction, isn’t it? I couldn’t help but wonder what went through those bodies and minds, and Poulomi’s image gave a glimpse.

I also loved Helen Rimmel’s portrait of Azim Tuman, the chairman of the houseboat association in Kashmir. Houseboat Association? Houseboats? I can’t remember the last time, I thought of beautiful things when someone mentioned Kashmir. And yet, the remnants of those old, beautiful, half-happy things perhaps lay scattered all over the valley and pop-up in photographs like this one.

The others included images of illegal mine workers in Jharkhand (that cesspit of India), ganges (a bit ho-hum), and a couple of intriguing shots by Shiho Kito.

So shot by Indians or not, I'd say the exhibition does give an intriguing glimpse into India.

The exhibition will be on till September 4 at Host Gallery, 1-5 Honduras Street, London EC1Y OTH.

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