TO COINCIDE WITH the flurry of Indian activity that has bled across the cultural landscape in London currently, an exhibition opens at Whitechapel Gallery that concentrates on the history and majestic of the photographic image from three countries that were originally one. Beautifully framed coloured and uncoloured works from Bangladesh, India and Pakistan are drawn together in the open rooms of the recently renovated Whitechapel Gallery, where works are divided into five themes that include historical works with modern and contemporary photographs. Overwhelming for its ambition and wholly staggering for its inclusion of so many individual works, Where Three Dreams Cross could be in danger of falling on its sword, too much and too many might allow for very little meditative clarity among these episodes from history. Yet such initial apprehension is quickly absorbed by the sheer elegance and the beguiling rigour of these works from the sub-continent that rub side by side on choreographed walls of regions, districts and countries.
The rich red leather interior of Raghubir Singh’s, 1985, image of a period car parked some distance from a red bus crossing paths, Homi Vyarawalla, 1950, black and white photograph of Jawaharlal Nehru with his young grandsons Rajiv and Sanjay Ghandi at the edge of still water, Mohammad Arif Ali, 2008, vivid colour image of monsoon conditions in central Lahore and Rashid Talukder’s, 1970, black and white photograph of women students clasping rifles parading for the early non-cooperation movement in Bangladesh are some of the more memorable images that illuminate each of these countries significant histories.
Where Three Dreams Cross is a detailed survey of photography from three countries that have had greater associations to acts of violence, endemic poverty and the cinematic success of ‘Bollywood’ films. These photo-works are as sophisticated and rewarding as anything from Europe and America. Given the accomplishments of what is on display it could be argued that photography on the streets of Delhi and Lahore was thriving well before its maturity in the west.
Notably instead of countries defining these begged and borrowed collections, the curatorial team of Sunil Gupta, Shahidul Alam, Hammad Nasar, and Radhika Singh have decided upon dividing the collections into genres that draw early images from Pakistan and the modern imagery of Bangladesh with the contemporary photography of India. Photographer Sunil Gupta describes how they collectively ‘tired to excavate their antecedents as far as it was possible’ when disseminating one image from another. Performance, Portraits, the Family and the Streets are some of the categories that encourage the diaspora of these works between each other. The Performance absorbs the grainy black and white history of early Indian cinema and the less romantic play acting of the circus by Saibal Das and Bijoy Chowdhury. The act of performative gesture is further demonstrated by the images and the radical actions of Sonia Khurana, Bani Abidi, Sayeeda Khanom and more recently included in the new Saatchi India show, Pushpamala N.
The Portrait encompasses the visual history of the representation of figures from the cultural convolution of Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. Maharajahs and ministers are included beside farmers, devotees, protestors, children and the elderly. A vast exhibition of images in themselves these portraits appear to delivery something of the wondrous visual dynamic of the collective records of such a vast and complicated landscape. Well before the rise of the British Empire many of these images record the sub-continent when it was ruled by the regional clans of maharajahs and noble men, following its subsequent demise with the rush for independence in 1947 and the eventual tearing up of the landscape of Pakistan from India and then more recently the creation of Bangladesh from India in 1971. These photographs and the figures portrayed capture so vividly something of the turbulent period of the extraordinary and ordinary lives within them. Babba Bhutta, Mohammad Akram Gogi Pehlwan and Iqbal Amin are among the photographers whose works illustrate such astonishing sentiment.
Body Politics is as significant as the inclusion of portraits because in these images of charged moments and movements of politics history, we are able to appreciate a sense of the explosive energies of India, Pakistan and Bangladesh as they attempted to define and decide upon their own individual destinies. Included is the thoroughly engaging photo-journalism of Tanveer Shahzad, Rasid Talukdar and Kriti Arora, all of whom demonstrate a critical vocabulary as good as anything in the west. The political and social violence that appears endemic in modern Pakistan is rigorously recorded in the contemporary works of Tanveer Shahzad and the veteran photographer Rasid Talukdar.
The category The Family recalls the sentiment of early portraiture and the inclusion of family members into these tapestries of time. Khubi Ram Gopilal is included for his exquisite works that combine photography and watercolour. These early works appear to hold time to ransom as the petit faces stare out from the glass filled frame in which his figures are rooted to the spot in elegant dress, whispering something of their past to their new audience. These delicate works that have been dormant for decades are beside more contemporary, whimsical images by Nony Singh and Swaranjit Singh of communities and cultures going about their daily lives. The Streets recall the animation of the works included in Performance and an intrinsic overlap occurs, as it does with many of the photo-works in this exhibition. The Streets evokes many of the stylish charm of French photographer Henri-Cartier Bresson, who was in India immediately after independence and the more mobile practices of Americans Robert Frank and William Eggleston. In the spirit of such weighty image-makers, the colour works of Raghubir Singh, Ram Rahman, Iftikhar Dadi and Mohammad Arif Ali capture something of the energy and exuberance of ordinary lives acting out their lives against such vivid colours of daylight and night. BY RAJESH PUNJ
150 Years of Photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, 21 January to 11 April at Whitechapel Gallery, London