‘Primitivism’ has been a prominent aesthetic and ideological trope of western art, borrowing from typically non-European cultures that were perceived by the West to be ‘primitive’ (as the name suggests). The utopian ideal, towards which Primitivists aspire to, lies in a notional “state of nature” in which their ancestors existed, or the supposed conditions of the people that live beyond modern civilization – such as in Henri Rousseau’s paintings. Sharbendu De’s images ‘play’ into the same archetypes as the Primitivists, as he strives to depict a world of man intertwined with nature – a mythical land, which the modern world has removed itself from. The Lisu tribe in Arunachal Pradesh, which lives in a state of perpetual disregard by the government, is transformed in De’s images as a community inhabiting a surreal dreamscape, which according to him, tries to evoke an aura of their mythical world, reference archetypal interconnections between man, animal and nature, and borrows from dream symbolism. According to De, traditional photojournalistic approaches have had no impact in bringing the struggle of these communities to the attention of the government, and that is the reasoning behind his conscious employment of surreal imagery. But, again, the question remains as to what the prerogative is? Does being aware of the archetype negate its purpose? The problem of speaking for others has been discussed by Deleuze. This does not mean, of course, that one should refrain from speaking at all, but the speaker has to be aware of the the effects of the speech on the audience. In De’s case, he is showing us our own myths about the ‘exotic’ lands of the Lisus – but where are the mythical lands the Lisus dream for themselves? How does the re-iteration of an already existing myth contribute to the deconstruction of the same? His parallel documentary series based on the same subject, which was not exhibited at IPF but can be found online, is quite ironic; in the sense that it shows us what they “really are” – and how they “really are” is nothing like how his “conceptual” and “poetic” representation makes them out to be. The unspectacular documentary series, however, offers us a glimpse into what is happening – how the photographic representation of a people is becoming more and more unapologetically about ourselves and our ideas, rather than about them. The underlying problem is still the same – the self-representation of the people is absent in this conversation. While the efforts to empower and provide representation to these marginalized communities may be backed by laudable intentions, the rhetoric that arises out of these movements has to be examined. For example; in a 1994 essay, United Nations Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali wrote that “It is now clearly understood that many indigenous people live in greater harmony with the natural environment than do the inhabitants of industrialized consumer societies” – perfectly summing up the fetishized view of such peoples and their lifestyles.
These representations have a very disturbing voyueristic side to them – it is eerily similar to a virtual tour of these locations, which only exist as myths in the minds of the viewer. According to Dean MacCannell, outright postmodern tourism sought to “reject” mass-packaged tourism due to its lack of personality by seeking out the ‘authentic’ that resided in primitive, rural, and undeveloped areas. The post-modern tourist travelled to rural areas and slums to escape his/her own crushing existential crisis in the ‘superficial’ and ‘inauthentic’ industrialized society. This immersion in a more ‘primitive’ society enables the contemplation/reflection of one’s own identity in modern society when confronted with the life of these “others”. In this contrast between two conflicting ‘ideals’, the “other”, that only serves as a temporary foil to re-affirm the the first ideal, is called a “vanishing mediator”[III]. The photographic image of desolation, therefore proves to re-affirm the urban man’s ‘privilege’, and makes him content in his life. The emergence of ‘Slum tourism’ in the underdeveloped and neglected streets of Rio de Janeiro, Mumbai, Johannesburg etc. is an example of this idea. Slum tours are typically three hours long guided tours done on foot or in a vehicle. Most tours offer tourists the chance to enter the homes or businesses of slum residents, where a guide, fluent in English, would describe the experience of slum life. Due to language barriers, slum tourists do not generally interact with local residents directly or through the tour guide. Many tours, including those in Rio de Janiero and Mumbai, also bring tourists to the rooftop terrace of a slum house, where they get a panoramic view of the entire slum. But, these are again pseudo-events, which are mere simulations of reality and narratives being peddled to capitalize on the market demands. The perversely romanticized images of squalid and desolate conditions, especially in cinema, only serve to relieve the urban population from its own sense of despair. The slum tourism business in Mumbai saw a 25% increase in the aftermath of the release of Slumdog Millionaire in 2008 (ref: WorldHum Weiner, 2009), while similar trends were observed in connection with the release of City of God (Rio de Janeiro), and District 9 (Johannesburg). This plays back into the same disillusionment Europeans were struggling with at the height of the Industrial age. The old destinations of escapist fantasies have now been re-located to these ‘outliers’ of modern urban cities, rather than the lands that had been newly colonized at that time.
The threat of globalization homogenizing the urban society also leads people to a sense of dislocation from their personal and cultural identity. The newly formed Telangana state achieved its autonomy through the ruling Telugu Rashtra Samiti’s relentless campaigns calling for a separate state for economic autonomy and the preservation of Telugu identity. In line with this ‘ideology’, the party declared ‘Bathukamma’ as a State funded festival. Bathukamma, a variation of the Autumn-harvest festivals that are celebrated all over South-Indian states, received over 200 crore in funding in 2017 (if media reports are to be believed), with the govt. undertaking the task of distributing over one crore sarees to the women of Telangana. The backdrops of these intense identity politics and government propaganda are sacrificed in Hiro Tanaka and Barbara Davidson’s simplistic portraits of the Telugu women celebrating the flower festival (the ‘focus’ of these images will be dealt with in another article). The exhibit’s only claim seems to be the involvement of the photographers as a ‘clever’ coming together of the West and East. The only way this could be more comical is if all three cities – Hyderabad, and the photographers’ own hometowns – all lay on a straight line. The writings that accompany these amateurish photographs, elevating the festival to a mystical and exotic tradition which ‘purifies’ nature, does nothing but exacerbate this sense of comedy – which actually makes you question if the whole thing is a tongue-in-cheek affair. It can only be construed as the same old philosophy of ‘exoticisation’ in a bid to market the images to a ‘tourist’ audience in the same manner as Henri Cartier-Bresson, famous in India for his photographs of Ramana Maharshi, had claimed that he saw a ‘fireball’ descending onto the Annamalai hill at the time of Sri Ramana’s passing. These are typical travel photographs, much in the same attitude as Prudhvi Chowdhary, whose imageries are again, impersonal. The photographs of the Charminar, India Gate, and people are much in the same perspective as colonial documentations – where the humans are only in it by coincidence, as a faceless mass, or to be used for scale. They prove to be more of an advertisement of the locations themselves rather than personal stories of travel.
The Indian Photography Festival certainly leaves one wondering about what is so Indian about it; if it is, as claimed, only a geographical marker, how does one account for the large regions that are left unrepresented? One has to hazard a guess as to what really constitutes this Indianness, and if the claims are kept aside and the images surveyed, we are confronted with the truth of this Indianness – it is a construction rooted in what can be called a “global culture”, and can shapeshift into whatever is needed of it. It can become a poverty-stricken land which the urban people must save, a land of myths and rituals, a part of the world where labour is cheap and the people are stupid, a vast expanse of lush and varied landscapes, and nearly anything else. It is also clear what one must do to partake in the enjoyment of this Indianness – escape from India and look at it as a global citizen; one is then able to project all his/her nostalgia, desires, dreams and fears onto the large cluster of Indians who seem to scramble amongst themselves to survive. This constructed India is of no use to the subjects that comprise it. It is solely meant for the people who are outside it, and like a vanishing mediator, it manifests only to reaffirm their own sense of belongingness in the world, in one way or another. The photographs of India, or by Indians, exhibited at IPF are only slices of this vanishing mediator.
[I] Said’s assumptions sparked off a very controversial debate that is still very much relevant today, because orientalist discourse is still greatly influencing the cultural production of the West, be it academic or artistic. In popular culture, a recent example of this is given by the Hollywood movie 300, released in 2007, which narrates the resistance of a handful of Spartan warriors against the Persian invasion during the battle of Thermopylae. In this American blockbuster, the portrayal of the Spartans has no reason to envy Leni Riefenstahl’s aesthetics, while the massive ‘Asian’ horde of invaders is depicted as barbaric and monstrous. This was raised as an issue in the UN. The ‘Other’ is still very much an important focus in visual representation. – from ‘REPRESENTING THE OTHER’ TODAY: CONTEMPORARY PHOTOGRAPHY IN THE LIGHT OF THE POSTCOLONIAL DEBATE (WITH A SPECIAL FOCUS ON INDIA) by Philippe Calia. [II] Interview with Aquin Mathews, Director, Indian Photography Festival by Gautham Ramachandran. [III] This is explained in detail by Slavoj Zizek in his analysis of James Cameron’s Titanic, where Lenonardo di Caprio’s working-class man character serves as a ‘vanishing mediator’ to restore a sense of identity and purpose to Kate Winslet’s spoiled, high-society girl character. In his critique of James Cameron’s “Hollywood Marxism”, Zizek calls out the reactionary myth lurking behind the superficial sympathy for the poor – as in Rudyard Kipling’s Captain Courageous, where a young rich person gets their vitality restored by a brief intimate contact with a full-blooded life of the poor. In his own words: “What lurks behind [this] compassion for the poor is their vampiric exploitation”.