Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 37, Dated Sept 20, 2008
|CULTURE & SOCIETY
tells us about
Christopher Pinney, one of the first scholars to
celebrate India’s adaption of photography, is now talking
about how photography changed India, says TRISHA GUPTA
Christopher Pinney, anthropologist and art
historian, is widely recognised as an authority
on the popular art and visual culture of South
Asia. He is the author of several influential
books including Camera Indica: The Social Life
of Indian Photographs and Photos of the Gods:
Printed Image and Political Struggle in India.
Pinney, 49, was one of the first scholars to examine
photography from its birth as an alien
art through its assimilation, into Indian lives.
He currently teaches at University College, London
and Northwestern University, Illinois. He
was in Delhi recently to talk about his latest
book, The Coming of Photography in India
(forthcoming: Oxford University Press, India).
How did you get interested in India, and in
particular, in India’s photography?
About India, I have a kind of Kiplingesque
narrative. I was born in Sri Lanka. When I
was six, we went to Europe by sea, and the
boat stopped at Bombay. I have a distinct
memory of walking ashore with my father at
this beautiful sunlit place, between the rains
of Sri Lanka and “the blasted hellish drizzle
of England”… it must have lodged itself in my
subliminal consciousness! The other reason
for my interest in India was my grandfather,
who had been in an artillery unit in North
India, and was never as happy as he had been
then. I got from him the sense that India was
somehow very important. So, from early on, I
had the idea that a life that didn’t involve
spending time in India would be incomplete.
But I actually came to India to work on the
industrial labour question, inspired by reading
the work of the great British labour historian
EP Thompson. I had this idea that
people were being plucked from the rural
idyll of the village and thrown into the
satanic mill. (In reality, it was the opposite:
people were moving from a sixteen-hour
working day as landless agricultural labourers
to an eight-hour day in the factory.) The reknowned
anthropologist Adrian Mayer,
who’d worked in Dewas, suggested I go to
Malwa. I found Patrana (name changed) on a
map in a techno-economic survey of Madhya
Pradesh in a library at the School of Oriental
and African Studies — it was a newish small
town with a big viscose rayon factory — and
I thought, that’s the place for me.
Once I was there, I met factory workers in
their houses and see the chromolithographs
on their walls. I became interested in that
aesthetic. People I met would show me their
photographs. Also, I was constantly being
asked to take photographs of villagers. Photography
is like that — it’s an interface
between strangers. I’d try to take pictures
that reflected something of their personalities.
It was an incident during that time that
first made me take photography seriously. A
neighbour of mine, Bherulal, wanted to be
photographed. He was a quixotic sort of
chap, and I wanted to capture something of
that quality. So I got him to stand under his
mango tree, so that his face was half in
shadow. I thought the photograph that
resulted was superb, and I had a 12 by 8 print
made for Bherulal. But when he saw it, he
started shouting, asking why I’d taken a picture
with his face in chhaya. That was when it
struck me that there was something here
worth studying: a local aesthetic of legibility
that was offended by shadow, by contrast.
Much of your work is historical. Would you
say that the status of photography in India
has changed, from the colonial period till
the present day?
My first book, Camera Indica, was divided into two parts. The first part was about colonial
photography, which I argued was about
surveillance and identification, often involving
the imposition of identities upon Indians
that they may well have resented. So photography,
in its early Indian incarnation, came
out looking like a villain. The second part of
the book was a celebration of local Malwa
village photographic practices: overpainting,
fantastical backdrops, artisanal collage and
montage work which, to me, represented a
postcolonial Indian resourcefulness. These
photographers were extraordinarily witty and
inventive, disrupting the normative space
of Western photography, the desire to fix an
identity within the frame. I return to many
of these themes in my forthcoming book.
Except that now I would argue that creativity,
projection and what I call prophecy is a characteristic
of all photography, not just small
town Indian vernacular practice.
As you argued in Camera Indica, the
studio becomes a place where rather
than reiterating pre-existing identities,
individuals could explore identities that
did not exist in the social world.
Exactly. Photography lends itself to a kind
of fantasy. You’re given a space in which to
enact an identity. And photography’s peculiar
magic is that it gives you a record of that
moment, so that to ask whether that is or is
not the real you is not an appropriate question.
All photography has that potential — it
allows you to come out better. Pictures are not
just illustrations of things we already know.
I’m interested in picture-making technologies
as avant-garde projects that make worlds.
How does your new book, The Coming of
Photography in India, develop this theme?
My new book is about photography’s arrival
in India in the 19th century. One way to study
this would be to say photography is a void
into which all these pre-existing Indian concerns
and practices flood in: caste, marriage,
whatever. But then we learn nothing new
about photography itself. And India remains a
colourful footnote to the history of photography.
I say, let’s start in India rather than in
France. And look at the disturbance photography
causes: throwing up new opportunities,
prophesying new social formations.
Could you give an example?
Photography has certain demands it imposes
on behaviour. For example, in the 19th century,
it was extremely difficult to photograph large
groups of people, getting them to stay still for
the long exposure time. So couples and individuals
got prominence in photography, fasttracking
the idea of the couple far ahead of
what it was in society. So the camera actively
intervenes in society: by privileging the conjugal
couple as a unit (rather than say, the joint
family or the gotra), it becomes part of the
process of transformation. The trajectory of
photography moves in a direction counter to
the dominant tendency of 19th century society.
So you see the visual record as the source
of an alternative history?
Visual history’s modality is akin to psychoanalysis
— it tells us something about
repressed histories that are important, but disavowed
by standard textual history. In Photos
of the Gods I pointed out the popularity of
Bhagat Singh in popular visual history, in contrast
to his near invisibility in textual history.
There’s a question there about audience, about
literacy. Nationalist historiography wanted to
celebrate Nehru and Gandhi, not Bhagat
Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad or even Subhash
Bose. Even with a figure like Gandhi, the popular
messianic assessment of him as Mahatma,
as a kind of demi-god, is linked to the Gandhi
images produced by SS Brijbasi and Co, the
most important picture producer in India in
the 1930s and 1940s.
Would you like to comment on the rising
interest in popular visual culture?
On the academic front, Ashis Nandy made
the important argument that after the Emergency,
many critical thinkers and cultural
practitioners lost faith in the Left to provide
alternatives, and looked to popular culture.
This zone of the non-modern was complex,
difficult, perhaps problematic, but presented
a reservoir of possibilities. As Nandy said of
popular cinema, it asks the right questions
but usually comes up with the wrong answers.
As for the art world, yes, there’s a lot
of interesting work now that draws on street
art, popular film, chromolithography. The
two names that come to mind immediately
are Pushpamala N. and Atul Dodiya. It’s not a
celebration of popular culture — in Dodiya’s
work, for example, you can see a critique of
the celebration of Gandhi or Ambedkar —
but a recognition of the importance of engaging
that field of cultural production, as ripe
with possibilities. •