A South Asian Identity

How a motley collection of images reasserts the strength of a sub-continental ethos woven from shared cultural strands

A subtle shift in the plates rocked the very heart of Patan in Nepal approximately a year ago. Among the affected was renowned photographer Kiran Man Chitrakar, a descendent of artist Purnaman Chitrakar (1863-1939), also one of Nepal’s first Newari photographers.

As in most countries, portraiture of the ruling elite dominated the initial development of photography. Patronage further veered the visual trajectory towards court customs, investiture ceremonies, royal hunts and the lifestyles of those who could afford to be avidly documented. Kiran Man Chitrakar’s efforts to document and publish over 2,000 glass plate negatives from the family collection has yielded rich harvest, and includes traditional paintings from the Chitrakars of the Rana court.

Research into photographic traditions and genres shows how objects embody local histories and also why, in our geo-political context, a resident archive of images reasserts sub-continental identity. When photography arrived in the region around 176 years ago, the lines of control were fewer and more porous. What then are the specific dilemmas of origin and identity in a contemporary South Asian context? How does time change the meanings of visual traces, and how will foregrounding these images in a globally connected environment foster regional connectivities?

A study of socio-political shifts makes us realise the capacity of images to constantly inter-reference questions of citizenship through a completely viral forum such as the Nepal Picture Library online. Sharing such resources could suggest ways in which we could unhinge so-called mainstream practices and expand our regional character to the larger identity of South Asia.

Another extraordinary individual who comes to mind, a contemporary of Amrita Sher-Gil in Sri Lanka, is artist Lionel Wendt (1900-1944). His father, Sir Henry Wendt, established an Amateur Photographic Association in Colombo in 1906. International trade had considerably expanded Ceylon’s cultural ties and it soon developed an important modern photography tradition. Wendt Jr’s experiments in his photo studio created an enlightened body of documentation work and its interface with art and the Lionel Wendt Centre in Colombo today is an example of that heady modernism. Also connected to Santiniketan through Harold Pieres, painter and secretary of the 43 Group, the Centre contains an important archive of Wendt’s work, contributing to the broadening visualisation of gender and sexuality as well.

In the north of the sub-continent, an institutional connection existed well before partition and continues to thrive. The National College of Art (established as Mayo College in 1875 with Lockwood Kipling as principal) and now the Beaconhouse University extensively support and teach visual art, advocating larger global infusion. Amber Hammad, visiting faculty at Beaconhouse, whose works are often shown in New Delhi, presents an extraordinary series that draws upon iconic Western artists, in this case Marc Chagall, the French-Russian artist’s painting titled ‘Birthday’. Through montage, Hammad skilfully and playfully alters the content by incorporating everyday accessories, including a can of Mortein mosquito repellent, which immediately locates the work. By bracketing these elements, she plays with the hierarchies and structures of encounter, thinking not only in terms of citation but a tussle between the centre and periphery (west and east), and how they may ironically interchange positions.

Similarly, when French photographer Marc Riboud travelled through the ‘orient’ in 1955 — China, Japan, India, Nepal, Afghanistan and Turkey — Henri Cartier-Bresson sent him several letters expressing ways in which to approach a different country, its essence and its image.

More recently, moments from Afghanistan’s visual history are documented in Austrian artist Lukas Birk’s continuing project of capturing the now-obsolete image-making traditions of the country. One such initiative was with the practice of portrait photography on the streets of Kabul, similar to Pakistan’s rooh kheetch photographers, Egypt’s Smudgers, or indeed Calcutta and Delhi’s box camerawallas. The social transformation seen through Afghan history is also witnessed in a studio-based sartorial exercise by Mujaheda Khowajazada, in her series Years of Forgetting, which depicts how women dressed during different regimes, including the time of King Amanullah (1919-1929), the Taliban (1996-2001) or during the Russian occupation (1979-1989).

Paradigm shifts in regime are a part also of images from Burma. The Shan rulers of Burma have been depicted with dignity and respect in contrast to the prisoners in Burma from the Third Anglo-Burmese War (1885), shot by Felice Beato who travelled to India to document the aftermath of the Uprising (1858). In the image, the reversal of norms lies in making a spectacle of the prisoners — images of penance that always question the domain of reportage as art.

Reportage and art have together been a driving force that has connected the broader South Asian region for several centuries, with itinerant photographers, migratory art practices and shared resources as part of the equation. By travelling to the corners of this region, artists and photographers continue their in-depth journeys, searching for ways in which to forge their identities, perhaps a form of romantic escapism, one that may indeed be a personal yet radical new way of seeking unity and strength in a shared culture though individual encounters.

Rahaab Allana is Curator of the Alkazi Foundation and Editor of PIX (supported by the Goethe Institut).