SURVEYING THE SURVEYOR
The name Cox’s Bazar has acquired an ominous ring to it in recent months. It conjures up images of traumatised Rohingya refugees fleeing their homes in Myanmar while making desperate attempts to reach safer havens such as Cox’s Bazar in Bangladesh. Refugee camps have sprung up overnight with little more to offer than unsanitary and squalid living conditions. Far removed from this humanitarian crisis is Abhijeet Ghosh’s Cox’s Bizarre, which reminds us that the place is actually a tourist destination! Ghosh undoubtedly shot these images before the area became the cynosure of the international community. His stated intent with this work is to look at the future possibility of developing a beach culture here. This might explain the otherworldly air that swirls around some of the animate and inanimate objects of his focus such as the statue of a shark, or for that matter, even a mimosa-like plant caught in the headlights of his flash. Much like the lens-based works by visual artists, the images catapult the viewer into a realm of fantasy and the imagination, thereby extending their interpretative possibilities. It is perhaps only the shots of a one red dog crossing a stream or one that has collapsed on the shore that transport the viewer back to the current crisis.
This trend of using a fictional format is also echoed in Aishwarya Arumbakkam’s work Ka Dingiei. While her images are grounded in everyday life in Lama Punji village in Jaflong, Sylhet, she frames them in such a manner that they recount a fictional photo-story. Myth plays a central part in the narrative. Ka Dingiei, is the name of a divine tree, which was felled by Khasi tribes, incurring God’s wrath and severing its connection with the heavens. Here it is also used as a metaphor to articulate the relationship of the Khasi community with nature.
The relationship between man and nature and the discussion around the Anthropocene has been a topic that has preoccupied several visual artists over the past few years. Climate change resulting from global warming, and its visible effects in particular, has been a recurring theme of visual deliberation. The same trend can be observed in the works of the student photographers, including the work by Swastik Pal in his stark and riveting monochromatic images from the series The Hungry Tide —work in progress. It documents a way of life on Ghoramara, an island in the Sunderbans delta, which is threatened with erosion and submersion due to rising tides. There is a precariousness that informs these images, and an acute sense of impending loss of both land and a way of life. This role of the ‘witness’ and the act of ‘bearing witness’ has also been a subject of interrogation within the visual arts. Memory and the archive are themes that resonate with visual artists as they do with several of the selected student photographers. Memories can offer a special space of wonder, nostalgia or even melancholia, tinged with a sense of loss as evidenced in the submissions. For Anupam Diwan, reading the poem Fireflies by Robert Frost evoked memories of watching the insects in his childhood. He attempts to capture that sense of magic and marvel with his lens by focusing on sparks released by a blazing fire or a lighted match held inside an open mouth. Going further, he extends the notion of the firefly to encompass all manner of subjects, from a horse to a building, lit up against a darkened backdrop.
Shot largely at the banks of the river Yamuna during the rainy season, Kaisar Ahamed’s pictures are steeped in nostalgia. His images of children playing with gay abandon on the shores of the river or those of a village landscape have an air of innocence about them, suggesting a desire to preserve a certain way of life that is rapidly transforming. Often his images are grainy and scratched, lending them the appearance of having been dredged out of an archive to re-construct a narrative of a certain period in time.
While Ahamed trains his lens on his native village, Shampa Kabi takes recourse to the archives of a photo studio, ‘Monalisa’ in her father’s hometown to chart the town’s history through two decades, from 1969 to 1989. The photographs also help in constructing the story of the percolation of studio photography into Indian mofussil towns and their role in documenting its inhabitants. Once considered the purview of only the ehte, now finally ordinary people could have themselves photographed in studios such as Monalisa. The studio portraits of the town’s inhabitants convey a wealth of information through the visual clues they offer.
This changing nature of cities is also the theme of Indira Kumar’s exploration,Shifting Valley. Her subjects of focus are the concrete structures, which are taking over and rapidly transforming the cityscape in several of the subcontinent’s cities. Her unpeopled vistas heighten the sense of alienation that such structures induce. In seeming contrast, Parisa Azadi serves up intimate portraits of visitors to Hossaini Dalan, a 17th century shrine in Dhaka, Bangladesh. There is a poignancy about her protagonists, who flock in search of solace and hope, in her project Birds are Pilgrims Too.
Several movements within the visual arts have exerted considerable influence on the medium of photography. The language of abstraction for instance is employed by Manish Paudel to poetic effect in Drudgery. The tightly packed lines of iron girders or extreme close-ups of parts of the human anatomy such as roughened palms or cracked and veined skin obliquely reference the larger issues of labour and capital. But they do so in a manner that is both gentle and touching. This has resonances with the larger discourse in the visual arts around labour, displacement and migration.
Other artistic movements such as realism and surrealism also appear to be manifesting themselves within the works of the student photographers. Joe Paul Cyriac turns to the oft-used genre of the still life in academic painting to question the perception of reality. In his monochromatic series, The Table, he creates mise-en-scene with commonplace fruits, vegetables and other objects to play tricks on the viewer’s imagination and thereby interrogate our notions of what constitutes the real. The point of departure for Cyriac’s body of work was the commencement speech given by the late American author David Foster Wallace titled ‘This is Water’. This anchoring of art works within a conceptual framework based on the writings of philosophers has been a trend among several visual artists. This tendency can also be observed in the work by Mohit Bhatia, who uses Jacques Lacan’s psychoanalytical mirror stage theory as the springboard for his works. His project encompasses videos, an interactive mirror installation as well as collages and constructed images. Similarly, Riti Sengupta’s quirky images in her project Ain have a surrealistic feel to them.’ Though her initial point of departure was Rabindranath Tagore’s story Bolai, she uses the device of the collage, first used to good effect by the Cubists, to create quixotic and surreal juxtapositions. Online or new media art has had several proponents within the field of the visual arts. Artists have taken recourse to technologies such as Google Maps to draw attention to surveillance techniques and their use in cartography. Devika Mohan tries to insert the human element in an otherwise digital process by foregrounding the person, a so-called ‘Capturer; who is purportedly taking the images in Google Streetview. In her attempt to track down and make visible an invisible ‘Capturer; she inverts and subverts the gaze. Here, she reminds us, the surveyor is just as important as the surveyed!
Aishwarya Arumbakkam, Ka Dingier Jaflong, Bangladesh, 2016 Photobook