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150 years of India in frozen frames.

London's Whitechapel gallery gets ready to showcase pictures from the subcontinent going back to 150 years

IN THE east London address of Whitechapel, the Indian subcontinent is anyway the highest common factor -- Bangladeshis form the biggest ethnic minority in this area with nearly 50 percentage share in the local population. Therefore, a photography exhibition mapping the past 150 years of the subcontinent -- India, Pakistan and Bangladesh -- in the eponymous gallery in the district, seems an obvious corollary.

The 109-year-old Whitechapel gallery is getting ready to host the biggest photography show from the subcontinent ever, beginning January 21. Titled Where Dreams Cross -- 150 Years of Photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, the exhibition becomes unique because it is showcasing the earliest photographs from the region taken by the native photographers (besides the contemporary ones too). So, even if you have seen enough pictures taken by the likes of Felice Beato and other colonial photographers from mid-19th century onwards, this one focuses on the unsung lensmen who went about clicking the earliest pictures of their land in an age when the term 'photo credit' was a copyright entity still in the nucleus of future.

Kirsty Ogg, the curator of the exhibition says that the gallery didn't want photographs taken by Europeans or the ruling masters of the day as, "Those are colonial documents, of a conquered land, with a perspective much different from an Indian's. We've included photographs by Indians holding the camera."

That's not the only interesting aspect as the focus of the photographs is on individuals, says Ogg, and not specifically on the political movements in the earlier span of the time period covered by the show. "For instance, if you look at the images taken by Kulwant Roy, Sunil Janah and Homai Vyarawalla among others, you see seminal moments being recorded interestinterestingly," says Ogg. She is referring to pictures like the one of Mahatma Gandhi taken by Roy in early 1940s, ( courtesy the Aditya Arya Archive), which shows him getting down a rail bogie. An iconic picture, it is one of the many others in the exhibition showing an India about which we have only a handful few photographs to create a total imagery from.

Another picture recording a moment with tremendous connotation for future is that captioned rather captivatingly, ' Jawaharlal Nehru during an informal botany class with his grandsons, Rajiv and Sanjay Gandhi.' It was taken in 1950 by Homai Vyarawalla, India's first woman photojournalist who began her career in 1938, and went on to take some of the best known photographs of a newly Independent India.

One of the key figures from a much earlier time is Lala Deen Dayal, pioneer of the 19th century photography of India by Indians; he had a studio where many other photographers worked. Most of his pictures have been sourced from the Alkazi Collection of Photography, of veteran theatre personality Ebrahim Alkazi. " What's interesting about photos from this period is that they were treated like miniature paintings, worked upon subtly with colour," she says.

Almost one hundred names from the subcontinent appear in the show. While India obviously becomes the centre of attraction for us, there are equally arresting visual moments from Pakistan and Bangladesh. Sourcing all these from a variety of collections, however, must have been a humungous task. The curator explains, " The work began five years ago.

There have been curators before me who worked on this project; I came in only towards the end.

While you may be aware of the Indian archivists, we've been greatly helped by the White Star archives of Karachi ( of the Dawn Media Group) and the Drik Archives of Bangladesh, that organises the popular Chhobi Mela of Dhaka." Easier, however, was putting together the contemporary photography from the three countries, given the way this genre of art is exploding with ideas and technological innovations right now. " As the exhibition covers a massive time span, we get to see different approaches to photography -- from amateur photography and straight photojournalism to photography as an art form, which the contemporary photographers deal with handsomely," says Ogg.

For obvious reasons, an onlooker is most likely to get excited by the earliest photographs of the subcontinent, by the people of the region. However, the contemporary section from the three countries cannot be ignored either, as that's where perhaps, the three countries appear to put on slight veneers of differences, given the distance they have all travelled separately since 1947 and 1971. T HAT'S ANOTHER reason why this exhibition will remain special for a long time -- it's going to showcase the subcontinent when it was one, as also the trichotomy, which is constantly evolving. Oggs says that Sobha Janah, wife of the USbased photographer Sunil Janah, summed it up succinctly when she said that it's an exhibition of one people who are now living as three separate neighbours.

-- The photography exhibition, Where Three Dreams Cross: 150 Years of Photography From India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, begins at Whitechapel Gallery, London, on January 21 and will be on till April 11.

archana. khare@ mailtoday. in

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Publication:Mail Today (New Delhi, India)
Date:Jan 10, 2010
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