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India Now

Les Rencontres D'Arles Photographie

The 60th anniversary of India's independence ...

The least the Rencontres d'Arles could do to mark the 60th anniversary of India's independence was to offer an overview of the state of creative photography in the country today. The first of its kind, the panorama proposed here was prepared with the invaluable assistance of Devika Daulet-Singh, a key figure in the Indian photography revival and the inspired woman director of the Photo Ink agency.

The winds of change are blowing strongly through Indian photography - and what a welcome piece of news, given the low profile it has enjoyed so far. The effect is all the more evident in that the new situation coincides with the appetite of the international art market and the demands of numerous magazines under orders to cover the rapid changes the country is undergoing.

For years the visual imaging of this infinitely photogenic land seemed paradoxically frozen. Voyagers or voyeurs, professionals or amateurs, the invading horde of image-makers fell victim to the country's capacity to dazzle and dumbfound, and set off after the chimaeras of picturesque poverty and stunning vernacular culture. "Eternal" India demanded only one thing of its camera-toting worshippers: to exclude all trace of modernity.

With the coming of the new millennium, and under the influence of the documentary style and photographic mise en scène, a new approach is gaining ground. In India as elsewhere, a new generation of photographers, impervious to the narcotically exotic, is beginning to face the issues raised by progress and economic, social and cultural change.1

In today's India, the longstanding dominance of photojournalism - dating back to Independence - has been radically undermined and the constructed image has made its entry onto the scene.2 And this has nothing to do with the crafty backdrops of the popular studios (which have also gone digital). Revealing a thoughtful engagement with the evolution of their society and using their private lives as material, these new scrutinisers of the "era of vacuity"3 go to the sources of their immediate environment: consumerist individualism, urban territories, sexuality and, above all, the family.

This new photography is the pre-eminent chronicler of the process of "Westoxication",4 a kind of reverse Orientalism characterising this particular time in the country's history. Collateral damage: this change of perspective sends back to Westerners the echo of their own wanderings and their TV-induced disenchantment.
For these authors, for us, and for everybody, this way of seeing is fraught with lasting consequences for the future (self)representation of the country. India has long allowed the West to make its way into the illusion or the hope of its spiritual worlds. Now the Indian gaze is turning elsewhere.
The urgent need to document and interpret this historic shift is rocking the romantic postcolonial boat both sides were so attached to. Gone are the days of confronting or amalgamating Tradition and Modernity, memory and strategies. Isolated on the battlefield of a Reality as yet only scantily documented, these pioneers are using their subtly lucid insights to set us thinking. As so often happens in photography, the mirror has become the hammer.5
May Ganesh help us!

Alain Willaume
with Devika Daulet-Singh

1 See the collective boo India Now, edited by Alain Willaume and soon to be published by Éditions Textuel with a preface by Pavan K. Varma.
2 Following the unique Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, a pioneer of the genre with his detached self-portraits in the 1930s. Long overshadowed by his daughter Amrita, a painter and an iconic figure on the Indian modern art scene, he is now considered by some as the first "modern" in the history of Indian photography. His original prints are being shown for the first time in Arles this year.
3 A reference to Gilles Lipovetsky's L'ère du vide, Paris, Livre de Poche, 1989.
4 Quoted by Pavan K. Varma in Being Indian: The Truth about Why the Twenty-First Century Will Be India's (New York, Viking, 2004), the term was earlier used in Mistaken Modernity by sociologist Dipankar Gupta, who himself had borrowed it from the Iranian intellectual Jalal-e-Ahmad.
5 The allusion is to the saying "Art is not a mirror to reflect the world, but a hammer to beat it", variously attributed to Vladimir Mayakovsky, Bertolt Brecht, Marcel Duchamp, etc.