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Contemporary Indian photography shines on international stage
Indian photography is gaining in stature internationally as a series of international exhibitions testify. Understanding its evolution from a historical perspective and recognizing the power and potential as well is apparently the binding thread.

A group exhibition, entitled ‘The Self & the Other: Portraiture in Contemporary Indian photography’ focuses on the photographer’s gaze. The title, outwardly, presumes its more predictable investigation, apparently referring to natural impulses of the photographic gaze. The ‘Other’ came to be institutionalized through writings especially in the study of 19th century photographic practices. The subtitle refers to the prism through which we view the shifts, dichotomies and disturbances across India’s complex social fabric of life.

While the self-portraits are an enactment of roles derived from the imagination and lived experiences, portraits of the other depend on the complicity and collaboration of the subjects to arrive at some degree of resemblance of the ‘other’ Self. The show curated by Devika Daulet-Singh and Luisa Ortínez at North Gallery courtesy ARTIUM (Vitoria-Gasteiz) and Palau de la Virreina (Barcelona) gives an intimate view of contemporary life in India through the lens of 16 well known photographers.

The works featured are connected in their celebration of the staged image. The recently restored archive of Umrao Singh Sher-Gil (1870–1954) whose self-portraits and family portraits spanned 60 years of his life is a highlight of the show. Known as a writer, art critic, curator, painter and poet, Richard Bartholomew’s (1926–85) photographs remained private during his lifetime until the recent restoration of his negatives.

The metaphysical self of artist Ebenezer Sunder Singh confronts his maleness and multi-cultural identity in a more direct yet equally bold series of portraits. Far from being just radical and subversive, his naked body becomes a site of spectatorial desire, consciously offering his dark skin to counter the Indian fascination for the fair skinned in an attempt to assert his visibility. Drawing upon memory, mythology and Christian symbols, he reconstructs identities that elaborate on his existential questions about his Hindu-Christian lineage.

The desire to explore the interchangeability and fluidity of the Self is dramatically explored by performance artist Nikhil Chopra in a theatrical piece, which also resides in photographs to preserve its ephemeral nature. Tejal Shah appropriates images from a page in the history of psychoanalysis that though it doesn’t belong to her, she uses to disclose the voyeuristic gaze mentally challenged women were subjected to in the guise of scientific research. Anita Khemka discloses the interiority of her disturbed mind in a series of self-portraits made during journeys to ease a personal crisis.

Pushpamala N. departs from her past impersonations in an experimental short film. The viewer tails her in her sojourn, as she alternates between fact and fiction in a narrative using a rapid succession of images that are starkly lit. In Sheba Chhachhi’s portraits, the act of posing is privileged over her gaze according the feminist subjects a pronounced degree of control in projecting their own image. They signaled a critical departure in the way her concerns shifted from the representation of politics to the politics of representation.

Simultaneously, a retrospective of celebrated Indian photographer Raghu Rai at London based Aicon Gallery appreciates and acknowledges his monumental works over last couple of decades. He says, "Over the centuries, so much has melded into India, that it's not really one country, and it's not one culture. It is crowded with crosscurrents of many religions, beliefs, cultures and their practices that may appear incongruous. India keeps alive the inner spirit of her own civilization with all its contradictions.

He captures the ways in which the past co-exists with the present in India, and on a more subtle level he captures the visual rhymes and congruities between very different components in his works. His works attest to a multi-layered reality, where people, objects, animals and buildings jostle with each other, where the people's own personal space is overlaid and invaded by each other's space, where temporalities rub up against each other. Another significant exhibition of Indian photography takes place at London's Whitechapel Art Gallery. ‘Where Three Dreams Cross’ gives an insightful view of how modern India along with its two neighboring countries, Pakistan and Bangladesh have been shaped through the lens of 70 artist-photographers like Rashid Rana, Dayanita Singh, Raghubir Singh, Pushpamala N., Umrao Singh Sher-Gil, and Rashid Talukder among others. Over 400 works are drawn from important collections of historic photography apart from images by leading contemporary artists.

The show encompasses social realism and reportage of key political moments in the 1940s, amateur snaps from the 1960s and street photography from the 1970s. The contemporary photographs narrate the reality of everyday life, while the recent digitalization of image making accelerates its crossover with fashion and film. It is arranged over five broad themes with works selected from a time span of the last 150 years.

The Portrait section shows the evolution of self-representation. The Family segment explores close bonds and relationships through early hand-painted and contemporary portraits. The Body Politic charts different political moments, movements and campaigns, whereas The Performance focuses on the golden age of Bollywood and artistic practices that engage with masquerade. The Street looks at the built environment, social documentary and street photography.