It has been a rather busy December for the Museum of Art and Photography (MAP), Bengaluru. Earlier this month, it hosted Art Is Life: SoundFrames, in collaboration with the US’ Berklee College of Music, to celebrate music and its power to bring people together. And now an exhibition of photographs from its collection is being showcased at the Monash Gallery of Art (MGA) in Melbourne, Australia, as part of Visions Of India: From The Colonial To The Contemporary. Curated by Nathaniel Gaskell, writer and director of the MAP Academy, it is the first major survey of Indian photography in Australia.
The exhibition, divided across three broad periods—the 19th century, mid-20th century and contemporary—traces the history of photography in the subcontinent, not just as a product of political, cultural and material transformations but also as a space where centuries-old biases are reflected and contested.
There are portraits of the ruling elite, from 1860 onwards, taken by the leading photographers and studios of the time, such as Samuel Bourne, Lala Deen Dayal and Johnston & Hoffmann. Images by European photographers such as Marc Riboud and Norman Parkinson reveal how photography remained entrenched in the Orientalist lens. At the same time, as the curatorial note states, Indian photographers such as Jyoti Bhatt were also exploring new ways of representing tradition, inequity and modernity in a changing world, responding to industrialisation and economic progress. The third section, dedicated to practices from the 1990s, features works by contemporary photographers such as Pushpamala N., Clare Arni, Annu Palakunnathu Matthew and Anoli Perera.
A fourth section, co-curated by Varun Nayar, focuses on the practice of Suresh Punjabi, owner of the Studio Suhag in Nagda, Madhya Pradesh, set up in 1979. His images from the 1970s-80s chronicle the impact of a period of intense political consolidation, rapid industrialisation and cultural flux, exemplified by the success of the Hindi film industry. It functions both as a solo show and as an extension of the main exhibition.
According to Gaskell, the MGA had been wanting to explore an exhibition that would introduce its audience to the history of photography in India. This evolved into a “survey” exhibition of photography from the region. The idea was also to communicate the inherent problems in suggesting a canonical survey when the histories, especially colonial, are so complex. “There is, of course, not one history of photography in India but multiple histories of photography more broadly in South Asia, and even these have always evolved, and continue to do so, in a constant dialogue with the histories of photography elsewhere in the world,” he says.
The choice of works for the show, on till 20 March, mirrors this message—the artists featured include those who are part of the institutionalised canon as well as those who challenge it. If Punjabi’s work is representative of lesser-known photographers, Pushpamala’s work engages with the colonial era of photography in South Asia and is, in part, a direct critique of it. The work is successful because of its context within this formal history. “We are trying to show a trajectory that forms a narrative but also to ask the audience to question this formal narrative,” says Gaskell.