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Questioning photography with Guftgu

A book in the form of zines, Guftgu uses the history of photography to refute accepted ideas of identity

Jaisingh Nageswaran documents the inhabitants displaced by the Narmada dam project. Courtesy Offset Projects
Jaisingh Nageswaran documents the inhabitants displaced by the Narmada dam project. Courtesy Offset Projects

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In Urdu, “guftgu” means conversation, usually a dialogue that is charged with free-flowing whimsy. It’s an exchange where words cross paths with abandon, feelings intersect, emotions meander and sometimes converge into common points of truth. A similar energy flows through the nine stand-alone chapters that form the eponymous new project by Offset Projects, an art initiative conceptualised by artist, curator and editor Anshika Varma.

As Varma explains, these chapters, held together in a cardboard box, “exist as zines of a deconstructed book”, where a handful of practitioners of photography from South Asia “refer to and refute the social history of their assumed identities”. The result isn’t a definitive statement or̉a manifesto of shared goals. Rather, Guftgu captures a constellation of practices, where the personal and political collide and conflate with one another. At its most illuminating, it allows the viewer to decipher patterns that surface like a fleeting comet. It charts familiar histories of suffering and redemption borne out by the history of photography itself, especially by its origins in the violence of the colonial regime.

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The project’s framing statement comes from an observation by artist and writer Amarnath Praful. The contemporary practice of photography presents, he says, a “collision of history…a system where one can retrieve and consume images from various pasts—imagined pasts, speculative futures and immediate present, all in one simultaneous flux”. In his conversation with artist and designer Adira Thekkuveettil, he adds: “If our Instagram algorithm is working in a certain way, we can view an Ansel Adams photograph sharing the screen with images of the farmers’ protest in India…. This total lack of spatial and historical boundaries compels us to reposition the way we understand images.”

If such serendipitous juxtapositions complicate the viewer’s relationship with images, they provoke new ways of seeing and discovery. Each project in Guftgu delves into identity, politics and history through an individual lens. The aim is to recover and magnify details obscured by time and circumstance, to join the dots our eyes fail to see.

Diwas Raja K.C., for instance, exhumes three family albums from the Nepal Picture Library to lay bare the accidents of intellectual kinship between three singular women—Shashikala Sharma, Binda Pandey and Prativa Subedi. They were involved not only with the feminist movements of the 1960s, 1980s and 1990s, but also with trade unionism at the peak of the Cold War. Interleaved with photographs of Vladimir Lenin and Soviet-era ads, the private albums of these women’s visits to Moscow and Beijing become archives that go beyond chronicling social history.

Jaisingh Nageswaran, who grew up in a village in Tamil Nadu, resurrects the forgotten legacy of his Dalit grandmother as he documents the fear and anger of the inhabitants in the Narmada basin displaced by the big dam project. In contrast, Nida Mehboob’s work on the Ahmadis of Pakistan tells the story of the community’s oppression. If Nageswaran’s wispy black and white images evoke a poetic sense of pathos, an intimate proximity with his subjects, Mehboob uses dramatic contrast of colours (rose petals and bloodstains) with texts from reports and pamphlets to invoke a sense of menace.

Cheryl Mukherji’s revisiting of her relationship with her mother in The Last Time is an enactment of personal grief. It’s a reckoning that is impossible to achieve in words alone. With each iteration of her last visit to her mother, memories come in the way of facts, and Mukherji ends up with a palimpsest instead, a liminal space where trauma is inscribed, erased, and returned to in an unending loop of repetition.

Uma Bista, on the other hand, opts for a more direct visual language to highlight the humiliations suffered by menstruating women in South Asia. Confined and bound to the house, the predicament of these women is enacted as a perverse counterpoint by the companion series of images of men, naked and tied up, shorn of all dignity. Shock blunts the edginess.

Arko Datto’s Dinos Of Hindustan also relies heavily on spectacle. Once you unfurl the (somewhat cumbersome) folds of his segment, you find a facetious note from the “Institute for Contemporary Dinosaur Studies, Kolkata”. Its message is bleak and funny, if skin-deep. Arun Vijai Mathavan’s photographs of the landfills of Chennai and Ahmedabad extend the urban theme into the realms of environmental degradation. Powerful by themselves, these works feel a bit dissonant with the overarching visual field of Guftgu.

That said, the aim of the project is unquestionably bold in its desire to experiment and engage with form and content, with conversations about photography in South Asia, dialogues freed from the confines of academia. There is much food for the mind and eye in every chapter. My favourite is Nandita Raman’s They Live Where They Take Seed, where words recede altogether and the images do all the talking.

(Guftgu, 3,000, is available on www.offsetprojects.in.)

Somak Ghoshal is a Delhi-based writer.

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