Wednesday, 30 September 2015

A Guide to Contemporary Indian Photography

Mother and Elsa: from Life is Elsewhere by Sohrab Hura

I've always wondered about what new photography is happening in India but never really knew quite how dynamic Indian photography is until I asked Sohrab Hura (Magnum member and author of the truly fantastic Life is Elsewhere) about it. Sohrab is helping to run the Delhi Photo-Festival - which takes place at the beginning of November and doubles up with Photo Kathmandu if you're thinking of an India/Nepal Photo-Festival double-header. 

I asked Sohrab a few questions about the festivals and Indian photography and this is what he said. It's long but it's worth it - especially for the links and the searches that take you into new and undiscovered places (by me at least).

How did the festival start?
The Delhi Photo Festival was started in 2011 by two photographers, Prashant Panjiar and Dinesh Khanna at a time when nothing of that sort existed in India. At the time it was started, there were only a handful of galleries showing photography. Most photographers would go across either to Chobimela in Bangladesh or to Angkor Photo Festival in Cambodia. 
I think there was a sense of longing for a community amongst photographers here which was till then nourished by these two festivals. That was one of the main reasons Prashant and Dinesh started the festival and for that they started the non profit Nazar Foundation.
The festival is run primarily by photographers who come together to put in time and work voluntarily and hopefully the roster of people working for the festival will change each year so that as many people can be a part of it as possible. The idea is to make bridges in the region so it's great that we get to have photographers and students not just from all over India but also from some of the neighbouring countries. 
 from Life is e Elsewhere by Sohrab Hura
Immediately after the first week of the festival people will go to Nepal to support the new festival in Kathmandu which is being started by Photocircle who've been doing some really great work there. This sort of a flow has been quite fantastic for me personally because I've ended up finding some of my closest friends in the photo world in countries like Bangladesh and Nepal and even in Indian cities other than Delhi and perhaps if those opportunities to meet them hadn't existed then life would not have been as rich for me as it is thanks to them. 
Now I see more and more dialogues forming across the border/s amongst the new generation of photographers and it's beautiful. It is sometimes not as easy for us to negotiate geographical, political and socio economic boundaries as it may be for example, for people within Europe or at least within a certain part of Europe and such little events just make it just a little easier for us experience something more human that goes beyond photography. For me, this is the most take away from all of the festivals in this region.

What are the Main Events this year?
The programming for the talks is looking good.  Naoya Hatakeyama, Ram Rahman, Vivan Sundaram, Olivia Arthur, Philipp Ebeling, Rob Hornstra, Altaf Qadri, Aradhana Seth, Chien-Chi Chang, Sarker Protick, Olivier Culmann, Anne Golaz, Nandan Ghiya and Roger Ballen are few of the confirmed speakers for now. 
Fishbar - Olivia Arthur and Philipp Ebeling - will do a masterclass where besides working with the two of them, the participants will also interact with some of the above mentioned people giving artist talks. Priority will be given to photographers from South Asia though all are invited to apply.

This year the festival has invited David Campany to be the keynote speaker to open the festival.
An idea for the future is to have retrospective exhibitions by Indian photographers of an older generation and this year being the first time it's being done, we're showing both Raghu Rai and Kishor Parekh. There will be unseen work by Raghu Rai, photos he's taken over the years of his friends and family, and for Kishor Parekh, his son Swapan Parekh is helping put together work from his book on the 1971 war. They both were good friends and which is having both their exhibitions together is special for the festival.
Regina Anzenberger will be doing a special book exhibition and in addition there will also be an exhibition by BIND a collective formed by young Indian photographers who already produced a fantastic exhibition on photo books earlier this year at FOCUS, a festival in Mumbai. Goa Photo, a festival in Goa will help bring Angela Ferreira from Encontros De Imagem to do a projection of work by portugese photographers
The festival is also keen on experimenting with the collaboration of photography with live performances and for that Sahil Vasudeva, a young pianist is working with Igor Posner and is composing a piece especially for his photos. 

page spread from Ballet by Alexey Brodovitch

In addition he will also play a piece in response to the book on ballet by Alexey Brodovitch.  Jeet Thayil, the writer and poet known for his booker prize nominated book Narcopolis is also a musician and he and his band will play a set accompanying projections of works that were chosen along with him keeping the energy of of music and words in mind. There are a few other similar performances lined up for the end of each evening.
And of course there will be lots of exhibitions and projections including many young Indian photographers.

And there are will be partner exhibitions happening all over the city timed with the festival, the first them being Prabuddha Dasgupta's retrospective at the National gallery of Modern Art starting on the 19th of September 2015 where his retrospective book will also be launched. The exhibitions will carry on till after the festival and walks are being arranged as a part of the festival.

What are the main photographic drives in India (South Asia)?
To save time and space maybe I'll have to generalise a bit and that means that I'm just scratching the surface here. For many years there was a big influence of both Raghu Rai and Raghubir Singh, which is not to negate the importance of the works of people before them, but the two of them had a powerful influence on photographers in India in the last many decades. 

Dayanita Singh opened a new window for subsequent generations with her dogged support of photobooks at a time when it was being talked about the way it is today. To say that her stand to support photo books all these years has been vindicated is a bit of an understatement.
Umrao Shergill: After a Bath (Self-Portrait) 1904
There are people like Pushpamala N, Tejal Shah, Annu Mathew, Nandini Valli who've looked at self portraiture and performance. While this was not something new in photography here - there was also Umrao Shergill who did it about a 100 years ago - in the last couple of decades or so this approach has gained more importance.
Pablo Bartholomew was known mainly for his photo journalistic work during the years he was active as a reportage photographer, but he actually did very beautiful work autobiographical in nature while he was in his 20's. Also his father Richard Bartholomew who was one of the most known art critics was a very good photographer himself
Today the archive has a big presence in photography in this part of the world. TheAlkazi Foundation is famous for its archive that is supposedly larger than that held by the government of India and i think they are also the current caretakers of Homai Vyarwalla's archive. 
Anusha Yadav started the Indian Memory Project some years ago, which was a collaboration with people who sent in old photos and stories from their family albums. 
The Nepal Picture Library next door in Kathmandu is also doing something similar and they also preserve digitized records of large bodies of work by individual Nepalese photographers of an older generation. 
There is also the very beautiful archive with photos from Kashmir, The Country Without a Post Office, named after the poem by Aga Shahid Ali and not too long ago P. Sainath a journalist with some of the most important writings on rural India started the People's Archive of Rural India. In 1997 Satish Sharma, with the help of Anna Fox and Val Williams, published his collection of  studio photography in India and made a book out of it much before looking at archives and collection and studio photography was in vogue. There are also younger photographers like Kapil Das who besides being a good photographer himself with a very unique way of looking at things, also finds and gives shape to really funny and surprising collections of photos.
Documentary and photojournalism have had a strong roots here and since the mid 2000's Bharat Sikka, apart from being a very important figure in the fashion/commercial world has also made some really good work that has pushed the limits of what documentary photography used to be in this region. Besides him there are people like Gauri Gill, Ketaki Sheth, Poulomi Basu, Dileep Prakash, Sumit Dayal, Vidura Jang Bahadur, Ryan Lobo who’ve been around for a bit.

Street Photography is still extremely popular and is perhaps what people take to when they start taking photographs. People like Swapan Parekh and Dhruv Malhotra are two people who've made work that has been quite different from the traditional ways of looking at the street. Two young photographers who have been photographing the street traditionally but very beautifully in my opinion are Saurabh Prasad and Monica Tiwari.

Of late of course the photo book has also gained interest. Raghubir Singh was always known for his books, A Way Into India, being the last one to be published posthumously. Dayanita Singh has been a very strong and vocal of the photo book much before all the hype around this medium came into existence. I had mentioned BIND earlier. 
Mahesh Shantaram and his wife Vidya Rao regularly open their collection to the public every month and they're quite active in getting people to look at photobooks, what's nice is that their events proactively also encourage people who are not photographers to come and look at photo books. Besides that a photo book exhibition is now becoming a regular part of many of the festivals in this region.

picture by Mahesh Shantaram
What are the difficulties Indian photography faces?
I think in the last few years the internet has given many of the photographers a certain independence that had not really existed before, But despite the proliferation of this new found freedom, the photo scene in India remains quite scattered unlike say for example in Bangladesh where a lot of the current photography is specific to the students and alumni of two institutions i.e. Pathshala and Counterfoto. Personally speaking, this is not a problem for me but it does make a difference if someone from outside was to look for work in a specific country/region/space. 

There is also a certain degree of expectation, from outside, of what Indian Photography should be or should not be and I’m sure the same exists across other mediums and other similar non-occidental regions as well.
As in every field and every place, it is a little more difficult for women here too.  There is a huge part of photography that may require one to be out and about quite a lot and given the lack of safety for women it is at times not easy for photographers who happen to be women.  

Add to it competing with male egos, trying to do what you want to do while dealing with other social pressures, dealing with unwanted and unsolicited advances by men, sometimes from within photography itself and finally there existing this underlying current that far from acknowledges any of these obstacles. It’s not the easiest world out there and kudos to the photographers who happen to be women and who’ve pulled through.

Is there an Indian photographic voice? 
Thankfully no. 
Sometimes there may be a particular sensibility that may dominate over others, but there is a coexistence of different voices and opinions in general.

 Who are some of the Indian photographers we should look at?

 picture by Avani Tanya

I often feel that Swapan Parekh and Ketaki Sheth are very overlooked and underrated. There is also Kushal Ray whose work is very nice.

There are nice young scenes bubbling in Calcutta and Chennai. Karthik Subramanian, Ronny Sen, Arko Datto, Soham Gupta are making great work quite passionately. 

In Bangalore there is Avani Tanya who is a very intelligent photographer who started photography with the photo book itself and I’m looking forward to seeing what she does in the future.  

picture by Akshay Mahajan (from New Delhi Modern)

In addition I've had a glimpse of the works being done by Vivek Manek, Akshay Bhoan, Gayatri Ganju, Priyanka ChhariaSoumya Sankar Bose, Krishna Tummalapalli, Senthil Kumaran, Jai Singh Nageswaram, Andrea Fernandes and Sushant Chhabria and I'm looking forward to seeing what they do in the coming years. 

Many of the photographers in India don't have websites so you'll need to dig a bit to see their works and I’m sure I’ve missed out on quite a few other names as well.

from Where we Live by Avani Tanya

Delhi Photo Festival -

Angkor photo festival -

Ram Rahman -

Karan Vaid
rob hornstra -


Anonymous said...

Yet Another Gatekeeper
So, it seems Devika Daulat Singh has handed over her reins of surveying Indian photography scene to Sohrab Hura. In the last decade or so, every international curator or photographer trying to understand the photography landscape in India had to see it through the eyes of Devika, who basically promoted the photographers in her stable. She never even bothered to meet or look at the portfolios of other Indian photographers. And now this. Basically, whoever sucks up to Sohrab, pretty much made into this list. How does he know the kind of work people are doing in different parts of the country, sitting in Delhi? Its insane the number of incredible photographers he has left out with a casual remark, " I’m sure I’ve missed out on quite a few other names as well" Its all good to take a contrarian position to talk about the Chennai scene, but its all important to be honest. It should not be just about promoting people on a whim just because somebody is somebody's cousin and hence the work is interesting. Till the nineties, it was all about the big daddies who controlled the photojournalism market. Lets not make another clique now.

colin pantall said...

But at least he's naming names - I remember asking somebody else about Indian photography and they said 'oh, there's nothing happening here, it's all cliques'.

I learnt nothing from that. I learnt alot from what Sohrab said.

So yes he is a gatekeeper, but that takes work and he put the time in to make this post.

But if you'd care to name your names, do the work required to provide a different view, why don't you do it. Twitter, Facebook, Blogger, Wordpress, Tumblr, the tools are there for you to so.

Indeed if you would care to post some names or ideas of what you feel is important, I would be very happy to post that comment here. Even if it is anonymous.

Sohrab Hura said...

Hi 'anonymous'

you're right that there is something terrible about there being a gatekeeper of any sorts but unfortunately anyone who is asked this question ends up becoming one whether he/she wants to or not.

you're also right that sitting in delhi (or anywhere else) i will of course not know of all the things that are happening in the country or the region. i can only try my best within my capacity in mentioning as many people whose works i know of as i can.

it will be lovely if you and others could also join in and add names of other photographers working in our region who you know of and passionately feel that others should know of so that this place can be a more holistic source of information for what is happening in this region.

take care,


p.s. a few other names come to mind,

karan vaid
uzma mohsin
chandan gomes
vicky roy

Sohrab Hura said...

and there are also photographers like

Amirtharaj stephen

sudharak olwe

atul loke

chirodeep chaudhuri

srinivas kuruganti

Anonymous said...

Unfortunately the community here's quite small. Either you are a part of the coterie or you are not . And even more unfortunate is the number of consumers are even smaller. There 's quite a disconnect between this and real world. So it becomes an irony ,especially when you otherwise suggest " my main concern is people view my work ". That is quite a blatant remark. Seriously !! . Please read it as I look forward to making a living out of this industry and in order to do so its all about survival of the fittest. Its more or less a strategy . Some played it well.

Is this honest ? How many photographers are actually happy/satisfied ? Not sure if one should make comments which might be directly or indirectly connected with careers of many ( or they should be with a disclaimer in the first place itself)

Anonymous 2

colin pantall said...

That's true of photographers everywhere anonymous. It's difficult to make a living. And it's especially difficult for women - you might look at the following post.

One way to help make a living or to help photography is to make a story out of it, to focus on people doing interesting work, to tie the present to the past, to create narrative drive, to connect photography to film, to literature, to art.

Thank you Sohrab for taking the time to do that. It certainly has me more interested in Indian photography.

ETP said...

Dear sohrab hura, you have missed sunil janah and like that several other photographers - then and now - ... you are only talking of photographers who are in the gallery circle and who have received awards and rewards... this is partial and misleading. When you are talking about indian photography, kindly do a little more ground work - there are several who are not part of the commercial pictorial circle, but have contributed much to this medium.. Also - Indian photography is not centered in Delhi.. Regards, Tulsi

Sushma Ram said...

It is definitely not easy to produce a list that can satisfy everybody. While I do not undermine the contributions of the photographers listed by Mr. Hura, I feel that a whole lot of photographers in India do not make it to the limelight due to the following reasons: 1. They do not have the required prowess in English language and hence are unable to write narratives that supplement their photographs. 2. Most are practitioners of "pure photography". I do not know if that is a good term. By that I mean they use the tools of camera, classic techniques, Photoshop to produce works that can grab viewer attention. The resulting frames are " beautiful". I think photographers who view photography as an abstract thing and those practising documentary/street/photojournalism have a problem with this and are quick to dismiss those photographers as frivolous, cliché ridden practitioners who lack "seriousness". Hence, the susceptibility to form "cliques". One look at these " frivolous" photographers' flickr or Facebook albums can reveal that labelling them that way is a dangerous generalization. 3. Mr. Hura is right in observing that many don't have websites. So, if an initiative can bring together photographers of all genres, nothing like that. 4. I am from Chennai and the photographers I follow are: Ashok Saravanan, Karthik Muthuvali, Muralidharan Alagar, Gurunathan Ramakrishnan, Mahesh Balasubramaniam, Balaji Maheshwar. Kartickeyan Bangaru from Trichy is my favorite. I like the works of Swarat Ghosh and Lakshmi Prabhala from Hyderabad.

Sushma Ram said...

Some more names: Ritesh Uttamchandhani, Raj Lalwani (both from Mumbai), Arun Titan (Chennai), Suyog Ghaidhani (Bangalore), Kalyan Varma, Arati Kumar-Rao, Dhruv Dhakan (Ahmedabad). Anbu Jawahar and Joseph Radhik are my favorite wedding photographers.

colin pantall said...

Thanks Sushma. I think different people do favour certain kinds of photography - I do. But thank you for putting up names of photographers you like. It is difficult when people don't have websites or regional platforms. So maybe that is an initiative that you could start to promote the side of photography in Chennai, Trichy (been there a couple of times a long time ago) and other places.

Sincere thanks.

Anonymous said...

back in the day I used a photo lab in Calcutta which also served as a library for a number of photographers - press work, documentary stuff, stock work - old filing cabinets with hard copies I used to dig through while waiting for the film to be developed or prints made - that was in the mid 90's and I saw so much stunning work. It closed, the work disappeared.
I thought the post was good despite the comments about gatekeepers going back and forth. It's inevitable that some are mentioned and others not, and that the myth of who and what is good is born and perpetuated implying that those not mentioned are not. That is most often far from the case.

Mostly I think it is so fine seeing Indian photographers photographing India instead of westerners giving it the tourist gaze and trying to tell me that their vision is unique - it's not.

I will never forget the moment when I saw the most shocking pictures from India - when I had that epiphany that I had been looking at the wrong pictures for too long - those of course were made by Dianyta Singh, middle class families doing what they do.

It would be nice to see Indian photographers offering photographic workshops in India - perhaps their influence would be greater and our views of India photography would be given another dimension.


Anonymous said...

Colin, you should check out this wonderful platform that features a lot of young Indian photographer talent called Galli.


eva said...

I'm reading this post (and the comments) a bit late, but want to thank you, Colin, and all those who have contributed names and info. It's good to have this come from within the community in the country itself.

Without a minimum of an outlet to have the work seen internationally, it's very difficult to have access to their work though. Setting up outlets is for sure an important step in getting the names out and getting recognition.

About being a woman in this industry. It's tough here, where we are (should be) "safe", much worse in less safer countries.

colin pantall said...

If you want to accuse somebody of being a sycophant or rubbish, you need to put your name to it, Anonymous. Otherwise I just put you in the garbage bin.

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