Karen Knorr says in her photographs says animals represent the oppressed in society

“Discussions Concerning Rasa” unfold at The Phool Mahal, Mehrangarh Fort in Jodhpur. The panellists include, a monkey seated on a diwan and a crane, perched on top of the parasol which stands over the diwan. The wing of the fort they occupy, with intricately crafted walls, and stained glass panels that appear bejewelled are enough to evoke the adbhuta rasa. Yet it is still shocking to find a monkey perched in a royal setting. The style, of breaking boundaries of the forbidden, entering what would be perceived as exclusive space is all Karen Knorr. Her latest series, India Song, was recently on view at Tasveer.

The photographs, apart from capturing the grandeur of Indian architectural heritage also explore historical and cultural constructs of exclusivity and perhaps, gender. Karen, born in Frankfurt studied photography and film at the University of Westminster in the 1970s.

She has also lectured in institutions worldwide. She currently teaches photography at the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham, Surrey. In this interview Karen talks about India Song, gender and allegory among other things. Excerpts.

What aspects of Rajput and Mughal cultural heritage do you explore in your works?

My photography in India so far pays homage to the extraordinary beauty and power of Rajput and Mughal architecture and the hybrid cultures represented in stories that are written and represented in miniature paintings, sculptures found in temples, palaces, havelis and mausoleums, but also folk and tribal art.

The challenge was to find a modern visual equivalent to miniature painting and to find the architectural sites across Northern India that reflected this hybridity.

How do you see Rajput and Mughal heritage as leading to questions on feminine subjectivity and animality?

The birds and mammals inserted in the photographs link the Ramayana culture of Northern India to allegorical representatives of femininity and masculinity which aim to disturb the spectators’ expectations in creating “visual” disturbances in private rooms in palaces. Cultural heritage, power and women’s position in society are concerns that have endured in my work over 30 years. I have developed different strategies over the years to engage with these concerns. I have found that India Song has broad appeal across all generations which has delighted me. The work is truly a paean to India’s contribution to world heritage and that includes non human animal life.

What role do the animals play in these photographs?

Animals become characters that have no caste restrictions and allow me the artistic freedom to transgress s[paces which are off limits to animal life. It is an allegorical approach that uses poetics and allusion in order to make the critique. Also humour ....India Song is a conceptual reworking of Indian folk stories like the Panchatantra with feminist edge as women are still abused in India. In India Song all animals are photographed live in sanctuaries, reserves zoos, temples, hills fields, roads. There are less of them visible since I first began the project five years ago. Animals although revered in India are increasingly under threat and are being pushed out of cities and sanctuaries to appease growing population and development. Animals represent the oppressed in society.

Could you describe the creative process?

It is a slow laborious process! First comes research and identification, and visits to the sites. Then it is about slowly photographing the sites outside and inside, exploring them photographically, considering the architectural structure and meaning of each room, considering its social functions and who was permitted to live in it. The animals were photographed separately and introduced digitally into the interiors. This process can take months and the process is driven by trial and error and experimentation. I combine two distinct practices—wild life photography and architectural photography which produces and uncanny tension disrupting reality towards a magical realism favoured by story tellers and folk tales. The work is completed on my computer in London.