Interview Society

Looking back, looking ahead: In conversation with art critic Gayatri Sinha

Tour de  force Gauri Gill’s Untitled (15) from the series, ‘Acts of Appearance’, 2015-ongoing

Tour de  force Gauri Gill’s Untitled (15) from the series, ‘Acts of Appearance’, 2015-ongoing

For a photographer today, the photobook is  de rigueur as a medium of creative expression. Even as Indians scoop up international prizes (Sohrab Hura’s  The Coast, for example) international publishing deals (such as  Tamasha, a photo project by Abhishek Khedekar), create virtual libraries of photobooks, or combine them all like Dayanita Singh does, books that analyse and archive are rare. So, it is both a pleasure and a relief to open two new photography books:  The Archival Gaze: A Timeline of Photography in India, 1840–2020 and  Points of View: Defining Moments of Photography In India, both edited by art critic and curator, Gayatri Sinha and published by Kiran Nadar Museum of Art.

Cover of ‘The Archival Gaze’

Cover of ‘The Archival Gaze’

They carry a heavy burden between them. “To cover historical, aesthetic and technical aspects of Indian documentary, artistic and news photography over a nearly 200-year period is inherently fraught with challenges,” Sinha says in the introduction to  The Archival Gaze. They also have to deal with the immediate assumptions associated with photography books — that they are books full of images, with very little writing.  The Archival Gaze, at 440-pages and seven years in the making, is both deeply researched and surprisingly detailed in the documentation of the journeys of the photographers it tracks. It also brings to light forgotten photographers, photography societies and studios from across India.

Cover of ‘Points of View’

Cover of ‘Points of View’

“Just as I have benefited enormously from the research and writing before, I hope these books will inspire others in the future”

Atul Bhalla’s Anhedonic Still Life I, 2018, Achival pigment print.

Atul Bhalla’s Anhedonic Still Life I, 2018, Achival pigment print.

Its companion book,  Points of View (coming in at a more modest 389 pages, and a gestation period of four years), is a compilation of 15 essays by a galaxy of scholars, curators and critics including Jyotindra Jain, Rahaab Allana, Deepali Dewan, Sumathi Ramaswamy and Shanay Jhaveri. The essays take us on a ride through time, beginning with India’s early photography practitioners right up to Instagram and ‘good morning’ messages on Whatsapp, thus creating a loose chronology of themes that have been important to the nation.

Gayatri Sinha

Gayatri Sinha | Photo Credit: V.V. Krishnan

The books’ primary audience might be photographers, artists, art students, curators, scholars and researchers, but they are visual delights for everybody. Sinha elaborates on the challenges of editing them here. Excerpts:

How did the books happen?

Largely through my experience as a curator with an enduring interest in photography. One of the exhibitions I had curated in 1998 was titled  Woman/Goddess: An Exhibition of Photographs. All the pictures I used were from existing archives, the personal archives of photographers. That’s when I realised that there is a wealth of untapped and undocumented photographic material that has accumulated over the decades. When I looked at larger bodies — at the works of Photo Division or any such repository — they too were not seen as archives that needed to be necessarily continuous or well-documented. That’s when I concluded that photography needed much better archiving and understanding of photographic histories as they evolved.

Pushpamala N’s The Arrival of Vasco da Gama 2014 (after the 1898 painting by Jose Veloso Salgado), Giclee print on canvas. Photography: Clay Kelton

Pushpamala N’s The Arrival of Vasco da Gama 2014 (after the 1898 painting by Jose Veloso Salgado), Giclee print on canvas. Photography: Clay Kelton

Photography in India has a modernity, and a place, and hence social and historical value from the 1840s, when the daguerreotype camera and photographic equipment first became available in India and photography studios came up in cities like Calcutta. This has been in my mind for a long time, and  The Archival Gaze came out of it. Also, writing on photography for the last 20 years makes one understand the areas that other scholars are working on, their work, and that put together became a set of well-researched, analytical essays in  Points of View.

How did you bifurcate the two books?

One is a research volume, where we look at two decades at a time. In  The Archival Gaze we have gathered photographs from a multitude of sources — museums, private collections, archives, newspapers, and of course, from the photographers themselves. We wanted the book to represent multiple archives as they unfolded. With  Points of View, the idea was to look at the research other scholars have done.

Madan Mahatta’s Bahai Temple (architect, Fariborz Sahba, pigment print)

Madan Mahatta’s Bahai Temple (architect, Fariborz Sahba, pigment print)

What were the discoveries and surprises in the course of doing the books?

There were several. For instance, there was Zachariah D’Cruz, a 19th century photographer of Portuguese-Indian descent who had worked for the  thirunal (king) of Kerala, but whose name isn’t mentioned often in the history of Indian photography. We were able to look at photographers like him and include them.

Flower bouquet in green vase, digital image used as Good Morning Message on WhatsApp, 2021.

Flower bouquet in green vase, digital image used as Good Morning Message on WhatsApp, 2021.

The books do not see colonial photography and Indian photography as separate, unlike a lot of recent works. I see them as simultaneous and mutually influential before finally becoming divergent. We tried to see, if there was an imperial view, could we read it through the photograph and if there is a post-Independence view, how do we read it through the photograph?

What do you see coming from the photobooks?

What books like these do is inspire scholars coming after; just as I have benefited enormously from the research and writing before, I hope they will inspire others in the future.

The interviewer is a Hyderabad-based photographer and writer.


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Printable version | Jul 2, 2022 9:56:51 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/society/interview-with-art-critic-gayatri-sinha/article65575220.ece