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Frozen in Time

A trio of exhibitions within an exhibition reveals how photographs can be a portal to untold stories and histories.

Written by Pooja Pillai |
Updated: April 13, 2017 1:07:23 am
Mumbai, mumbai news, Chemould Prescott Road, mumbai art exhibition, old mumbai photographs, mumbai photographs exhibition, indian express, india news Indian Art Studio, Mumbai, circa 1920. Photo courtesy: Indian Art Studio, Mumbai

On one of the walls at Mumbai’s Chemould Prescott Road, hangs a framed quote. “I think there must have been two major celebrations of Paul Klee’s birth centenary in 1979, one must have been in Bern’s Paul Klee Museum, and the other in Ghatkopar,” said Atul Dodiya in an interview to fellow artist Shilpa Gupta last year. It is this Mumbai suburb that Dodiya calls home, and it was here he told Gupta, that he decided to have a small party, inviting only four-five friends and feasting on “sukhi bhaji, puri and shrikhand”. To Gupta, this was one of those delightful nuggets of information that shed unexpected light on the making of an artist.

“If you look at his work you may not see an evident Klee influence but this goes to say that artists have a broad world of affiliations comprising of associations which come via being in an institute, or even chance encounters or even associations that change or get abandoned over time,” says Gupta, whose project “The photo we never got”, is part of the ongoing exhibition “Access Time”, which opened at Mumbai’s Chemould Prescott Road last month, as part of the Focus Photography Festival.

Mumbai, mumbai news, Chemould Prescott Road, mumbai art exhibition, old mumbai photographs, mumbai photographs exhibition, indian express, india news ; Jehangir Sabavala photographed by Sooni Taraporewala from the project “Some Portraits”

The research-based project was made in collaboration with Asia Art Archive, and is of a piece with the other two projects in the show. It comprises Gupta’s “The Photograph is Proof”, Anusha Yadav’s project, which looks into the history of how crime was documented in India, and “Some Portraits” curated by Devika Daulat Singh of Photoink, which draws on the archives of photographers Pablo Bartholomew, Richard Bartholomew, Madan Mahatta, Ram Rahman, Sadanand Menon, Ketaki Sheth and Sooni Taraporewala to present portraits of artists, photographers, writers, musicians, dancers and architects. All three projects explore the idea of an object, whether it is a photograph or a letter or pamphlet as being the portal to a world of unsuspected connections and influences. They draw on different ideas about how archives are identified and how they are accessed to construct history.

The photographs displayed in “Some Portraits”, for instance, work very well as standalone portraits of some of the greatest creative minds of the country. But these pictures were not commissioned and they were taken by photographers who had a deep regard for the subjects they were capturing on camera. Knowing this, as we look at the final images, just adds another layer of meaning to the experience as we begin to see these photographs as a specific form of engagement between two artists — one behind the camera and the other before it. It’s an engagement that tells of relationships and connections that aren’t necessarily documented or acknowledged. A similar idea lies behind the objects on display in “The photo we never got”. The letters, notes and old photograph, drawn from the AAA archives, with contributions from artists such as Dodiya, Sudhir Patwardhan, Navjot Altaf, Gulam Mohammed Sheikh, helped Gupta construct a picture of what the art community in India must have been like from the ’60s to the ’80s.

Yadav, who is the founder of the Indian Memory Project, delved into the history of “evidence photography” as the result of a conversation with the owners of the Indian Art Studio in Mumbai. “They told me that they had been doing evidence photography for four generations and that is what really piqued my interest,” she says. The photos themselves, however, are only half the story, as the viewer finds, as the stories behind the images are waiting to be unearthed. For example, the earliest photograph on display is of the corpse of a young woman called Rose Brown, an alleged sex worker. The case, which became known was the Amherst Street murder case, was ruled as a suicide despite appearing to be a homicide. We are far enough from that time now to acknowledge all the prejudices of gender, race, community (Brown was described as East Indian), that were probably at work here, and as a result, the photograph takes on a greater complexity than would appear at first glance. Similarly, other photographs, such as the police mugshots of Aurobindo Ghosh as a young revolutionary or sketches of various witnesses and suspects drawn during the hunt for Mahatma Gandhi’s killers, throw new light on well-known events and figures.

There is, perhaps, some irony in the idea that even a photograph — held up as the physical embodiment of the “seeing is believing” principle — can never tell the whole story. But as Yadav points out, they are not meant to do that anyway. They’re meant to be the starting point for stories. She says, “If I ask you to tell a story, you would just fumble for words. But the moment I place a photograph before you, you know where to begin.”

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