16 September 2008

Christopher Pinney Interview

"Visual history tells us about repressed histories"

Christopher Pinney, one of the first scholars to celebrate India’s adaption of photography, is now talking about how photography changed India, says TRISHA GUPTA

Christopher Pinney, anthropologist and art historian, is widely recognised as an authority on the popular art and visual culture of South Asia. He is the author of several influential books including Camera Indica: The Social Life of Indian Photographs and Photos of the Gods: Printed Image and Political Struggle in India. Pinney, 49, was one of the first scholars to examine photography from its birth as an alien art through its assimilation into Indian lives. He currently teaches at University College, London and Northwestern University, Illinois. He was in Delhi recently to talk about his latest book, The Coming of Photography in India (forthcoming: Oxford University Press, India).

How did you get interested in India, and in particular, in India’s photography?

About India, I have a kind of Kiplingesque narrative. I was born in Sri Lanka. When I was six, we went to Europe by sea, and the boat stopped at Bombay. I have a distinct memory of walking ashore with my father at this beautiful sunlit place, between the rains of Sri Lanka and “the blasted hellish drizzle of England”… it must have lodged itself in my subliminal consciousness! The other reason for my interest in India was my grandfather, who had been in an artillery unit in North India, and was never as happy as he had been then. I got from him the sense that India was somehow very important. So, from early on, I had the idea that a life that didn’t involve spending time in India would be incomplete. But I actually came to India to work on the industrial labour question, inspired by reading the work of the great British labour historian EP Thompson. I had this idea that people were being plucked from the rural idyll of the village and thrown into the satanic mill. (In reality, it was the opposite: people were moving from a sixteen-hour working day as landless agricultural labourers to an eight-hour day in the factory.) The reknowned anthropologist Adrian Mayer, who’d worked in Dewas, suggested I go to Malwa. I found Patrana (name changed) on a map in a techno-economic survey of Madhya Pradesh in a library at the School of Oriental and African Studies — it was a newish small town with a big viscose rayon factory — and I thought, that’s the place for me.

Once I was there, I met factory workers in their houses and see the chromolithographs on their walls. I became interested in that aesthetic. People I met would show me their photographs. Also, I was constantly being asked to take photographs of villagers. Photography is like that — it’s an interface between strangers. I’d try to take pictures that reflected something of their personalities. It was an incident during that time that first made me take photography seriously. A neighbour of mine, Bherulal, wanted to be photographed. He was a quixotic sort of chap, and I wanted to capture something of that quality. So I got him to stand under his mango tree, so that his face was half in shadow. I thought the photograph that resulted was superb, and I had a 12 by 8 print made for Bherulal. But when he saw it, he started shouting, asking why I’d taken a picture with his face in chhaya. That was when it struck me that there was something here worth studying: a local aesthetic of legibility that was offended by shadow, by contrast.

Much of your work is historical. Would you say that the status of photography in India has changed, from the colonial period till the present day?

My first book, Camera Indica, was divided into two parts. The first part was about colonial photography, which I argued was about surveillance and identification, often involving the imposition of identities upon Indians that they may well have resented. So photography, in its early Indian incarnation, came out looking like a villain. The second part of the book was a celebration of local Malwa village photographic practices: overpainting, fantastical backdrops, artisanal collage and montage work which, to me, represented a postcolonial Indian resourcefulness. These photographers were extraordinarily witty and inventive, disrupting the normative space of Western photography, the desire to fix an identity within the frame. I return to many of these themes in my forthcoming book. Except that now I would argue that creativity, projection and what I call prophecy is a characteristic of all photography, not just small town Indian vernacular practice.

As you argued in Camera Indica, the studio becomes a place where rather than reiterating pre-existing identities, individuals could explore identities that did not exist in the social world.

Exactly. Photography lends itself to a kind of fantasy. You’re given a space in which to enact an identity. And photography’s peculiar magic is that it gives you a record of that moment, so that to ask whether that is or is not the real you is not an appropriate question. All photography has that potential — it allows you to come out better. Pictures are not just illustrations of things we already know. I’m interested in picture-making technologies as avant-garde projects that make worlds.

How does your new book, The Coming of Photography in India, develop this theme?

My new book is about photography’s arrival in India in the 19th century. One way to study this would be to say photography is a void into which all these pre-existing Indian concerns and practices flood in: caste, marriage, whatever. But then we learn nothing new about photography itself. And India remains a colourful footnote to the history of photography. I say, let’s start in India rather than in France. And look at the disturbance photography causes: throwing up new opportunities, prophesying new social formations.

Could you give an example?

Photography has certain demands it imposes on behaviour. For example, in the 19th century, it was extremely difficult to photograph large groups of people, getting them to stay still for the long exposure time. So couples and individuals got prominence in photography, fast-tracking the idea of the couple far ahead of what it was in society. So the camera actively intervenes in society: by privileging the conjugal couple as a unit (rather than say, the joint family or the gotra), it becomes part of the process of transformation. The trajectory of photography moves in a direction counter to the dominant tendency of 19th century society.

So you see the visual record as the source of an alternative history?

Visual history’s modality is akin to psychoanalysis — it tells us something about repressed histories that are important, but disavowed by standard textual history. In Photos of the Gods I pointed out the popularity of Bhagat Singh in popular visual history, in contrast to his near invisibility in textual history. There’s a question there about audience, about literacy. Nationalist historiography wanted to celebrate Nehru and Gandhi, not Bhagat Singh, Chandrashekhar Azad or even Subhash Bose. Even with a figure like Gandhi, the popular messianic assessment of him as Mahatma, as a kind of demi-god, is linked to the Gandhi images produced by SS Brijbasi and Co, the most important picture producer in India in the 1930s and 1940s.

Would you like to comment on the rising interest in popular visual culture, within academic circles as well as the art establishment?

On the academic front, Ashis Nandy made the important argument that after the Emergency, many critical thinkers and cultural practitioners lost faith in the Left to provide alternatives, and looked to popular culture. This zone of the non-modern was complex, difficult, perhaps problematic, but presented a reservoir of possibilities. As Nandy said of popular cinema, it asks the right questions but usually comes up with the wrong answers. As for the art world, yes, there’s a lot of interesting work now that draws on street art, popular film, chromolithography. The two names that come to mind immediately are Pushpamala N. and Atul Dodiya. It’s not a celebration of popular culture — in Dodiya’s work, for example, you can see a critique of the celebration of Gandhi or Ambedkar — but a recognition of the importance of engaging that field of cultural production, as ripe with possibilities.

From Tehelka Magazine, Vol 5, Issue 37, Dated Sept 20, 2008

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