Friday, September 18, 2015

Preserving Historical Photographs in India: A Collaborative Approach to Conservation

As early as January 1840, Thacker and Company of Calcutta were importing daguerreotype cameras and advertising them in the daily paper, Friend of India, but the first-known commercial photographer was F. Schranhofer, who had a calotype studio at 2 Kyd Street, Calcutta (1849). In 1850 Augustus G. Roussac opened a daguerreotype studio in Bombay. Two years later, J. B. Newland opened a studio for daguerreotype studio at 6 London Buildings, Calcutta. Though daguerreotype studios persisted as late as 1868, they gave way to calotype establishments in India as everywhere else. Fred Fiebig, who was an experienced lithographer (1847), turned to calotypes and took a large number of studies of Calcutta, Madras, and Ceylon.1

It might seem somewhat incongruous to think of applying the idea of traditional knowledge towards the whole field of photography, and the science and art of its preservation. However, in the day and age of the digital camera, the techniques and processes of darkroom photography are becoming more and more a lost art. Historical processes in photography are even more in the realm of arcane. This poses many challenges to a conservator of photographs, vis materiel and process. Here, I will first expand on the scope of photographic objects that a prospective conservator would have to deal with, and how the idea of traditional knowledge ties in with the practice of photography. After doing so, I will propose methods whereby a greater understanding can be had of photography, and how the practice of not just conservation of photographs, but also the history of the photograph in India can be enriched.

Where photography first emerged is a contentious topic, with supporters on the sides of both England, and France. However, what is not contentious is that the spread of photography to India was not without its complications. The Indian climate was so radically different, and the conditions so much more harsher then that of western Europe that not only the photographer, but the photographic process were affected. Possibly the first photographer in India, John McCosh2 had this to say about photography in India

I would strongly recommend every assistant-surgeon to make himself a master of photography in all its branches, on paper, on plate glass, and on metalic [sic] plates. I have practised it for many years, and know of no extra professional pursuit that will more repay him for all the expense and trouble (and both are very considerable) than this fascinating study ...The camera should be made of good substantial mahogany, clamped with brass, made to stand extremes of heat. The flimsy, folding portable cameras, made light for Indian use, soon become useless … French paper, Canson frères is the best, and does not get damaged by damp so soon as English paper3

The first commercially feasible photographic process that allowed multiple prints was the calotype, of Fox Talbot. The process was based on the idea that sensitised paper could used as negative materiel, and a variant of the same could also be used as a positive printing materiel. While simple in concept, the execution was a lot harder. The calotype process is notably finicky, and requires absolute chemical purity and proper technique. Reading correspondence from the period, one is struck by the necessity for proper paper for the process. Talbot himself preferred to work with paper from Saxe or Rives paper mills. He also suggested that the most optimal paper for the work according to his process was manufactured by Whatman's Turkey Mill establishment.

Today, calotypists still spend most of their time looking for the optimal paper for making negatives. When I started working towards making calotype negatives, I found to my dismay that almost none of the paper found in India was optimal. The presence of alkaline buffers negate most archival papers. Residual bleaching compounds make most commercial paper useless, and the lack of proper quality control make unbuffered rag or Daphne papers a wasteful enterprise. Consensus is that Canson still makes the best paper for calotypes.

Of course, with all methods of working, there was sizeable variations in the techniques used. There were as many variants of the process, as there were practitioners. In England, Talbot's process reigned supreme, whereas across the English Channel, Pelegry's method was more popular, using Whey as a carrier for the photographically active salts. In India, Alexander Greenlaw used his variant of the process, making for easily transportable negatives which could cope with the extremes of temperatures. Down south, Linneaus Tripe had his own variant. All these different processes were then printed on salted paper, or albumenised paper, or platinum/ palladium paper et cetera.

With the coming of wet collodion, there was some measure of uniformity in the process, and a large part of our photographic history is collected in wet collodion negatives. Photos of the Mutiny by Felice Beato, landscape views of Samuel Bourne, and portraits of Lala Deen Dayal are all in wet collodion. Most conservators are already familiar with the primary materiel used in these process. Cellulose Nitrate is dissolved in ether and alcohol and halide salts are dissolved in this solution, making a film, which is coated on a glass sheet. The issue is that the heat affects the drying rate of the plates, making it a tricky operation, and many photographers stuck with calotypes.

Attempts were made to make the wet collodion plates dry down slower, and honey, glycerin, beer, casein, whey, and a multitude of expedients were tried. In my meager research, I have not found mention of any such arcane methods being used in India, however, possibilities still remain. It was not until the coming of mass produced gelatin dry plates that photography was standardised the world over. This leaves us with a window of around 60 years, where variability and lack of standardisation makes for a trying conservation effort.

This very abbreviated history of photographs through process serves to merely illustrate my point that the photograph, and its conservation is not a simplistic matter of working with gelatin prints. I have not even started talking about the esoteric printing processes used in history. Images were made using uranium salts, gum arabic, casein, iron salts, platinum salts, et cetera. However, the majority of the photographic firmament in India is unaware of this variety of techniques. The few people who do practice these processes do them just like craftsmen do, working in obscurity and in small numbers.
I posit that the methodology of working in historical photographic processes is analogous to that of a dying art form, and as an extension, practitioners are reserves of knowledge that is specialised, and restricted to them. What I want to say is that people still using these processes to make photographs are reservoirs of traditional knowledge, and it is high time that we as conservators use this valuable resource to help us do our work better.

This interaction between the photographer and the conservator is doubly necessary in India, where so much remains to be known about the history of photography. A collaborative effort between the conservator and the photographer can yield not only to better understanding on part of the conservator, but greater insight into the technical art history of photographs. I recollect the first time I found out that many a time, while working on Indian Miniatures, conservators working on the wasli would find bills and ledgers on the interior sheets. While those scraps were a cost saving expedient for the maker of the wasli, for the conservator and the art historian, they are a valuable window into the world where the painting was made. I can only wonder what could emerge with conservators working on photographs. With an entire scientific arsenal at our disposal, we as conservators can make new inroads into the study of photographs. Using XRF and Raman spectroscopy to accurately trace the maker of anonymous photographs by process variation, identifying matériels, adding provenance to photos without any history, all these things are in the realm of possible.

For the longest time, a question troubled me. Why would calotypists import paper from Europe, at excessive cost, when paper making was firmly established in India? Why did Greenlaw not use paper from Sialkot, or Srinagar? Why didn't Samuel Bourne not print on Daphne paper from Nepal? Or did anonymous, and impecunious photographers use the ingenious paper for their work? Working with conservators and art historians, we can all try and answer questions like this, rather then relegating them to the mind of an itinerant graduate student. Would we find parallels between the photographic industry and the miniature painting schools in India? Was there exchange of information there? Answers to questions like these would make for greater knowledge in the history of arts in India, and the amateur art historian and photographer in me very excited.

The question now arises, that how can we go forward with this greater engagement? I propose that the work in this direction be methodical and following precepts set forth by folklorists, and ethnologists. For those working in the field of historical photography, it is common knowledge that written materiel and patents are essentially useless for learning the process. The patent applicants would remove important parts of the technique, or obfuscate, to detract unscrupulous photographers willing to steal techniques.

However, the first part of the study of historical photographs should be a thorough literature review. Thankfully, most of the photographic literature is out of copyright and freely available online, for the benefit of antiquarians and researchers. Reading multiple accounts at one's leisure, a conservator can piece together the rudiments of the process across varying differing accounts.

The second step is recording the processes of contemporary workers. The methodology and the stories of the workers are not only a part of the intangible heritage of the photographic trade, but also a valuable resource for conservators, providing insights into the minutiae of the various processes. An oral history, or a video recording would not only suffice, but would also leave valuable materiel for the coming generations, so the knowledge of these processes does not die out.
As a side note, This is especially necessary in these troubled times when digital photography has completely uprooted film photography, and relegated its knowledge to nostalgic photographers and people with interest in the science behind photography.

Thirdly, collaborative workshops should be held, where the conservators themselves learn how the processes work. This hands on experience is valuable for the conservator, not only because handling the materials is the best way to understand how the object is made, but because it gives the conservator the ability to stand in the feet of the original maker of the object. Once the conservator actually makes an image, short cuts and areas where errors can emerge become readily evident. These insights can inform the procedure of preserving and extending the lifetime of the object.

Finally, funding should be allocated for residencies in photographic techniques, where conservators and materiel scientists can study the processes at length. The Andrew W. Mellon foundation had a long running project, where they would give grants to photograph conservators to spend extended periods in the George Eastman House in Rochester, working with historical processes. The research was subsequently published online for free, for the benefit of conservators and practitioners. A similar project here would make for considerable progress in the still nascent field of conservation of photographic materials in India.

This summer, I spent my time looking through old trucks and cupboards across Delhi, looking for old photographs and negatives. My findings were astounding. There is an entire folk archive of the Indian life, residing in shoe-boxes and under beds in this country. The photograph is the most democratic of art forms. Eastman Kodak's motto of “You press the button, and We do the rest” comes to mind. Everyone has had their photos taken, and there are millions of photos, printed on fading colour paper, or decaying negatives, of trips, theater shows, birthdays, weddings, and each instance of life as we know it. The onus is on us as conservators to ensure that these valuable documents do not disappear.

At this juncture, I do have to say that I apologise for not giving any concrete information on how to work on old negatives or prints. This is not a technical paper, but more of a call to arms for us as heritage preservationists, to also work on preserving an important aspect of our history, that until now has been relegated to the sidelines of preservation departments.
1 Thomas, G. "The First Four Decades of Photography in India." History Of Photography 3.3 (1979): 215-26.
2 Again, as with most photographic minutiae, there is considerable conflict on this topic. Dr A. Toussiant is of the view that a Frenchman Jules Leger took the first photograph in India, en route to establishing a Photographic studio in 1945. The topic is fraught be debates based not on factual accuracy, but national pride.
3Desmond, R. "19th Century Indian Photographers in India." History Of Photography 1.4 (1977): 313-17.

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Remaking the Ajayab Ghar

If you walk into the National Museum in fall and winter, you will a sight that is less reminiscent
of a place that houses over 3000 years of cultural heritage, and more like a prisoner of war camp.
School children squatting down in hundreds in front of the entry, in lines, arranged in class and
uniform, waiting to enter the museum. In the museum, they are chivvied along by a guide; in a single
line, on an abrupt tour of the museum. The disinterest of the students is evident, as they chatter among themselves in front of sculptures of Buddha and paintings from the Mughal era. A reprimand from the chaperone silences them for scarcely a minute, and they are back at it again. We can scarcely blame them, for the blame lies on the museum professionals and the educators, who can not engage them enough. Parents in India often complain about the spoon feeding of students. A visit to the museum is ample demonstration that they are not being spoon fed, they are being force fed.

Educators frequently talk about a need for holistic education for the newer generation of Indian
students, to free them from the tyranny of rote learning and regurgitation of facts. An important aspect of creating well rounded students is an appreciation of culture and the arts. Sadly, we as a nation have dropped the ball completely on the matter. Departments of museum studies in universities all over the country talk about the “new museology” and investigate the role of museums in the modern society. However, the practitioners, and by extension, the institutions of cultural heritage that they run, are still trapped in the hoary days when the museum was an Ajayab Ghar, a house of curiosities.

A museum is more then that. It is a space not only for curation, but also for creation of culture.
We should not forget that the British Museum was host to the leading minds of the 19th century. Marx wrote Capital almost entirely in the library of the museum. The Smithsonian is not only the haunt of the cultural elite but a publishing house of valuable texts ,music and photographs. The Louvre and the Vatican Museum are must see affairs on any tourists itinerary. This is so because the museum serves an important role for all sections of society. For the academics, it is an invaluable resource of objects and information; for the children and visitors, it is their first exposure to culture, art and beauty; and for the jobless, it it a wonderful opportunity to spend time in air conditioning. Purveyors of cheap air conditioning is the most charitable thing that can be said for most museums in India.

A museum should grapple with the creation of the cultural identity. An ideal museum and its staff should not only curate, but also aim to engage and educate. And of course, because all these things
are done with the implicit support of the museum and all its backers, the museum serves as not only as a repository of culture, but also as a mascot and promoter of the culture and the people it represents. If applied to the museums in India, Indian culture to an unbiased visitor of our museums will appear half baked and poorly thought out.

I have spent a good chunk of last year at the National Museum in New Delhi, and have seen a
fair amount of how the museum functions. The place is a wonderful showcase of all the bad things that can happen to a cultural institution. 
There are galleries at the museum that are state of the art, with lighting that accentuates the
objects, and audio-video resources to provide context to the objects. Recent short term exhibitions even feature resources in Braille for the visually handicapped. And right next to them are galleries that smell of mold, with fluorescent lighting, old paint, poor seating, and decaying objects. I still remember when I brought a friend from Nepal to the museum, and showed her the Dancing Girl of Mohenjo-Daro, a touchstone of Indian cultural history. In the next vitrine was a toppled terra-cotta sculpture with what appeared to be blue-tack on the base.

This institutionalized neglect is partially due to bloated bureaucracy. The National Museum is full of government servants with guaranteed term, and no motivation to apply themselves more than mandated in their job description, if they do even that. The National Museum Institute, a part of the
museum, has 4 professors for 3 departments, and administrators in the double digits. The same can be
said for the many wings and departments it has. The need of the hour is energy and drive, but the red
tape hampers the forward movement of the National Museum. The government that proudly puts up
billboards announcing “Make In India”, doesn't really expend similar energy preserving and displaying things that have been made in India.
It would be uncharitable to say that the National Museum hasn't been taking strides into the right direction in the past two years. Recent exhibitions on art from the Deccan, and musical instruments of the Indian east, have been spectacular. A summer program for children has also been started. These were put into being under the administration of Venu Vasudevan, whose unceremonious removal, (over a year before term,) was in the news recently. 

Venu, and his dismissal is symptomatic of the malaise that strikes deep in the bureaucratic cultural complex. Generally, the directors of the museum were drawn from the Archeological Survey of
India, or were art historians. The ASI is the poster child for a moribund governmental organisation that has shown no energy or inspiration since it was formed, well over a century ago. A good metric of the culture of a place is the guidelines on how work is done. The ASI is still using preservation protocols proposed by Sir John Marshall in 1923. An audit report by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India says it all:

“No mandatory requirements for inspection by Superintending Archaeologist were prescribed, Non preparation of inspection notes after site inspection, Absence of complete documentation of the works estimates, Faulty budgeting of the conservation works resulting in inclusion of extra items, Delays in completion of works and Non preparation of completion reports along with photographs after conservation.”

With such an entrenched culture of institutional lassitude and incompetence, it is fitting that the ASI
offices are right next to the National Museum.

Venu was different, because he was not of the ASI, and nor was he an art historian, enmeshed in and co-opted by the system. He was a Secretary in the Ministry of Culture, an IAS officer from the Kerala cadre. He instated institutional oversight on all departments, and suddenly everybody had to hand in weekly reports on work done, which were not only read, but often sent back, with corrections

I remember hearing scuttlebutt that in one case, a department head was called up to the office and told that not only were there factual errors in the report, there were multiple spelling mistakes. This
approach of due diligence and energy turned the museum around in the space of a year, and made Venu the darling of the press and the culturally inclined. It also made for a lot of internal resentment against an outsider who was coming in and making waves.

At the same time as Venu was being feted by the press because of the successful shows at the museum, he was also being invited to foreign symposiums, talking about public engagement processes like Yuva Sathi, a volunteer guide program, and the National Museum Institute, an institute of cultural and museum studies inside the museum. Yuva Sathi has been a widely celebrated program, drawing in volunteers ranging from college students, to retirees, and training them to be guides for the general public. Engaging the general public rejuvenated the museum and the increased visitor numbers were proof of the success of the program.

The National Museum Institute was, on the other hand, not such a glowing success. In principle,
getting students of museum studies to engage with the museum during their studies and serve as
sources of critique from within is a step in the right direction. Founded in the late 80's, it produced most of the practicing conservators in India, and a large amount of museologists and art historians. However in 2010, the NMI was in the list of 44 universities that were recommended for de-recognition by the HRD ministry. The Ministry in its report said that the universities were offering courses “fragmented with concocted nomenclatures” and taking on more students then their actual intake capacity. They "neither on past performance nor on their promise for the future have the attributes to retain their status as deemed to be universities". Even now, the three departments have only 4 professors teaching over 60 students and supervising additional PhD scholars.

Venu, of course, was the vice chancellor of the NMI, so it can be assumed that most of his energies were occupied in the matters of reigning in the rampant inactivity of the museum, otherwise in his characteristic fashion he would have turned the NMI around too. I am in no position to state whether his transfer to the sports ministry was politically motivated. I have talked to many people with
opinions on both sides, but what I can say is this. The amount of control the present government is
exerting on institutions is telling. The situation at FTII are enough proof that there is a deliberate
agenda to mold cultural institutions to the party line. It is likely that Venu also fell victim to this
Modification of Indian culture.

Much can be said for the propagation of a monolithic cultural ideology, and how it affects the real
culture of a country. I still remember getting copies of Wendy Doniger's book on my email after it was banned in India, and reading about the protests against it. In taking to a hardline and foisting a
saffronised version of our past on us, the government is doing our country a gross disservice. So how
does Venu fall in this scenario?

I have a pet theory. I firmly believe that institutions of culture, like museums, archives, theaters, concert halls and art galleries serve not only as places to transmit culture, but also to show people a different reality then what they are exposed to. Going to a museum or a gallery, you are faced with an object that forces you to engage and think critically about what the object entails and what created it. This also on occasion makes the viewer question the dominant narrative.

How do you stop that from happening? You could conduct Fahrenheit 451 style book burnings, or you could just make it so that that reading books is not an enjoyable experience. I feel that what Venu's work was doing was making the National Museum an engaging place where culture, and possibly dissent, could be had in the company of like minded people. Removing Venu made it so that the museum would drop back to the doldrums and stop being a place that could question the monolithic history and culture that is being foisted upon us. A wise man once said that an age is called dark not because the light stops falling, but because people refuse to see it. Maybe the powers that be are taking this to the heart.

Regardless of why Venu was transferred, the question here is can we learn from the things that he did in his tenure that did good for the National Museum. Having defunct galleries and being a glorified warehouse of antiquities was what the National Museum was known for, and in a short while this troubled institution was taking steps towards recovery. This was abruptly curtailed, and the future looks bleak.

I might have written a lot about the National Museum and Venu Vasudevan here, but this piece is not about them as much as it is about the museum movement in general in India. You can easily replace National Museum with the Salar Jung, the Indian Museum, the NGMA, or of your own city museum, and see the same problems, and come to similar conclusions. Mediocrity and bureaucratic inactivity are destroying the very concept of a museum as a place of cultural and civic engagement, and rendering them into mausoleums of cultural heritage.

I still remember to this day my trip to the Guwahati Museum. The building looked vaguely colonial and showed its age, and there was a ill maintained garden in the front. As I was passing through the musty galleries, an old Harappan pot caught my eye. When I was right next to the mirror looking down on the pot, I saw spirals on the inside. These spirals, called throwing marks, are the impressions of the potter's fingers formed on the insides of the pot as it is made on the wheel. I was suddenly struck with the thought that around 3000 years ago, there was a person, holding and manipulating a hunk of clay to make a pot. The pot probably shattered somewhere along the line, and by the time a conservator joined the pot to put it on display, all traces of this person; home, family,possessions, memories; all were lost. All that was left were imprints on a clay pot.

People often think of museums as places that serve as memento mori, full of remains of the past and of things of greatness that passed. I remember talking to a fellow of an advanced age who refused to enter the National Museum on the grounds that the place reminded him of his own mortality. A large
part of going to the museum for me is not only going into an envelop of beauty and greatness that our collective humanity can achieve, but also coming to terms with the fact that even the great and the good can fall, and be remembered by nothing but scraps and remnants.Shelly's Ozymandias comes to mind.
“And on the pedestal these words appear:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!'
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away."

Of course, museums all over India are not only full of things dead and decaying, but they are in a state of advanced decay themselves, and if we and the powers that be don't take action, with swiftness, energy and zeal, we might come to days when we ourselves may see our museums and
places of cultural activity, and despair.

It is fitting that the National Museum is on a crossroads, between the Janpath, and the Rajpath in New Delhi. A place where the paths of the people and the government meet. Its blame for its state lies not only on the government, but also on the people. We all have let our cultural institutions down by being complacent about them and how they are run. And by letting them down, we have let But again, the crossroad metaphor comes in. We as a people are on this crossroads. It is on us to engage with our cultural history and the institutions that curate and mediate it. We can make a conscious choice to go the museum, to the archive, to the art gallery, and truly engage with it. And if we see something that is not up to the standards that the place deserves, we do something about it.

Complain to the curator, and the director of the place. Even the red tape ridden babus can not ignore
irate museum goers picketing their offices, writing letters to the editors and sending in complaints to
their bosses by the dozen.

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

The Protest at Shastri Bhavan, or A Comedy in three parts.

It is a welcome sight to see in Delhi, that the powers that be still care enough about the people so as to provide them with entertainment on the streets. I was myself witness to one of these “happenings” today at the FTII student's protest against Gajendra Chauhan's position at the institute. It was for all practical purposes, a wholesome piece of family entertainment, with drama, pathos, comedy and a successful resolution for your narrator. It was even in three acts. Here is the comedy of The Protest at Shastri Bhavan.

            It is 1:30 pm at Shastri Bhavan opposite the press club, and the protesters are trickling in, in groups of  ones and twos. Some hold placards, some come with bottles of water, and one hirsute fellow is holding a drum. Some are drinking chai and smoking cigarettes, taking care of nerves. I am off to the side, smoking a cigarette, wearing corduroy pants and a panama hat. Observing and looking good  at the same time comes naturally.
            It is sweltering as only the sandstone jungle of the central secretariat in the high noon sun can be. People are talking amongst themselves and making introductions, while the CRP wallas sit  in the shade, armed with clear plastic lathis, looking at the protesters-to-be with beady eyes. As time goes on, the amount of protesters builds up and soon there are around 60 odd folk armed with placards, while a drummer holds his drum on the ready.

            There are journalists around interviewing the folk, asking them about their opinions on everything under the planet, and coming back to the topic of Modi and FTII. The scene is set for a protest to begin. Camera crews are on the ready, and the CRP Jawaans start limbering up. Lathi-charges are always fun when you are on the delivering side, and you don't want to pull a muscle.
In one collective movement, the group moves to the entry of Shastri Bhavan and stands on the ready, throats are being massaged, drums tightened, placards adjusted.

            And then It begins. Strangely silent. I move forward, and realise that the It is actually a photoshoot, because the TV crews are giving the press photographers some time to do their work. Professional courtesies go a long way in the business of making news. When a suitable amount of of photos with the protesters looking justly miffed, angry,  and protesting are taken in rapid succession, then the TV crews move in.

            The chants start from one side, with the usual “hamari maangein poori karo” starting it off. The protesters build up a momentum and the chanting becomes faster. Out from the back come members of the youth parties, and they start chanting on the other side.


            Suddenly a wave develops with sides alternating chants and outdoing each other on volume. Newer and newer chants of “Halla Bol” are screamed, and more and more complex lines are yelled. The rest try to keep up. It seems that the various groups are trying to gauge the other groups in the protest and their volume.
            For the convenience of the general public, the separate groups are colour coded. The comrades are wearing red kurtas and jeans, holding drums with the hammer and sickle spray painted on them. The youth party members are wearing t-shirts and jeans. The JNU students are in a motley array of ethnic and western clothing, united in the disparity of style. The FTII alumni are gaudy and multicoloured, distinguished by their aviators and other accouterments of sun protection. The colour coding shows that while the FTII wallahs are shouting for the FTII rights, the comrades and the youth party members are shouting against the party in power.  
            The drummer suddenly hits the groove with the party wallah chant leader, and the chants turn into songs rather then screams. The crowd moves in making it a circle, and in the middle are the TV crews furiously taking interviews upon interviews with the people on the front line of the protest. The chants change, from ones demanding the rights of FTII students to chants against Modi and Arun Jaitley, loudly inviting him out to meet the protesters. One side drowns out the other, and the other side tries to come back with renewed vigor. The protest has turned into a sauve qui peut and agendas are pouring forth faster then the drummers and the TV reporters can keep up.
            Suddenly, out of nowhere an empty Delhi Transport bus emerges. It has been but 20 minutes since the protest started. There is a line of CRP jawaans on the gate blocking entry. More CRP Jawaans come from the side, and suddenly the more aware members of the protesters realise that their goose is cooked. I see the cops moving in, and I nonchalantly start moving back and stand to the side. I have never been to jail and have no intention of being taken into custody today.
            Suddenly CRP wallahs rush from my side, and the older members of the protesters start making everyone sit down. Hands are linked and the Delhi police steps in, pulling people up and into the bus. It starts off slow, with people fighting and screaming, but soon more people join into the fray. People are being pulled by their clothes, kicked, and dragged kicking and screaming. The ones inside the bus are poking their entire torsos out of the windows and chanting and beating on their spray painted drums. Flags are waving everywhere as the crowd sitting slowly dwindles, more and more are forced into the bus.
            There is a rotund fellow with his handlebar mustache askew, who is gripping to a pole on the pavement with all his might. Three Delhi police constables physically pry him off the pole and carry him horizontal to the bus, and for a instant he seems he is crowd surfing. The effect is ruined because he and everyone in the bus are cussing out loud at the cops.
            People are now jumping on the bus on their own volition. It seems the entire party is on the bus and the protest just got a moving platform to parade around the area. Some people are screaming obscenities against Delhi police, some are smiling for the cameras, some are chanting for FTII rights, and there is a fellow still banging on the drum.
            The bus peels away and the chants from the bus fade into the distance, and an unnatural quiet surrounds the area.


            I am standing on the side, stunned, my cigarette hanging dumbly from my lips, and I see a small group of the senior protesters on the side. Grey haired and dressed well, they saw the whole protest happen, and their presence was tacit support. They are one member short, the rotund fellow with the askew mustache is already on his way to the police station.
            They accost an inspector of the Delhi police and start telling him off. He responds by saying that section 144 was put in action, and the protesters needed permission and were violent. A matronly old lady with steel gray hair starts chastising him. “The protesters were anything but violent. This is a miscarriage of justice”. He keeps on repeating that they needed permission, and from behind me a fellow wryly admits that the permission granting authorities were the ones against whom the protest was. Neither the older protesters not the cops are making any headway, just repeating the same thing over and over. “The protesters did nothing wrong” “we are just doing our job. You have a problem, talk to the boss.”

            I knew the mistake the protesters had made. If only they had dressed up like Mahabharat characters and  used Molotov cocktails, then the entire police brutality would have been worth it. What is the point of being hauled in for a simple protest? If you have to go, go in style. As I am musing on more entertaining strategies for protest and institutional critique, another bus pulls in, this one empty too. A police constable grabs my arm and tells me to start walking. While I tell him that I was standing and just smoking a cigarette, he turns around, and catches another fellow around my age by his scruff. We both are ceremoniously dumped into the bus. I call the cop a crypto-fascist, but he does not register.

            At this time I realise that this is not a time for wry observations and distant cynicism, so I call a friend to come and get me, and post bail if needed. The folk in the back are loudly discussing what is going to happen and what has been going on. As I settle down into my surprisingly comfortable chair, comes the cavalry. Out from the market in front of the press club comes a group of 5 people with red stars on their flag, a big banner proclaiming support and a drum. Their chants are new, and fill the silence of the area.

            Without missing a beat, the policemen turn around and push them into the bus. They gladly step in, and poke their torsos out of the windows and gaily fly their flags high, singing songs and calling for “Inqlaab”. The bus starts moving and gets to the Parliament Street Police Station. The CRP starts moving out the protesters, and I am the last to move.

            As I near the driver, he stops me, and asks me what was wrong. I tell him I was smoking and got picked up. He tells me to stay quiet and sit down behind him as he turns on the engine. A couple of cops come in and ask me to get off, but the driver protests my innocence. He is convinced I am on the straight and narrow because of my pants and the hat.

            The CRP cops outside, 5 of them, with vicious smiles on their face tell me to come out. I protest  that I was just smoking. They tell me I can smoke inside, they will even provide chai. While I am tempted to take them up on their offer, I am aware that police chai generally leaves a welt or two on the backside.

            I have no choice, I start walking towards the station.

            There is no one around me, but I am walking towards the inner gate of the police station. If the fashion is to court arrest, who am I to stop? When in Rome... I turn to the gate and see the protesters in a courtyard. There is a tree with ample shade, and they are in a circle, chanting, flags flying high. They are letting lose with the chants, sparing no one. While the radical bonhomie and protesting in unity and comradely good fellowship is a charming thought, I decide that I would do better not in the hands of the police. Self preservation wins out. With a smart about turn, learned through years of marching in school, I turn around and start walking out of the station. A cop stops me, and before he can say anything, I pull out a notepad, and ask him how many did they get. Over a hundred, he replies. With a nod and a tip of the hat, I walk out, free. It has been less then an hour since the protest started.

            I get back home, and take a bath, because it was hotter then the hinges of hell in the bus and in the protest. Call  Kislay, one of the leaders of the protest. As of 6 pm, they are still in the police station, detained for breaking a law they didn't know about, by law enforcement doing their job with perverse gusto, ordered around and dissatisfied by a government hell bent on enforcing only what it thinks is right, and crushing down dissent with an iron foot.

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Jammu and My Inheritance of Loss

 J&K channel is playing on the television as I write this. I am slowly trying to come to terms with the reality of Jammu, versus the image in my head, which was admittedly dripping with nostalgia.
The question comes to mind, what makes a culture? A society with history and tradition to back up its present? Or the relentless sociocultural construction and destruction, driven by conspicuous consumption and the accoutrements thereof?

Ever since I left Jammu 7 years ago, I have been trying to come to terms with my identity, or lack thereof. Was I a Brahmin, because I was born into a Brahmin family? Was I a Dogra, because my parents spoke Dogri? Was I an Indian, because I had an Indian passport and I could recite the Indian national anthem by heart? To a teenage mind fuelled by angst, belonging to something was important. How else would I place myself in the world?
I was an apolitical atheist, so the Indian Bhraminical edge was gone. I had the Dogra card going pretty good. There was enough space to be tortured about my identity in a manner that was socially acceptable and also socially beneficial. I was born in a Dogra family, and I was constantly told by people that my mother's Dogri was beautiful. My parents and grandparents all spoke Dogri exclusively at home. The only problem was me. I was always talked to in Hindi and English. I never ended up learning the language, the language of “my people” from my parents.
What all I learnt of it, at the age of 15, was from the people on the streets, a uncouth mixture of Punjabi and Dogri, with none of the grace and delicacy of either and cusswords from both. How could I connect with the Duggar folk, when I didn't know the language, the idioms, the songs, the stories, the aphorisms?
The linguistic identity route was pretty much buggered, so I was left to the place. My earliest memories were of the court complex of Mubarak Mandi, the historical courts of the Dogra rulers. I grew up in the court chambers there, where my father passed judgments for almost a decade and a half. My mother would tell me stories of how she gave her exams at Mubarak Mandi. My grandfather, famously litigious, would be a constant fixture of the courts. I still remember rows upon rows of typists, armed with an umbrella against the noonday sun, typing and notarizing documents furiously on 5 rupee sheets of stamp paper.

View of Mubarak Mandi from Demolished Solicitors Offices

I remember the grandfather, before he went senile and started telling the same story again and again, telling me about the days when Jammu was still a monarchy, and how no one was allowed in Mubarak Mandi without something covering his or her head. I remember hearing about the spectacle of the festivals in the Mandi, and about the court complex and the monkeys who would terrorise it, and rip apart the Indian flag on the pinnacle.
The Mandi had become a symbol of Dogra identity for me. It was fitting therefore, that it had become dilapidated, near collapse, populated only by snakes and monkeys, with errant police wallahs hounding out kids sneaking in to smoke cigarettes and chillums on the sly. Somehow, to me the decay mirrored the decay of the Dogra identity. It became a ritual for me to commune with the Mandi every time I would come back to Jammu, to take in as much of what was left of it, before it all went away.
Which brings us to today.
I went to meet a gentleman who had a couple of old cameras he had on sale. One of them was a 100 year old camera, which I was very excited to see. As I made my way down to the fellows house in the old part of town, I was struck by the sight of town. Gone were all the old shops, and I was familiar with the part, mind you. Instead of the barber who cut my hair til I was 8, there was a shop of cell phone accessories. Next to a banyan tree, still wrapped in red thread, was a off brand clothing store, trafficking in Pooma shoes, and Bay Ran glasses. I still remembered that there was a old store that used to supply all the newspaper wallahs in that area, where the Bay Ran shop stood.
I reached the designated place to see a dilapidated structure that served as the persons print shop and home. A rickety table stood encased in piles of books, business cards, wedding invitations. In the back was a case of geological specimens, and a photo of Rafi, a popular singers in the days gone by. The shop reeked of days gone by, and stale gold flake cigarettes. Illuminated by a single yellow lamp sat my perspective seller. I sat looked around, and pulled out a beedi. There were ashtrays on every other pile, and the piles were less piles, and more prodigious mounds of ephemera.
I was offered chai, which I gratefully accepted. We started talking and discovered that we had a mutual circle of acquaintances. The arts scene in Jammu is miniscule, and everybody knows everybody. I looked at the camera and the lens. It was of middling value, and I promised that I could find him someone who would want it. He sure could use the money. He then started telling me about how he got the camera.
Thirty years ago, I had a fire in my belly to do something with myself. I had just quit my job in the geology department in the Jammu university, and started graphic design and a print shop. I heard that there was a whole plate camera on sale. I could use one for my engraving work, so I went to Raghunath Bazaar, where next to the Amitabh Bacchan pan shop I stood waiting for my friend. He came up the stairs leading down to the mohalla with a box in his hand, and a lady wearing the white clothes of a widow. She was in her 50's and looked stricken. I paid her some money, and took the box containing the camera. I was about to walk off, when she stopped me. In her arms was a bundle which she carried like a child. She opened it up layer by layer, and in the middle, was the old lens. She was not strong enough to carry the camera, but she had taken out the lens, the last vestige of her husband. As she handed me the lens, her expression was as if she was handing me everything that was and would ever be of her and her marriage.

I saw visiting cards for the justices in the J&K high court lying on the side room, and so went into investigate. There was an entire room dominated by a 5 ton press, with multiple silk screen frames and old zinc plate etching baths sitting on the side. The ubiquitous ashtrays were now on mounds of darkroom chemicals and plumbing tools. In an alcove on far right was a small shoddily constructed darkroom containing a small red light and brake wires for motorcycles and an arc welding rig.
The fellow told me that he was fixing motorcycles and plumbing to make ends meet. Printing and design were no longer worth the effort to do right when people were easily satisfied with stuff coming out of small shops on every galli. So he was liquidating everything and thinking of what to do. I kept on trying to talk him into using the print shop as a base to teach the younger generation the old trade, lest it be lost.

I had a kid who was sent to me a couple of years ago. His father was a bus mechanic at a yard somewhere. He had done his BFA from the institute of music and fine arts, and his teacher told him that coming to meet me would do him good. I couldn't teach him anything, but we stayed in touch. He got into NID Ahmadabad. They asked for 6.5 lakh. He couldn’t afford it. Tried next year too. Same story. The last I heard, he is trying to drum up some collateral for a loan. I would have helped him, but then...

From talking to him, it was obvious to me that here was a thinking man, deeply sensitive to the goings on of the culture and the arts. He also talked to me in Dogri, so I figure that I liked him because of that too.
As I was on my way back from his place in the local bus, I was reminded of this one person who was a constant sight in my youth in Jammu. Bald on top, long shoulder length hair on the side, tall, lanky, cadaverous, hooked nose, bright eyes, beard and mustache. Always sat at the news paper shop near the parade grounds. This time, I didn't see him. I went to my usual chai shop and asked the kid who served me about the guy who I always saw and never got to know. He had died sometime in the last 6 years I was gone.
As I sat reading the newspaper from the day before and drinking chai, as is the way of things, a friend from my theater days popped in, Chai shops are the last bastion of the gainfully unemployed and the terminally lazy, and one is wont to always run into people one knows, as is the way of things. Over chai and navy cuts, we started talking about the changes since I had left town last. I asked him about the lanky fellow. He was an MA in English literature from the 70's. He maintained that the last pure thing Indians had written was the Ramayana and the Mahabharata. Everything else written by Indians was a product not of the Indian voice but of a mixed voice. Mughal, British, German. He wasn't against literature of the mixed people, but he maintained that Indians are only fit for telling and retelling the same stories over and over in multiple iterations. Never anything new. Disillusioned, he remained to the end of days, sitting on the same chair outside the news paper shop near the parade grounds, reading the news paper. And then he was gone.

I remember walking down residency road with my mother, who would tell me about how Mallika Pukhraj was a courtesan on the kothas on residency road. How going up from that road, you would come to Rajtilak road, where the king was crowned. The road was so crowded, if you wanted to get from one end to the other, you just stood in the middle. You would get jostled, and pushed, but you would eventually get on the other side. On the left was the road to Sabzi Mandi and to Pacca Danga, where she was born and where the entire family was raised. My grandfather had a shop there, binding books. He passed his matric, which was such a big deal that he was sought after even by the people who wanted their PhD thesis bound. You would go straight up that road and hit the Sangeet Vishvavidlaya, where my grandfather would play tabla with Zakir Hussain's father, and my mother learnt classical music. You kept on going and you would reach the Manda forest. My grandfather used to regularly cycle to Sialkot before partition. He would tell me that coming back he would sometime hitch rides with trucks, loaded with people, coming to spend nights in Jammu. The nights were famously cool here.
And from Manda, you would go down past the palace of the king, and hit Mubarak Mandi. These days, surrounded by rubble, you see cricket games. People take walks in the scenic piles of 150 year old bricks. The cherubs in the fountains are green and don't piss out water, but at least the fountain has water in its base. You see the rainbow shimmer on the surface. Some civic minded citizen has thrown some kerosene in the water to stop mosquito. People make do.

View of Buildings Leading up to Temple in Mubarak Mandi

Once in a while, the city has a Dogra festival, with singers getting called in from villages in the mountains where Dogri survives alongside poverty. They still wear the pink turbans and dance to the old songs. Every year, two men still come to my house and sing the baakh, a style unique to the hill tribes. The baakh they sing is a song of the names of the months. And while the two men with drums and a harmony reminiscent of Appalachian bluegrass singing, or when the villagers from the mountains in their pink turbans dance, it seems for a fleeting instant that the Dogra people are still Dogras, and not just an anonymous mass of rootless folk. But then it goes away, not to return until next year.

Every alley of the old city is full of cell phone shops and shops selling off brand clothing. And the halvais making matthi are selling chowmein in air conditioned shops with a smaller footprint than a public toilet. And that is ok. I will not be the one to stand between the right of anyone to make money howsoever they see fit. But I do see it as a sign. The chowmeins and the bay rans and the cell phone cases do not make a city. For a city to be, it needs a cohesive vision, a direction. Otherwise it is a village. That is what has happened with Jammu. It was a city before partition. Now it is a village with no direction and no culture. The best and brightest leave for greener shores. I did, as did most of my high school class. All those who stay are the Mahajans who have shops and factories to run here. Turns out, you don't need education and culture to make a living. Peddling rice and shampoo is enough.
Maybe my fixation with Mubarak Mandi is still based on that need to belong. Maybe it is the weepy nostalgia for the pomp and ceremony, that wasn't even there in my days. Maybe I am a sentimentalist. Maybe Dogra culture is dying. Maybe the language will go away. Maybe I am just bellyaching about inconsequential things. Maybe I am just the joker, and the joke is on me. Or maybe all I have is an inheritance of loss.

Monday, June 23, 2014

On Dead Things and Scannerwerk

Looking at Hanne Sharkey's Scannerwerk, (   (I have decided to call it that, without consultation with the artist.) the first question that comes to mind is how to place the images. They are all in blank space, hanging in the void, except the image of the mouse held in Hanne's hand. I shall come to that in a while. Looking at the remaining three, hanging dismembered and obviously dead in the void becomes an intellectual exercise for they are like insects encased in amber. One does not wonder how they died, or how they ended up hanging in the void. They are presented to me, and I look at them as such.

Hanne Sharkey Scannerwerk, Exploded Bird (?)

The question then becomes, to what end? Is it an exercise in composition? Is it a statement about life, or worse, about the artist's life? Since I am not a psychoanalyst, and don't really care much for unloading my interpretation of symbols on people, unless terribly pertinent, I shall look at them as platonically removed from ideal form. For example, look at the image with the bird and the feathers strewn around it. If the bird was not obviously flattened, one would almost argue it was flying, with some vigor, since it shed feathers. Let us go further down the platonic path.

All images, and indeed all artwork, are like onions (all good ones at least). They have many layers, meant to be analysed, consumed, wept over, in succession. You can not claim to reach the middle before you have consumed the first layer. Here, in the work, looking again at the Exploded Bird (for a want of a better title, since none were supplied), the first layer we see is that of a bird, almost in flight, or at the moment of its death, like Robert Capa's image of the dying spanish loyalist.

Robert Capa; The Falling Soldier

The feathers at the same time give the impression of movement, even though they are static (most probably because the bird is in such a dynamic pose), but also of clouds in a starless night. It is as if the image was taken in the wild, using an extraordinarily large flash, while trying to hunt the bird with ack ack guns.
The second layer we see, is of the bird, preserved in death, like a memento mori. It is dead, and now embalmed, preserved, in the photographic amber. Its death, as its life is commemorated surprisingly sympathetically. (for the scanner's light is passionless, cold, and objective. It refuses such artifice that a camera operator could use, like lighting set ups, and expressions.)
The third layer is that of platonic forms that the bird strikes. Is the bird the perfect bird? For only the perfect bird would deserve to be commemorated in life and death by such an image. It seems the bird was such a perfect bird, for it is reproduced in such detail. The bird has become a scientific specimen, for study by undergraduates in coldly lit biology labs, smelling of formaldehyde. Is the Sharkey Scanner such a lab? A biohazard site that dissects roadkill for the progression of art?
The fourth layer is that of the compositional forms. The image can be reduced to abstract forms.
The compositional weight on the lower left of the quadrilateral is balanced by the overextended speckled line, whimsical, that extends to the top right. The red and yellow circle in the the quadrilateral is mirrored by the speckles in the line, almost desaturated versions of the red yellow circle.
So on and so forth do the layers progress.
In such a manner, can all images in Hanne Sharkey's Scannerwerk, and indeed all image be analysed.

What strikes me is the singular image of the dead mouse held in a disembodied hand. I invite you to peel apart the image onion here. Do it for your own edification.

Done? Ok. Now what strikes me as intriguing, and possibally as a progression from the other three images, is the use of the hand, which supposedly belongs to Hanne. We can't know, and we don't really need to know (atleast for this analysis. A critic who works with the theories of Lacan, or a surrealist would have a field day). What is important here is that the hand grounds the image. The rat is no longer in space. It is held by a hand. It is held tenderly, in an almost motherly manner. The blood could have buggered that impression, but it is not the hand of the murderer that is holding the mouse. It is the hand of the person who interred it. The image no longer feels like a lab tray, reeking of formaldehyde. Now, it is a intimate sight. The grey aura that surrounds the hand before the black field has permeated the mood of the image, while the slightly nicotine stained nails speak of sadness that permeates the to be funeral. It is as if in its final moments, the rat curled up in the hand for warmth. Of all four, this is possibly the most emotional photo.

The question now becomes not one of merit, for it is obviously there, but of how. The use of a scanner versus that of a camera is interesting, and indeed pertinent to the discussion. Arguments, valid, could be made that a scanner is a camera. It is, but a camera less mediated by a human. It is cold, objective. It supplies its own light, doing away with the photographers tricks of modulating light. The light is cold, straight, direct and revealing. A scanner's camera, with its constant movement is like a scalpel, cutting the image into sections, recording it, and then mashing it together to create the finished image. In doing so, it brings about an image that is more then the subject. It is a mechanically examined image, that puts the subject to closer scrutiny then the naked eye can provide.
The scanner photography project comes to mind1, where the image is not only a record of the subject, but also its motion, vis a vis time. Inadvertently, the scanner has granted the image another dimension. Some might argue that the same dimensionality is also given to a camera image after a long exposure, but that is not the case. Possibly the closest analogue  to photographs taken by scanners would be images of racing cars taken by Lartigue, with the oval shaped wheels2

Jacques Henri Lartigue

It then becomes a question, whether Hanne, by using a scanner, is a photographer, or something else. By loose definition, I could concede that yes, she is a photographer, because she is creating images using a camera. However, I would argue that the images are photographic only in the “look”. In the sense of creating images, she is not a traditional photographer. She arranges the subject on a surface, and then lets the technology take care of the rest. That in no way is me denigrating her process. It is instead, an alternative avenue to image making. The image making process is mediated by a machine, that has no emotional bias (the question of whether it is biased towards one subject or another is a separate topic, and in short, I think, Yes. More on that in some other essay.) Thus, the image created in this man machine interface, while separated from the artist's intent by the machine interface, gains a life of its own, precisely because it is separated in such a manner. [More on this topic in later posts. Still developing this idea. Look forward to thoughts on a scanner vs a camera, and their artistic potential, used separately, or in conjunction.]
As for the four photos, I would argue they have merit individually. As a group, there is only trivial coherence, due to the subject matter. Simply putting dead things together not a series make. But I have a feeling that this is not a series yet, but a group of images, that are a work in progress. And a series of work that shows much potential.


2  The oval images were because of the shutter, which would lead to different parts of film being exposed at different times