A review on exhibition "CAMP: A Photogenetic Line" at Kolkata experimenter, Hindustan Road, Kolkata, India (On view 13 April - 15 July, 2019)

By: Kehkasha Sabah

[ Writing developed in a critical writing workshop organized by Kolkata Experimenter and Sharjah Foundation. ] 

 

 

A new document of nationalism

 

 

A hundred years ago Rabindranath Tagore[1] was very clear on building a natural human society, which is more humane in essence than the so-called artificially created nationhood[2] in his book Nationalism, 1917. Where he further proposed ‘Nationalism is a cruel epidemic of evil that is sweeping over the human world of the present age, eating into its moral vitality’. These lines were echoing in my mind while visiting an exhibition entitled ‘Camp - A Photogenetic line’ - hosted by one of the Experimenter’s galleries situated in Hindustan Road, Kolkata, India.

After entering the exhibition, a 100-foot long branching sequence of cardboard cutouts with photos (blown-up images from actual size), staged on a contentious wooden plinth holding on the irregular wall across the full venue will amaze anyone. The photographs, in both color and monochrome, have been reproduced for the exhibition. They were collected from the photojournalist archive of the Hindu, a leading national newspaper, by the film and media collective - CAMP. To a close inspection, the images installed here dated from 1937 to 2018. And stepping far back from the installation the whole art piece stand together in layers like a 3D montage - dashing front and back, cuts in the edge or punched in inside, juxtaposed in content or referral side by side with figures, peoples, places, objects, landscapes, and architecture colliding verses of multiple (political/apolitical) histories of India. This tableau-like setting is anything but the outcome of an archive simply revisited.

According to the Urban Dictionary, the word Photogenetic refers to ‘the genealogy that leads to on being Photogenic’. That suggests there is an actual subject lineage behind its appeared nature of the line referred to in the title. It’s difficult in photography to overcome the superficial power or subject; the concept and statement must be quite convincing in themselves to win over a dramatic and compelling subject situation. Let’s look at the conceptual formation of the work.

 

First, through this work Camp questioned an old archive with its stagnant quality which got altered in total newness, became interactive and more contextual to the contemporary time. Second, the whole process of the work, plywood cutouts of people/public figures as propaganda materials, is very referential to the people of India from their everyday visual culture. Because political leaders from India using similar forms during elections or events for more than eighty years. Sometimes these cutouts’ enormous sizes presented as a modern myth of demi-gods and the quantities inside a city, do block the horizon. Signifying to this - horizon blocking, Camp preferred to pick both political and apolitical images, and layered them in three special ways considering a sequence of peoples (in the photos) growing in age/reverting, things in the background come to the foreground and two Captions (of photos) refer to each other. These instructions on the exhibition handout, create several narratives of the photos- by dismantling every people, things, and places equally important and force them to appear as a de-constructed political horizon line to its viewers. 

The installed images start with – Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan aka Frontier Gandhi, who was a political and spiritual leader known for his nonviolent movement and opposed the partition of India. The images chosen here, are from his 1937’s active movements, where we see his meetings with a group of full-turbaned Sikhs or the army of Khudai Khidmatgars, and sequentially his images end with his elderly wheel chaired version with a delegation including Rajiv Gandhi[3]. Between this line of narration, in some images, you can identify the important presence of the minority leaders as well. Especially, Mehbooba Mufti, an Indian politician of the Jammu and Kashmir (Peoples Democratic Party) and Dalit Panthers of India, Periyar E. V. Ramasamy - a Father of Dravidian Movement, who was critical of any form of nationalism and promoted the principles of rationalism, self-respect, women’s rights, and eradication of caste. This sequel of a political narrative, from nationalism to critique of nationalism, intervenes with the symbolic interpretation of Things, Events, and Persons in many more layers, far-reaching and impossible to conclude in any finite line. Also, in putting together cutouts of major mass protests or gatherings, such as the protests in favor of the film ‘Fire’ or the investigation into Rajiv Gandhi’s killing, it might be noticed a clear trajectory of history being established. And this is where the title of the show comes in – ‘A Photogenetic Line’. The line could be anything, from representing a forward movement to some borders or barriers. The line is also a flexible tool to mold a form voluntarily—which is what the exhibition attempts to do as it allows one exhibit to speak to its neighbor and leaving the audience for a wide guessing. 

 

Among the such open-ended proximities, Camp showed some special interest by choosing actual cutout figures (propaganda) of important persons/events stated in their captions. Showing an empty structure that will hold a cutout of leaders before the assembly election 1991; another cutout with Rajiv Gandhi wearing traditional clothes, which captioned: a cutout fell on a person seriously injuring him 1992. A head-less cutout of MGR, a matinee idol-turned-chief minister of Tamil Nadu, standing in Namaskar [4] style juxtaposed with a poster of Famine in Rayalseema.  Another example of juxtaposing is Jayalalitha’s, a Tamil Chief Minister (1991-2016), cutout blows in the wind while Panaliswami’s, a current Tamil Chief Minister (from 2016), cutout still Namaskars from the one that was taken down by court order; Aren’t these examples referring to the anarchic ambiguity of using cutouts in the political landscape? Instantaneously, the last real cutout’s image is a life-size cardboard Cop (policeman) smiling and standing middle of the traffics. On March 16, 2013, The Hindu published “Indian city rolls out cutout policemen in bizarre bid to slow down traffic on its deadly roads” – appeared as a novel act of the same tool, which served political agendas before.

Skipping many in the middle, if we arrive at the last part of the installation, images of the people like- Kalari[5] expert Shaji K. John, social activist, singer and two time Women Billiard title winner Kamala Devi, and Mr. Duke of Kashmir (Khuda Bux- Man with the X-ray Eyes, known for blindfold playing) staged sequentially with their active images. The relation of these three talents could be seen as a symbolic reference to the wide range of talents India has and should utilize, with a focus that needs determination, and discipline like a yogi is essential for the progress of India. Or, they completely mean something else? There are many examples as such, creating countless narratives that could encounter by a viewer at the exhibition. Among these storylines, Camp’s exhibition contentiously confines our eye to the nation’s existing political practices question its anachronistic side and suggest some change and reform.

 

The total exhibition has presented as an idea of a single art piece, contains many images with serious events creating a discourse with some simple events or activity as well, such as - farming landscape to banal images, or bride inside an auto-rickshaw to cricketer playing in the field. Camp successfully have done it through either with the image content or cutting their borders differently or with the captions written on the wooden plinth. But all narratives at the end will navigate you to think of any of the burning socio-political issues, including human/gender rights, equality, caste oppression, religious intolerance, national progress, and limited freedom of speech that all are important for contemporary sovereignty.   

Finally, another major point that needs to address, the art piece exclusively contains images of the people/places from- Pashtun, Karachi, Kashmir, Sri-Lanka, Tamilnadu, Bangalore, Mysore, Chennai, Hyderabad, Delhi, Guwahati, and many more regions of India or its peripheral states, except Bangladesh and Nepal. Now some questions might remain, why these two countries are not included in any of the narratives created by CAMP? Specially Bangladesh was a part of India exactly when (1937) the narrative started. Why Camp included a person from Pashtun (recently Afghanistan) or events from Sri-Lanka, when both of these countries are independent countries too? The reasonable conclusion could be defined as - CAMP wanted to do the territorial investigation of an inclusive India in terms of the origin of its name[6], shared language, multiple believes systems and culture, where the so far practiced nationalism needs to be re-examine. Intriguing enough the exhibition is going on alongside the Indian national general election 2019 when the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)[7] was already in the power for the last five years and many of their political activities are highly critiqued for using Hinduism as a political device. Pondering upon the political discourse on ‘India’ as a nation, divided on religion, or it’s practiced nationalism was hugely opposed by Mahatma Gandhi or many other Gandhian activists later on. Like Khan Abdul Gaffar Khan, with whose image Camp started the installation. And over the course, the installation magnificently branched out showing political or apolitical images to inflame our thoughts to a new beginning of nationalism by addressing the multi-layered peoples of India who are profound in many religious believes, knowledge, spirituality, heritage and inherently Pan-Asian in nature.

This exhibition waits for more exploration from different visitors. It is on view from 13 April to 15 July 2019, at Kolkata Experimenter, Hindustan Road, Kolkata, India.

 

Footnotes:

[1] Rabindranath Tagore (7 May 1861 – 7 August 1941) was a Bengali poet, writer, composer, philosopher and painter from Bengal. He became the first non-European to win the Nobel Prize in Literature (1913).

[2] Tagore, Rabindranath, Nationalism, Macmillan, New York, 1917

 

[3] Rajiv Ratna Gandhi (1944-1991) was the youngest Indian Prime Minister at the age of 40, the president of Indian National Congress party. He served as the 6th Prime Minister of India from 1984 to 1989. He was assassinated in 1991 while in his election campaign.

[4] Namaskar- A body gesture, uniting two hands in front with bowing head, of offering greeting to the people. It is popular in S/Se-Asia, originated from Hindu and Buddhist religion. 

[5] Kalari: Is a form of Indian martial arts, as a mix of yoga and sword fight movements.

[6] ‘India’ as a name derived from the river Indus dated back 2500BC in the Indus-Valley civilization (consisting some regions from Afganistan, Pakistan, Kashmir, North and West-side of India).

[7] BJP is a right-wing party, and its policy has historically reflected Hindu nationalist positions.

 

©2022 Kehkasha Sabah. All Rights Reserved. | Developed By CREATIVA

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