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Culture Counts
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Culture Counts

I do not go along with the perception of globalization as the Big Bad Wolf neutralizing expression, marginalizing and wiping out differences, and bleeding cultures dry of individuality. It’s not happening in Indian photography, and judging by the art market’s rush for Latin American photography as the “hot” art, India is not alone.

It did not happen in nineteenth century India under the strictures of British colonialism. They tried. The British home officer in Bombay threw up his hands in despair, writing to the London home office in 1871 that Indian photographers refused to “learn” how to photograph properly. The British established schools for them to learn. But, the home officer complained, they just go to the Bazaars and learn from their fathers.

Not that these photographers—along with golfers, artists, and others—did not extract elements of the foreign culture. They did. But they made it Indian, which is the only process that assures a foreign influence will be absorbed in India. Culture counted then.

It does today, too, and even with powerfully influenced global money, an Indian cultural expression in the most powerful contemporary photography grows stronger.

Take Vivan Sundaram’s fashion show, fully fledged with models parading down a runway in exotic costume. Except that these costumes are refashioned from such medical castoffs as prosthetics. Or the animated stills that Manas Bhattacharya and Madhuban Mitra made of a ten-year closed camera factory, with leftovers blowing in a wind—past made part of the present. Not joined to the [End Page 159] present but in the present. Call the animation anthropology or an archeological dig. It rearranges time.

An undeclared world swims through this photography.

For all its use of global facts, fun, and fancies, the most powerful contemporary Indian photography takes on the sweeping concerns beyond daily or personal life. It does not look inward but explores the inexplicable. Myth and religion did that in the nineteenth and earlier centuries. Those belief systems have lost much of their power today. But the driving force propelling those beliefs remains.

Sometimes amorphous, at other times focused, today’s photography expresses a connection to health, obsolescence, the environment, water, and other such overriding issues.

Is it a new secularism? A new religion? It’s an unnamed force. And it drives visual expression in India. [End Page 160]

Judith Mara Gutman

Judith Mara Gutman, the author of Through Indian Eyes, is also the author of the forthcoming When Innovation Was King, Lewis Hine’s Photographs of 1930s America, a Society in Transition; of numerous articles for The New York Times, Vanity Fair, and Washington Post; and curator of “The Future of America: Lewis Hine’s New Deal Photographs,” open at the International Center of Photography on October 4, 2013.

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