An Economy ofSigns and Indian photography at Collins Gallery, Edinburgh. LISTINGS: GLASGOW 52 EDINBURGH 54 MUSEUMS 56
Miranda France reports on an exhibition of Indian photography which sheds new light on a country which has been endlessly photographed by Westerners.
Cultural exhibitions of artefacts or photographs from another country can be so goddamn self-righteous. Somehow they make you feel ashamed that you never thought to find out more about New Zealand or Peru or Zimbabwe, and got there with your camera first. A resounding cheer, then, for An Economy ofSigns. This is a vibrant exception to that rule: it enlarges the mind. without patronising either the subject matter or the viewer.
For a start, the photographers are Indian, so this is not an amorphous collection of typical images seen through the eyes of a Westerner. Each one of the eight contributors has focused on one aspect of Indian society — and usually on one particular group of people - which is unfamiliar to an outsider.
In the case of Karan Kapoor, the photographs document the lifestyle of the country’s few remaining Anglo-Indians, ‘the last remnant of the British Raj, a generation of people who remember the railway cantonments, Marilyn lookalike contests, the Central Provinces — a world long gone’. Scorned by the British proper, although always remaining loyal to the ‘mother country' they have never seen, the last of the Anglo-Indian misfits are quietly slipping into oblivion. Mellicent Bianca Jones is typical of their unhappy ambivalence. Kapoor recalls that she would utter in one breath ‘We hate the Indians. . . We love the Indians, love them.‘
Amita Prasher‘s collection Veiled Stitches focuses on the woman embroiderers of Meghwal in the desert region of Rajasthan. They divide the day between household chores, collecting water and working in the fields. Little time is left for their traditional embroidery work, but the commercial success of the cloth puts them under
increasing pressure to produce for pitiful wages. By way of a silent protest the women embroider ‘rough‘ , or poor quality cloth.
Another rural community is to be found in the Himalayas where the Buddhist way of life is
under threat from contact with the sub-continent.
San jeev Saith has called his collection Prayer Flags after the coloured ﬂags strung by Sherpas on mountain tops.
.4... “- Extract from ‘Abld's Wedding’ by Ketaki
Two different aspects of the spiritual life of India are recorded by Ashim Ghosh and Sooni Taraporevala. Ghosh lived amongst the Sadhus — Sadhu means ‘good man‘ in Sanskrit — an ascetic sect of wonderful weirdos with long straggly hair and very few clothes. while Taraporevala photographed the Parsees. In the 9th century they arrived in India from Persia where their religion, based on the teachings of Zarathustra, was displaced by Islam. They settled mainly in Bombay and remained loyal to their religion but, since they accepted no converts, their numbers have rapidly dwindled. Many have emigrated and those left wrily admit to being an ‘endangered specres’.
Sheba Chhachhi‘s work centres on the women’s movement in Delhi, and in particular on their protests against ‘our common oppression — rape, dowry, religious fundamentalism, domestic violence, state violence’. There’s much to be angry about in a country where brides with insufficient dowries are sometimes killed in order to release the husband to marry again. But
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Chhachhi’s affectionate portraits represent an effort to get away from the stereotypical images of ‘angry eyes, raised fist, shouting mouth‘.
Ram Rahman and Ketaki Sheth contribute pictures ofcity life in Delhi and Bombay, respectively. Images range from a vintage-car rally and a society dinner party to street ear-cleaners — with cotton buds tucked into their turbans — and the brilliantly primadonna-ish Movie star rehearsing his lines.
I said the title was awkward, in fact An Economy ofSigns is a quote from writer R. K. Narayan, himselfa very evocative and original painter oflndian society. It alludes to the way in which different characteristics can be highlighted or hinted at. This is not the kind ofexhibition you choose one poignant image. or one salient artist from. It is more like a rich documentary ofa country everyone knows something about. The difference is that these are not familiar or usual photographs.
An Economy ofSigns is showing at the Collins Gallery, Glasgow, until 15 February.
The List 25 January — 7 February 1991 51