The View From Out There

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Speaking to a packed house at the inaugural Delhi Photo Festival in 2011, photographer Prabuddha Dasgupta said he wanted to create “a long string of images held together by grace”. Following his death last year, curators Prakash Panjiar and Dinesh Khanna took up that challenge, declaring ‘grace’, that “undefinable, non-rational, non-linear word”, the theme for this year’s edition, to be held at the India Habitat Centre from 27 September to 11 October. The festival’s primary function, Panjiar says, is to build a community of photographers and enthusiasts of the medium. In its second edition, there are a number of photography shows at prominent Delhi galleries piggybacking on the popularity of the festival. There are no qualifications for being exhibited; all you need is an interesting idea. This is evident in the unique perspectives these photographers bring to seemingly everyday concerns. The three artists displayed here — Azadeh Akhlaghi, Asmita Parelkar and Jannatul Mawa — are examples of the festival throwing up “a large number of women photographers submitting diverse works”, something Panjiar is glad to explain as a happy coincidence. Their works conform to the theme in that they are simple, elegant ideas that communicate so much without seeming to do so.

At first glance, there is nothing that is simple to Akhlaghi’s elaborate restaging of events from Iran’s bloody past. Using information from archives, news reports and, as the title suggests, eyewitness accounts, By An Eyewitness (part of Pix magazine’s Iran issue, to be displayed at the Goethe Institut on 26 September) uses actors to recreate various violent deaths that have occurred at every tumultuous event in the country’s history. The simplicity of the project lies in how it forces the viewer to confront the past shorn of all political blinkers; every picture is evidence of the fact that the gears of time are too often greased with blood.
Akhlaghi, who was inspired by the shock she felt at watching cellphone footage of the shooting of Neda Agha- Soltan during the protests following the 2009 presidential election, gives each of the deaths — none of which were captured on camera — the power of photography, a latter-day infusion of relevance to guard against a forgetful human race.
Parelkar’s The Giraffe Behind The Door deals not with the fragility of human memory, but with our utter lack of empathy for other creatures. The Mumbai-based photographer clicked animals inside the five zoos of New York, known for their enclosures that mimic the animal’s natural habitat. These enclosures are a cut above the dingy cages Indian zoos provide, but, the pictures suggest, a cage is a cage. “Humans take pride in the idea that we are kind to animals,” says Khanna, “but the moment you enclose an animal, you deny it its freedom.” Simply gilding the cage does not change the fact that the creature inside must spend the rest of its life on display, always on stage for snotty kids on a school trip. In her accompanying note, Parelkar mentions zoochosis, a series of abnormal behaviours including pacing, circling, overgrooming and even self-mutilation that animals indulge in due to the stress of captivity. “An animal in captivity,” she writes “remains as nothing but a ghost of its former self.”
In Close Distance, Bangladeshi photographer and activist Jannatul Mawa tackles captivity of a different type. Her series of portraits pairs middle-class women — both working women and housewives — and their domestic help, women who come from very different strata of society but are equally bound by the patriarchal notion that the woman’s place is in the kitchen. “It’s a stunning, simple idea,” says Khanna. “Just the body language of the subjects communicates so much.” How they choose to sit, the distance between the maid and the mistress, an easy smile here, a stern frown there; it is the little things that make it immediately clear how the two women view each other and themselves.
Like Akhlaghi’s restagings, like Parelkar’s comments on the artificiality of enclosures, Mawa’s portraits represent how photography is no longer an Ahablike quest for the perfect moment, but, as Panjiar says, “a language using which we have the freedom to comment on society however we wish”. The three women use that language to tell humanist stories with style, with flair, with striking wit. And more than a little grace.