Dhiraj Singh

Feb 28, 2019


Chennai Photo Biennale, in its second edition, brings to the fore many interpretations of the expanding universe of photography


“I went into photography because it seemed like the perfect vehicle for commenting on the madness of today’s existence.” — Robert Mapplethorpe


These past few years, one has been forced to ask whether it was possible any more to trust an image. We are after all living in a ‘post-truth’ world where faked and photoshopped pictures go viral all the time. Where the fake image has an almost Voldemortian power of falsifying what really is in ways that were unimaginable a few years ago. It would seem then that pictures are no more true as they once used to be but instead have become agents of moral corruption and decay. In such a scenario of willful blurring of lines we get to have an event that makes you explore the increasing complexity of picture making and the faith-like relation it once had with truth and reality.

This year’s Chennai Photo Biennale, which is in its second edition, brought to the fore many interpretations of this expanding universe of photography. It was great to see the Biennale take on an air of multi-disciplinarity which was so far only seen and felt in the field of visual arts. What was also noteworthy was the use of venues that put the spotlight on Chennai’s past in very intelligent and well-thought out ways. Venues such as Senate House overlooking Marina Beach, Madras Literary Society’s 200-year-old library and the Government Museum perfectly showcased an extremely photogenic city that straddles many different Indias, all at the same time.

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Dhiraj Singh 12 March 2019
There was a time when we used to look at family albums and relive the days gone by. How people looked when they were younger. Family photos had triggers that could take you back in time. That they were printed on paper added a certain preciousness to them. It was as if the photos themselves were some sort of relics endowed with magical powers. As a kid I remember being moved by this movie scene where Rati Agnihotri lights up her boyfriend’s picture, mixes the ashes in her tea and drinks it up to spite her parents. It is was defiance, poetry and the power of photographs in one scene of cinematic brilliance.

This power of pictures printed on paper is somehow gradually fading from our midst as most of our memories are now shared digitally. So it was lovely to see this power of photography beautifully reconjured for us in this year’s Chennai Photo Biennale. Not only that, it also gave us many diverse interpretations of the act of picture-making itself.

What I found particularly endearing was the idea that distantly hung over the Biennale like a cloud. And I mean this in the best possible of ways. The idea of a ‘Fauna of Mirrors’ comes from an old Chinese legend of an emperor who colonized the world that existed on the other side of the mirror. These ‘mirror people’ though earlier a friendly lot became hostile towards humans because of the emperor’s occupation and have ever since been feuding with them. The tale in itself seems to be an allegory of human discomfort at being shown the mirror but in the context of the Biennale it became a deeply intended encapsulation of what curator Pushpamala N. had in mind. I have been a fan of Pushpamala, the artist, whose work I adore because of her use of impersonation as a way of paring down the hyperboles of the Subcontinent.

In that the Biennale is true to its ideal of holding a mirror to the changing face of the planet. I found Archana Hande’s work extremely thoughtful as it dissolved many binaries not just of image-making but also of looking at the colonial enterprise, as only an exploiter of human beings. Titled ‘The Golden Feral Trail’ it reimagines the exploitative trade of the Indian camel that was shipped to Australia to work in the mines there. Set in a projection pit strewn with crystals the work involves moving animations of camels, trains, drilling equipment snaking through the Australian outback in a quest for gold.

Manit Sriwanchipoom from Thailand too furrows deep into the trauma of his country’s past, 1976 to be exact when student protests were violently quelled by the ruling military junta. The most well-known of these was the Thammasat University massacre where protesting students were lynched, shot and raped under the watch of the military. The death toll in the massacre is still disputed though official figures are said to be a fraction of the actual numbers. Manit in his works has inserted a ‘pink man’ in some of the massacre’s most iconic (and gruesome) pictures creating images that evoke both humour and horror. “I want to make authoritarian governments look like they are someone we should ridicule, make fun of. This is the power of humour where you can play with them,” he explains.

Indu Antony takes to humour in a more gendered way picking out the aspect of women behaving as men. In her photographs she is Superman, Captain Jack Sparrow, a coconut seller, a police inspector; all archetypes of stud masculinity. But even as she indulges in this roleplay one isn’t allowed to forget that her underlying message is seriously concerned about the freedom that’s often denied to women in public spaces.

Arun Vijai Mathavan focuses his lens on autopsy workers in Indian hospitals. These aren’t doctors but ‘sanitary workers’ often from Dalit communities who cut and stitch corpses because no one else will. Mathavan’s pictures capture the grisly anatomy of the post-mortem ritual. It is a sight one is not familiar with but Mathavan bravely goes where no other Indian photographer has gone before.
Catherine Leutenegger takes you to an American suburb that was for much of the 20th century a household name. Her series ‘Kodak City’ chronicles the wiping out of a film-reel manufacturing hub set up by George Eastman himself. When Kodak filed for bankruptcy in 2012 many of its office buildings were razed to the ground. Videos of these Catherine has made part of her work that consists mostly of pictures of Kodak buildings in Rochester, New York. The images are deeply ironical—a study of loss and disappearance—about a ‘photo city’ becoming invisible because of digital photography.

Another form of loss and decay Angela Grauerholz showcases in her works ‘Privation’ and ‘The Empty Shelf’. Through her two giant photo books Angela creates a catalogue of disappearance. ‘Privation’ is a personal work that has scanned (not photographed) images of her own books that were gutted in an accidental fire. “I realized that the books were very beautiful after they burnt,” she says, “I’ve been thinking a lot about the future of books and how can I sort of participate in the photographic reflection of that. Also the future of the materiality of photography.”

What I thought was also spectacular about the Chennai Photo Biennale was the intuitive way works were placed across the city in venues that are old and beautiful. It gave me a lot of hope for the future of photography and the histories they’re seeking to preserve.

Dhiraj Singh is a well-known journalist, writer, TV personality and artist who has shown his abstract paintings and X-Ray works in India and abroad.

Article link on NDTV-Mojarto is HERE

Women finding their voice and feet is what makes a society free and equal... so this International Womens Day I’ve painted this lovely shoe provided by ‘Artkriti’ & Gaurav Chawla for their upcoming show ‘Shoe Tales’
Dhiraj Singh 04 March 2019

The earliest source of music in India is the Samaveda and it opens with this line: ‘Agna ā yāhi vītaye’ which translates as ‘O Agni, come to the feast’. To a musician this invitation to Agni, the god of fire, is perhaps a prayer to be touched by fire. To be granted the gift of ‘duende’. That incredible agitation of the soul. The one that Lorca, the poet, brilliantly illustrated with the example of El Lebrijano who famously declared: “On days when I sing with duende no one can touch me”.

I was reminded of Lorca’s essay on duende time and again as sounds from places as far as Yemen and Cuba unleashed that same soul-agitation in me as I sat by the lake in Udaipur. The Udaipur World Music Festival is the creation of Sanjeev Bhargava, whose organization ‘Seher India’ has been bringing many international talents to India. Sanjeev is a sort of ‘duende-seeker’ who travels the world to find singers and musicians whose fire he can stoke and artfully graft into the musically fertile loam of India.

For the audience too the experience is as uplifting. Especially listening to ‘Gulaza’, a band from Israel that brought us centuries-old songs of Yemen’s Jewish Diaspora. These songs, as Igal Gulaza Mizrahi told us, have been passed down from mother to daughter and they speak of the guilt many mothers felt as they shushed their daughters into marriages with men they had never seen, men already married, men sometimes older than their fathers. Igal began his song by telling us how mothers consoled their daughters by singing to them the Biblical story of Isaac and Rebecca who had travelled great distances to marry him. How the two had never met but found true love after marriage. Among the Jewish women of Yemen it had become customary to “bring down the white chord of grace to the new couple” through such songs of hope and comfort. Igal and his troupe of four whose lone woman member is cellist Leat Sabbah sing these amazingly lively songs of women feuding with patriarchy in their own small ways. “We’re taking the world of tradition and bringing in a new evolution,” says Igal, “we’re transforming songs that are passed down from mother to daughter, from ear to mouth and from mouth to ear. The mothers of our mothers brought us something and they wanted us to do something new with it.” Which Igal is doing with so much spunk that he ought to be given a prize just for thinking up the idea. “They ask me all the time this question how I am singing women’s songs as a man, but for me more than anything this is a project about freedom.”

‘Albaluna’ a band from Portugal gave freedom an altogether different dimension by reimagining the eclectic psychogeography of the Iberian Peninsula. Its Afghan rubab-playing lead Ruben Monteiro explained it most simply: “Iberia for many centuries was a really special place that received so many people from all over the world. Not only because people came there but also because the Portuguese and the Spanish went out all over the world to make business, sometimes bad business (laughs), so a lot of different cultures came to Iberia: the Jewish people, the Arabs, the Vikings all came to the Iberian peninsula.” This resulted in Iberia absorbing influences far removed from its own native borders and ethnicities.

The ‘Delgocha Ensemble’ from Iran created a mesmerizing morning ‘sama’ at a venue that overlooked Lake Pichola, on a stage on which loomed a giant ‘mirror tree’ like some magical djinn billowing out of a bottle. Taghi Akhbari, Delgocha’s vocalist sang Rumi and Hafez. Taghi’s singing accompanied by the Persian ‘tor’ and ‘daf’ was familiar but different as great music often is because it connects us to something that we already carry inside ourselves: our emotions. As his wavering voice sang ‘Rakh Abdullah’, a morning rendition much like our ragas, we were transported to the desert ruins of Khorasan seeing the world as the Sufis saw it: a vessel waiting to be animated by love.

Compared to soft tonal lilts of Delgocha, ‘La Dame Blanche’ burst forth into the audience like a confetti shower with all the pluck and passion of Latino rap as its lead singer and flautist Yaite Ramos Rodriguez owned the stage Havana cigar in hand. Everybody from backpackers to turbaned locals at Fateh Sagar were seen swaying to the beats of this one.

South Africa’s ‘Hot Water’ was another band that got the evening crowd at Gandhi Ground energized with its foot tapping sounds that included ‘Wamkelekile’, their most popular soundtrack from the Adam Sandler film ‘Blended’. I was especially impressed by its lead Donovan Copley’s improvised Castrol can guitar. The jazz by the ‘Yves Theiler Trio’ featuring our very own Shree Sundarkumar on the kanjira too created a sizzling mix of sounds not normally heard in small town India.

It was amazing to see the chhattris of Udaipur echo with music from all corners of the world. A Flamenco singer’s wailing ‘siguiriyas’ in a place more used to the sounds of the ‘ravanhatha’! “I felt a lot of emotion from the audience,” said Rocio Marquez, “even if we didn’t speak the same language.” Truly, there are no borders in music. Only people who haven’t yet been touched by the fire.

Dhiraj Singh is a well-known journalist, writer, TV personality and artist who has shown his abstract paintings and X-Ray works in India and abroad.
Article link on NDTV-Mojarto is HERE

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As an art practitioner I work in a variety of mediums, what you see here are glimpses of my many creative projects. If you like or feel strongly something here please don't forget to comment

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