Welcome to Photo Focus, where each Friday I will examine a single photograph. These short essay’s will give a greater insight into the individual image beyond its context within a group of photographs.
This is the second week in a three part series of sections of my MA Art History research paper titled, “Changing Perspectives: Gauri Gill’s The Americans.”
Motel owner’s private quarters at the motel/ Lobby of a Gujarati run motel, San Francisco, 2002. (fig. 4)
The second photograph I have selected to examine is titled Motel owner’s private quarters at the motel/Lobby of a Gujarati run motel, San Francisco, 2002 (Figure 4). This work is a diptych measuring 16 ½ by 50 inches. The photograph on the right side is dominated by a mural of the Golden Gate Bridge with a worn floral-patterned loveseat in front of it. Two potted plants, an earth-toned tile floor, and a heavy wooden front door can also be seen in the photograph. The public space of this environment is not only indicated through the title of the photograph but also through the ‘exit sign’ suspended in front of the pilaster that visually and physically divides the mural of the Golden Gate Bridge. The photograph on the left features an interior wall with decorative paneling. The crown molding supports framed images of the Gujarati Saint Shree Jalaram Bapa, the Golden Gate Bridge, and the Hindu deities Krishna and Santoshi Maa. A fifth framed image, which appears to be a photograph of a person wearing a white-collared shirt and dark suit coat, is barely visible in the upper right corner of Gill’s photograph. These images are in the motel owner’s private space and collectively define his or her identity as Hindu and more specifically as Gujarati. Moreover, his or her association and connections with San Francisco are also visualized and defined. This photograph is unique in that it shows the motel owner’s regional identity in both India and the United States. However, one might not fully understand the visual clues in this photograph if they do not understand the iconography that is shown. For example, many viewers might not recognize the Gujarati Saint which means they will not have the knowledge to fully decipher the photograph. Understanding that there is a visual clue to the motel owner’s projected identity enriches the understanding of the photograph because it shows that the motel owner is not just South Asian but specifically Gujarati. An understanding of the framed images and their subjects provides a fuller account of the negotiations that are made between “South Asian” and “American” identities.
Consciously or unconsciously, people own things that show specific relationships. This holds true for the motel owner who chose to showcase these particular images within his/her private quarters. Here it is important to understand what each of these images signifies. Beginning with the framed image on the far left, the Gujarati Saint is wearing a white kurta, yellow turban, and a necklace of rudraksha beads. In his proper left hand he holds a staff and in his right he holds a string of prayer beads. Shree Jalaram Bapa was born in 1800 in Virpur, Gujarat. Throughout his life, Bapa was known for helping pilgrims, sadhus, and the poor of various religious traditions. As an adult, Bapa opened a food distribution center where those in need could go to get food at any time of day or night. In effect, he had established the equivalent of a modern-day soup kitchen. This charitable work for people of all religions contributed to Bapa’s saintly status.
The third framed image depicts the Hindu God Krishna. He is shown as a blue child embracing a calf and he is surrounded by three peacock feathers with one worn in his crown. Krishna is a popular God throughout India and is depicted in various ways. Stories of Krishna permeate Indian literature and narratives of his youth are especially popular. Krishna grew up in a cow-herding village and grew up to be a cow-herder himself, which is indicated by the calf he cradles. He is known for being mischievous in his childhood and as a young adult. The most famous story of Krishna’s youth presents him as a butter theif. His playful nature is what continues to make him a popular god throughout India and the South Asian diaspora.
Next to Krishna is a framed image of the Hindu goddess Santoshi Maa, translated as “mother of satisfaction,” Santoshi Maa sits on a thrown in the lotus position and is surrounded by attendants. She has four arms and holds the following attributes: a sword, trident, and a bowl. She makes a gesture of giving (varada mudra) with her lower right hand. Santoshi Maa is worshiped for the pursuit of one’s worldly endeavors such as health, wealth, mental peace, emotional contentment, and satisfaction. The goddess was popularized by the 1975 film, Jai Santoshi Maa. However, evidence shows that Santoshi Maa was being worshipped in Northern India for at least a decade before the film. She is usually worshipped on Fridays through a katha vrat which is a ritual performed primarily by women through giving offerings and reciting a story. The inclusion of the Santoshi Maa image in the private quarters may indicate that a woman utilizes this space.
While religious images represent the motel owner’s multifaceted Indian identity, the Golden Gate Bridge signifies his/her American identity. The Golden Gate Bridge has been an icon of San Francisco since the 1940s, after Franklin D. Roosevelt announced its opening on May 28, 1938. At the time, it was the longest bridge in the world and considered an engineering triumph. It remained the longest bridge in the world until 1964 when the Verrazano Narrows Bridge opened in New York. Since its opening, the Golden Gate Bridge has been a symbol for the city of San Francisco and tourists travel there just to see it. The Golden Gate Bridge is probably painted on the walls of the motel lobby because it is a symbol associated with the city. The mural highlights the expansive dimensions of the bridge which is named one of the Seven Wonders of the Modern World. It is no surprise that the motel owner has a picture of the Golden Gate Bridge in his/her private quarters since it is a symbol of San Francisco. Literally a bridge fills in the space between two points. This idea can also be taken figuratively and might represent the motel owner’s transition or perhaps the relocation of his or her parents from India to the United States.
As in Gill’s photograph of the Sikh man on a bicycle that was explored previously, this diptych shows that a person can define and express multiple identities simultaneously. In his article “Identity, Communal Consciousness, and Politics,” Ghanshyam Shah states that in today’s world there are multiple ways of expressing one’s identity depending on the context. For example, if the motel owner is with a group of immigrants from Gujarat, he or she might assert their Gujarati identity, however, if the motel owner is interacting with other business people in the San Francisco area, his or her identity as a motel owner or resident of San Francisco would probably be emphasized. Shah further explains that identity is often but not always formed through cultural constructs through the process of ‘inclusion’ and exclusion’ of “values and symbols defining ‘we’ and ‘they’ or ‘us’ and ‘others.’” This means that people have identities based on family relationships such as mother or brother, but also have identities based on religious affiliation, job or career, and socio-economic background, among many other social constructs. Gill’s diptych visualizes the inhabitant’s religion, career choice and regional associations. However, the motel owner has other identities that cannot be seen in the photograph, including their gender as it has been left out of the photograph’s title.
In light of the ideas about identity posited by Shah, Gill’s photograph of the motel owner’s private space visually shows the complexity of personal identity and the many forms it can take. All of the images that can be seen in this photograph are on the same visual plane meaning they all carry equal significance to the motel owner. The pictures of Saint Shree Jalaram Bapa, Krishna, and Santoshi Maa are all the same size. The image of the bridge is wider than the other images but only slightly taller. Furthermore, the owner has consciously constructed the display of the images alternating between white and black frames. While the frame around the bridge is different from the others it adheres to the white and black pattern. The sizes of these objects and their placement give equal weight to the motel owner’s identities as Gujarati, Hindu, and San Franciscan.
In “Artifacts, Identity, and Transition: Favorite Possessions of Indians and Indian Immigrants to the United States,” Raj Mehta and Russell Belk explore the importance of identity construction within India and in the United States. An understanding of why regional identity is important to Indians at home might shed light on why the motel owner finds his or her connection to San Francisco important. This connection is significant because according to Mehta and Belk, identity in India is constructed more in terms of the collective community whereas in the United States it is more individualistic.
Ultimately, Mehta and Belk seek to determine if and how possessions are used to create identity and how this process might differ depending on whether a person still lives in their homeland or abroad. The study shows that favorite possessions in India tended to be connected with family lineage or religion. In contrast, privileged possessions of Indians inhabiting the United States included religious items or craft objects from India, which Mehta and Belk convincingly claim represent the Indian homeland. Looking at Gill’s photograph, one would infer that the images of the Gujarati saint, Krishna, and Santoshi Maa are treasured items based on their placement on the wall’s molding. These objects serve to remind the owner of their home state and their religious values. Thus, these possessions confirm or reaffirm the owner’s identity as Indian and as a Gujarati Hindu. Mehta and Belk read possessions that connect to one’s homeland as a way of showing how Indian immigrants retain a communal identity in the United States. On the other hand, in the context of America, these items can be seen as providing insight into a unique identity because Hinduism is not a part of the dominant Christian culture in the United States. Through these items, an Indian immigrant or South Asian descendent expresses their individual heritage and this individualism is important to many Americans. This argument put forth by Metha and Belk highlights the items the motel owner has chosen to keep and use as personal expression. Through the placement of objects, the motel owner has declared that he/she identities himself/herself as a member of the San Francisco community as well as a person of Gujarati Hindu heritage. The motel itself can also be seen as a possession and interpreted using Mehta and Belk’s theory. If the motel is considered a favorite possession, it symbolizes an achievement in a new country as well as setting roots in a new place. Owning the motel gives the owner status among friends and family in the United States as well as in India.
The photograph on the right side of the diptych, which presents the lobby of the motel, brings up questions about this specific motel. On one hand, the motel lobby looks clean and freshly painted, suggesting that the motel is well kept. On the other hand, the shabby floral love-seat implies that this may be a lower quality motel. Aside from questions about the star rating of the motel, the act of ownership by a Gujarati immigrant can be explored. In addition to being Gujarati, Hindu, and San Franciscan, the motel owner also takes on the identity of a motel owner as he or she is identified in the title of Gill’s photograph. This identity would be played out often as people in the United States respect local business owners and they are seen as a part of the American economic tradition. In the same way Taj Maan has attained the American dream through participating in the city council, the motel owner has succeeded in the American dream by owning his or her own business.
In the article, “Social Capital, Geography and Survival: Gujarati Immigrant Entrepreneurs in the U.S. Lodging Industry,” Arturs Kalnins and Wibur Chung examine Gujarati-run motels across the states of Georgia, Florida, California, and Texas. Gujarati immigrants began acquiring and founding independent motels in the late 1970s. Kalnins and Chung also found that these immigrants work together to support one another. For example, those who own chain hotels are often able to charge more and have higher profits and with the surplus of funds, they will often loan money to Gujarati motel owners who have less capital. Groups that are formed on a regional association (such as Gujarati-American) through motel ownership create a new community for the immigrants participating in it. As the state of Gujarat’s primary industry is agriculture, it can be a different shift for some of these immigrants to go into the motel industry. Kalnins and Chung suggest that motel ownership is attractive to immigrants because the start-up cost is low and because they often include a residence for the owner/operator, as is the case in Gill’s photograph. Furthermore, for Gujaratis, motel ownership is more attractive than other low cost start-ups such as restaurants, which could pose problems in regard to the handling of meat and certain dietary restrictions found in many South Asian religious communities. Here it can be seen that not only is there an identity in terms of location or religion but that the motel owner operates in another identity based on his or her career path in the United States.
Another Indian photographer who explored Indian immigrants to the United States is Pablo Bartholomew. IN the 1970s and 1980s, Bartholomew photographed immigrants in California including motel owners at their establishments. One of his photographs is titled One of the Many Patel Motels, Fresno, 1987. This photograph (Figure 5) also explores the division of public and private space within the motel. The photograph is an axial view of the little window that separates patron from owner. In the lobby on the left side of the window is the list of motel policies and to the right of the window is a vending machine. There is a sign in the window that states that the motel reserves the right to refuse service to anyone. Furthermore, a woman can be seen in the window though she is obscured by a reflection. The reflection emphasizes the private space that lies beyond the glass which leaves the viewer to wonder about the lives lead beyond the window. This photograph provides a connection with the longer history of Indian-Americans in the United States and the space they occupy. Bartholomew’s work gives a second comparison with which to consider Gill’s photographs.
Through Gill’s photograph, Motel owner’s private quarters at the motel/Lobby of a Gujarati run motel, San Francisco, 2002, one gets a sense of how people perform more than one identity and that these identities can be asserted as needed or desired. The images of Shree Jalaram Bapa, Krishna, Santoshi Maa, and the Golden Gate Bridge provide insight into the multiple identities of the motel owner. Owning the motel has given the owner another identity to consider, that of the small business owner. These photographs show how identity can be molded and changed over time as one moves through time and across geographical locations.
Pablo Bartholomew, One of the Many Patel Motels, 1987. Reproduced from Paul Sternburg, “Me, Myself, and India: Contemporary Indian Photography and the diasporic Experience.” Photographies, Vol. 2, Issue 1 (2009): 39.
“About Shree Jalaram Bapa,” Shree Jalaram Mandir. Accessed: Tuesday, March 22, 2011, http://www.shreejalarammandir.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3&Itemid=43 “About Shree Jalaram Bapa,” Shree Jalaram Mandir. Accessed: Tuesday, March 22, 2011, http://www.shreejalarammandir.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=3&Itemid=43
Charles S.J. White, “Krsna as Divine Child,” History of Religions 10, no. 2 (November 1970): 159.
Cynthia Packert, The Art of Loving Krishna: Ornamentation and Devotion (Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2010): 3.
Howley, “Scenes from the Childhood of Krsna,” 82.
Philip Lutgendorf, “Jai Santoshi Maa Revisited.” Representing Religion in World Cinema: Film making, Mythmaking, Culture Making (New York: Palgrave-Macmillan, 2003): 22.
Lutgendorf, “Jai Santoshi Maa Revisited,” 22.
Lutgendorf, “Jai Santoshi Maa Revisited,” 21.
Joy Case, “Golden Gate Bridge,” Let’s Talk about California (February 2010): 1.
Case, “Golden Gate Bridge,” 1.
Case, “Golden Gate Bridge,” 1.
Ghanshyam Shah, “Identity, Communal Consciousness and Politics,” Economics and Political Weekly 29, no. 19 (May 7, 1994): 1133.
Shah, “Identity, Communal Consciousness and Politics,” 1134.
Raj Mehta and Russell W. Belk, “Artifacts, Identity, and Transition: Favorite Possessions of Indians and Indian Immigrants to the United States,” Journal of Consumer Research 17, no. 4 (March 1991): 399.
Mehta and Belk, “Artifacts, Identity, and Transition,” 404-406.
Mehta and Belk, “Artifacts, Identity, and Transition,” 408.
Arturs Kalnins and Wilbur Chung, “Social Capital, Geography, and Survival: Gujarati Immigrant Entrepreneurs in the U.S. Lodging Industry,” Management Science 52, no. 2 (February 2006): 39.
Kalnins and Chung, “Social Capital, Geography, and Survival,” 39.
Kalnins and Chung, “Social Capital, Geography, and Survival,” 39.
Kalnins and Chung, “Social Capital, Geography, and Survival,” 39.