A First-Hand Experience of Framing the Living Traditions Photography Exhibition
My quest to know the photography of South Asia is always an adventure. Traveling has become a big part of this expedition and this time was no different. I took an overnight train from Udaipur, Rajasthan to New Delhi. The train arrived in the sweltering humidity of the capital at 6:35am. I spent the day in that sweaty heat until the evening when I went to an opening for the Framing the Living Traditions exhibition. The exhibition is being held at the Indian International Centre, New Delhi from Friday, April 21 till Tuesday, May 1, 2017.
Framing the Living Traditions is an exhibition by five Indian artists (Vikas Gupta, Taha Ahmad, Bharat Tiwri, Mrigank Kulshrestha and Ankit Agrawal) who won the Neel Dongre Awards/Grants for Excellence in Photography (2017) which is sponsored by the India Photo Archive Foundation. The exhibition was curated by Aditya Arya and jurored by Parthiv Shah. Neel Dongre was a successful entrepreneur who mentored many young people and encouraged them to follow their dreams. The back flap of the exhibition catalog states, that
“[t]hese awards seek to encourage budding artists and documentary photo practitioners from various genres on a national level; thereby, not only creating a platform for aspiring photographers but also using it as a medium to encourage a visual dialogue in the field.”
This award shows the growing interest in photography in India and the sub-continent at large. Compared with the United States, Europe, Australia and other nations, photography has only recently begun to hold the statues of a fine art in India. I am excited that I could see and experience this exhibition and the excitement it brought in person.
Each of the photographic projects in the exhibition deals with traditional art forms that often get past down from generation to generation within a family. Agrawal’s photographs look at the craftsmanship behind the musical instrument tanpura or tambura from Maharashtra, while Tiwari’s work examines the detail involved in producing silk saris in Madhya Pradesh. Kulshrestha and Ahmad also photographed aspects of the textile industry. Kulshrestha explores the production of silk in Assam and Ahmad researched fabrics with metallic embroidery in UttarPradesh. Gupta photographed the fading analog tradition of studio portraiture in India. Another interesting aspect to the exhibition is the use of installation art element in each of the projects. Below I will examine each of these projects individually to give a sense of the overall bodies of work along with its unique sculptural element.
 Framing the Living Traditions exhibition catalog (New Delhi, India: India Photo Archive Foundation, 2017), back flap.
Ankit Agrawal’s photographic project explores the conception of the tanpura which is a classical Indian musical instrument. A tanpura is a string instrument constructed of a gourd. In the exhibition, the series of photographs starts with the work of the instrument maker, showing his display of tools and each step of the process. Above is a group of three photographs, each image shows the carving of either the neck of the instrument or the guard. With this group of photographs you can see that Agrawal took care with how he framed each image. Two of the photographs are from ground level so that the viewer can feel the action of the neck being carved. The ridge detail is visible in the wood shavings. The third photograph in the group is taken from above so that the viewer has a bird’s eye view of how the instrument maker places his hands with care on the gourd to carve it. Other photographs in the series show a wider view and concentration can be seen on the carvers face.
In the photograph below, one can see two photographs in the background and the installation of guards hanging from the ceiling and placed in the left hand corner of the nook. I find it curious that the exhibition ends with the beginning of the process, the photographs in this alcove are of the guards in situ, meaning on the land where they grew. However, the alcove is a perfect place for the installation of the physical gourds. It appears that the two landscape photographs have been cropped to create a panoramic feel. The addition of these photographs and the gourds provides a tactile and historical context for the viewer to better understand the photographs and the meaning behind them.
Bharat Tiwari’s project titled, ‘Silk Routes via Chanderi’ is Tiwari’s first documentary photography project. The most noted photographic moment in this series is the pop of color provided by a single photograph from the group. This photograph which can be seen above is taken from below a loom up through the strings of silk where you see the female weaver. The photographic affect is that the woman is being created by the delicate threads of silk, which is ultimately the story of this project.
According to Tiwari’s artist statement, silk from this region of Madhya Pradesh known as the Bundelkhand region is famous the world over. The photographs make it clear why these fine silks would be known globally, it is because of the delicate craftsmanship that the photographs depict. While the photographs show the city, the production of the sari’s and a photograph of the shops they end up in (see above) the real story is the people. Tiwari spoke to me with enthusiasm and compassion about the families who produce these silks. He explain to me that these were not make in small factories or shops but that the people work together as a family in their homes to produce these textiles. What Tiwari said to me is the embodiment of what the exhibition is about the lives of the people creating these hand-crafted objects and the fact that these methods of production are in decline.
Many of these black and white photographs show details of the process of weaving threads on a hand-loom which you can see above. I am most struck by the photograph of the feet on the pedals. They are cracked and worn but strong. The feet give the viewer a sense of the lives of these people, there strength and endurance. Hanging from the ceiling above the photographs is a partially wound turban. It is made from an off-white silk produced by the weavers in the photographs (you can see hints of it in the photograph above). I appreciate the choice of a light colored fabric because it did not distract from the photographs, however, once the viewer takes it in it is obvious how delicate the silk is.
 Bharat Tawari. From artist statement provided at the gallery.
Mrigank Kulshrestha’s photographs from his series ‘Fading Whir[l] of the Loom’ also focus on the textile industry in India. However, his photographs center more on the production and dying of the silk, though some of his images show the making of fabrics. In the example above on the right hand side, you can see one of his photographs. The photograph depicts the silk threads being dyed orange. I find it interesting as I had no idea how the individual strings were dyed. In another photograph a woman is holding a basket of dyed and spooled yellow silk thread. It is beautiful as the sheen of the silk is visible in the photograph.
This project sheds light on the lives of people living in the Northeastern State of Assam, a region of India rarely in global news and rarely top on anyone’s travel itinerary. I would argue we should all be planning our trips to Assam now as the photographs depict a colorful life. Plus these photographs could definitely inspire an interest in these regional silks and their production. I think the real purpose of photography is not to show us something so that we do not feel we need to experience it on our own. Photography’s real purpose is the inspire us to see and understand more of the world.
Kulshrestha also used a very unique installation method (see above). He built a bamboo wall to hang the photographs from. Furthermore, he used the process of silk screen to reproduce some of the photographs in blue which resemble cyanotypes (a 19th century photographic process). The term silk screen gets its name because originally the screens were made with silk thread. According to Kulshrestha’s artist statement, the silk screens are printed on ‘Pat’silk which is silk produced only in Assam. I think it is a nice addition to the project that he was able to incorporate the product of the subjects directly into the photographs, not only as a sculptural element.
Taha Ahmad is the third photographer in the group to focus on textile production in his project ‘Swan Song of the Badlas’ where He explores the artists in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh. In his artist statement, Ahmed explains that a Badla is an artisan who performs the craft of “inserting metallic wires of gold and silver into fabric, eventually twisting it to create metallic embroidery.” The artist statement goes on to explain that these craftsmen are all over the age of 65 and make 100 – 150 rupees a day (that is less than two US dollars).
The photographs themselves show a range of subject. Some of the photographs depict the men and women working at their craft while others show young girls playing amongst the fabrics. These photographs give a real sense of the lives lived around this art in a very human way. Furthermore, there were several portraits which had pieces of the fabrics hanging over them. While talking to Ahmad I mentioned the inclusion of the fabric and he told me he had hung the fabric over the portraits because each of these embroiders has a sight condition such as cataracts making it hard for them to see. He wanted to use the fabric to obscure the viewer’s access to the photograph to emulate the impaired sight of the workers. In the installation view above, you can see the series of photographs below the portraits and they depict the careful hand gestures required to complete this work. Through this juxtaposition it becomes obvious how talented these artisans are.
Last but not least is photographer Vikas Gupta and his project, ‘An Aura of Analog Age’ which explores, “the last generation of analogue photographers residing in the small historic town of Kurukshetra” in the state of Haryana. Anyone who knows me well knows I love photographs about photography so I was very excited to see this work. The photographs in the project include a range of subjects from portraits of the photographers to photographic artifacts and photographs of negatives.
One of the portraits of the photographers can be seen above. The photographer stands in his studio behind a yellow table. He holds up a portrait as its base rests on the table. Behind the man is a wall, the bottom half is tiled with blue while the upper part of the wall is yellow and lined with shelves. Other portraits line the shelves. It is a beautiful homage to the photographer.
The installation shot above shows several pictures surrounding a painted backdrop. The photographs to the left of the backdrop show empty studios with other painted backdrops while the photographs on the left show parts of the photographic process. Gupta was on-hand and was making portraits of people in front of his backdrop. I was lucky enough for him to take my photograph. It may be lame but it was a dream come true to be photographed in front of a painted backdrop in India. In addition to the painted backdrop and cameras which are visible in the photograph above, Gupta included an enlarger and timer in the exhibition. These elements gave the feeling of a living history.
In conclusion, I thought the exhibition was well executed. Each of the five artists brought a new voice to the subjects they chose to photograph. The photographs send a message of the lives behind the arts. Many artists from all fields at some point or another feels they are un-heard or un-seen and it is nice that artist have chosen to give voices to other artists. In addition to the photographs, I think each of the artists did a nice job of incorporating a sculptural element into the work. These extra elements added something tangible to the projects and made them more understandable. If you are in Delhi now I encourage you to go and see the show.
I would like to give a special thank you to Taha Ahmad for personally inviting me to the show.
I look forward to seeing what is next for each of the artists.
Correction – The original release of this post failed to mention curator Aditya Ara and Juror Parthiv Shah. I apologize for the oversight and for not giving them their credit.