Friday, May 6, 2016

Post Colonialism and Parthiv Shah: A Revisit to ‘Figures, Facts, Feelings- a Direct Diasporic Dialogue’

(Parthiv Shah- Photography artist and alternative visual communication designer)

Post-colonialism and the discourses engendered by it were very much in the air throughout the 1990s exactly the way a flower market carries the mixed heaviness of multiple fragrances, together slowly turning into an objectionable smell or an abattoir where blood and the severed body parts of animals send out an aroma of abjection. The Empire was talking back; for a long time without even thinking whether the former masters were really listening to the retort. Those who listened to the rhetoric of anyone who spoke out the experiences of a post-colonial life absorbed them into the academic structures that they had been creating to accommodate such hurt sentiments. Speaking the post colonial experience from within the academic structures however lost its edge, rendering the post colonial subject who spoke out into someone who could enjoy the advantageous status of being a ‘special other’.

 (a work by Parthiv Shah)

The fad was very much in India during the 90s, especially among the producers of the visual cultures. The struggle of an Indian artist living in a decade that celebrated the fiftieth anniversary of India’s independence from the colonial rule, to articulate the post colonial existence was a painful one for many had already forgotten the colonial past and its place had been taken over by the new imperialistic thoughts and styles without much critical resistance. The post partition literature had already taken the path of a different discourse, often overstepping the academic strictures of the post colonial studies and which has been successfully continuing till date. Films, both the mainstream Bollywood and the regional ones were churning out films narrating the stories of the heroes in our freedom struggle, without really addressing the post-colonial rhetoric. However, the articulations of the former colonial subjects and their descendents still living in the master countries were considerably different and those who imitated their articulations in the home made versions or even tried to make extensive historical researches to create visual art pieces looked painfully labored and clumsy; nobody know where they have gone these days. For a change, they all have started exploring the origins of imperialism and the trade routes that brought imperialism to our shores in order to make their art distinct.

 (Swiss government installing a commemorative sculpture of Yash Chopra by Nilesh Powalkar)

Perhaps, it was Yash Chopra, one of the master film makers from the mainstream Bollywood genre was the only post colonial film maker who could articulate the anxieties and nostalgia of the present as well as the past time colonial subjects who got willingly trapped in the master countries. In these mega narratives generated in palatial feudal homes and verdant country houses in Britain or elsewhere, amply using the sylvan landscapes of the quintessential Switzerland, around the characters who are permanently caught up in the limbo created by a strong sense of Indian tradition and western modernism. It could be best expressed in suited and booted Khans dancing to the Indian tunes with their customized brides, around a patriarch, often played by Amitabh Bacchan, and characters breaking up and making out at candle lit dinners, or even travelling continents to snatch away an Indian traditional bride to western modernism.

 (from Parthiv Shah's Figures, Facts, Feelings series)

Yash Chopra’s role in playing referee to the contesting post colonial discourse and the cultural discourse that repudiates the post colonial fixations completely is exceptional and his soft diplomacy through films is the only avenue where we see these kinds of post colonial tensions thrashed out amicably. The baton has been handed over to Karan Johar and his films address post colonial issues as a given, as the mother in law- daughter in law tensions are a given in the soap operas in Indian television. For the visual artists, dealing with post colonial issues was a passport to instant international recognition. Removed several years from the actual experiences of the colonial rule in India these artists’ affectations however became a thing of joke soon while a few artists who lived abroad and tuned themselves up to the current discourses could do justice to their visual articulations even if they were not really a part of post colonial subjection. Parthiv Shah is one visual communicator, designer and photography artist from India who could deal with the post-colonial subjectivity intelligently and seriously without claiming anything of post colonialism for himself.

 (from Parthiv Shah's Figures, Facts, Feelings series)

Many people might have already forgotten a moderate exhibition of photographs and empirical data related to those photographs that came with a title ‘Figures, Facts, Feeling- A Direct Diasporic Dialogue’ in the year 2000 at the British Council Gallery in Delhi. The exhibition was by Parthiv Shah, the Delhi based photography artist and alternative visual communicator and it was a part of fulfilling his scholarship agreements with the Charles Wallace Trust which had given him a travel and study grant in Britain in 1998. As you have read the preamble of this essay, you should know what is special about the year 1998. The fag end of the 1990s, internet was already in and also mobile phones were started appearing in the hands of the rich and powerful. India’s roads were full of new model cars for the newly affluent middle class. India was in its global path through open economic policy which turned out to be irreversible (as we know today). Real estate was booming, new educational institutions were springing up, dot com boom was about to take place bringing online magazines and other platforms competitive interfaces in the new Indian market. A new subjectivity was getting formed around the young affluent class and they too were taking interest in acquiring art. Things were all looking rosy and cushy.

 (from Parthiv Shah's Figures, Facts, Feelings series)

Parthiv, born to a Gandhian artist father, Haku Shah, and married to an Indian classical singer, and studied at the National Institute of Design in Ahmedabad must have seen the emerging reality of India and its changing cultural and visual landscape with a fair amount of curiosity and guardedness. Entrepreneurial as he was and still is, Parthiv might have seen these changes for furthering his creative career but not in the field of commercial advertisement that coaxed and enticed the consumer into a desire and aspiration. Parthiv, however did not like to see the emergent reality as an opportunity to create desire. Instead he decided to become a visual chronicler of the changing India with its contrasting realisms being played out in the public and private domains. It was when he got the scholarship to go and study in Britain. In fact, throughout the 1990s, Indian artists, both printmakers and painters got the opportunities go abroad and come back equipped to change the Indian visual culture. I should also add that scholarships were given based on coterie allegiance, group dynamics and dinner diplomacy in those years. Imagine, Indian Printmakers guild bagging all the scholarship for its members for many consecutive years! It happens only in India.

 (from Parthiv Shah's Figures, Facts, Feelings)

Parthiv got his scholarship much later in his career and when he landed in Britain and decided to join the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), he did not really know which anthropological interest he would pursue. Soon he realized that the Indian diaspora had a strong presence in the British life and it could provide an interesting study material. Parthiv’s project ‘Figures, Facts, Feelings’ is not strictly a photography project. It has got the qualities and tendencies of a visual note book where a researcher notes down his findings and observations without fail. Interestingly, there is a method in these random visual notes. As Parthiv understood that this Indian diaspora in Britain, even if they had articulated themselves in different ways, needed some kind of an assertion and they could speak like post colonial subjects because they opted to be post colonial subjects unlike the people who lived in India or in any of the former colonies. The life in India was by choice; it was/is a given for all of us. But the diaspora Indians living in Britain was/is a choice. Their articulation could be beyond any revenge theories as expressed in the Empire talks back and so on and also need not necessarily be driven by hurt sentiments.

 (from Parthiv Shah's Figures, Facts, Feelings series)

As a photography artist and visual communicator, Parthiv could notice this aspect of the diaspora Indians in Britain. The choice (of living there) had rendered them free and also they could cherish and nourish ideas about India, which at times were full of fondness and at times very poor. As the title shows, Parthiv embarked on a journey initially by befriending a series of Indian settlers there through various contacts and then asking them to be a part of his study project. Hence, there are figures and they are all given a form to fill in as Parthiv observed that the diaspora communities had gone through this filling of various forms as a part of migration and we get a lot of facts about the subjects in nutshell. Then definitely they have their feelings about themselves as well as for their parent country. Parthiv gives them the freedom to choose the location or backdrop against which they would like to be photographed. This freedom to choose the location reflects their freedom to choose the country for their living. Parthiv, as an artist couldn’t have been more liberal than this.

 (from Parthiv Shah's Figures, Facts, Feelings series)

There are thirty four subjects in this project. Famous photographer Sunil Janah, famous political theoretician and author Sunil Khilnani, well known art dealer Behroz Gandhy and so on appear in this project along with twenty years old students and toddlers who love chocolates and think about India as a ‘poverty’ stricken place. Parthiv asks a few questions which are intrusive at times and generic mostly. However, none takes offence with his intrusive questions like ‘one’s age and education’. A Sikh middle aged man is just fifth standard pass and he leads a totally religious life while handling his business in Britain. Sunil Janah predictably would like to show himself in his darkroom where he processes his negatives, Sunil Khilnani (author of the highly acclaimed book ‘Incarnations’) is seen like an unsure young gentleman in a garden and a very confident political theorist in his study room strewn with hundreds of books. We see people preferring themselves to be seen in a very sober and intelligent set up as they willingly participate in a project like this. What surprises is a lady opting to be seen inside a toilet/bathroom as she finds it as the most ‘peaceful’ place in her home or rather in her life. Young people are seen in their bedrooms sitting casually or playfully. There is a grandfather giving musical lessons to the grand children. There is a medical engineer in his study and a doctor in her library.

 (from Parthiv Shah's Figures, Facts, Feelings series)

Most of them do not shy away from speaking about their age, education and the choices in their lives. While the photographs tell a few things about the subjects, the questionnaire that accompanies these images tells everything about these subjects. Interestingly, most of them prefer old Hindi film songs as a vehicle that would transport them to their nostalgic past. Many of them have ‘Mother India’, ‘Pakeeza’, ‘Mughal e Azam’ as their favorite films. The grand narratives that built India during the independence and after still linger on in their minds as they like to see India as a part of the grand narrative of the world itself. A couple of them choose Satyajit Ray movies (like Apur Sansar) and one of them chooses Subarnarekha by Rwitik Ghatak. When a girl says that she likes the movie ‘Lahme’, we understand that the diaspora to has moved on to the recent times.

(Parthiv Shah with musician wife Vidya Shah)

Parthiv did this project when there was no special place for photography or experimental installations with photography as a main component in Indian art scene. Today a lot of young photography artists use anthropological documentations in order to get their aesthetical ideas across. Parthiv is one of the pioneers in Indian experimental photography using anthropological methods. But ironically he came much ahead of time. His exhibition in 2000 had an accompanying catalogue which contained a few interesting studies on photography and cinema written by authors including Christopher Pinney and Rachel Dyer who later became important voices in Indian photography and film studies. Though, a few other articles included in the catalogue now look like over embellishment, we could say that it was a time when such efforts to showcase exclusive photographic discourses were hardly done, hence it was the need of the time. It would be interesting if artists, curators and photography experts would make a revisit to this project of Parthiv Shah and push the discourse further.  

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