The Earth’s atmosphere is a potent vantage point from which to look at regionality, territoriality, spatiality, nationality and identity in Southasia. Commercial jets fly through this expanse, with peripatetic humans in a temporarily suspended nation-condition.
Imagine that you look out from a flight, trying to locate your position, and you begin to take some photos through the window frame – a viewfinder in its own right to the space outside. Inside – despite holding close the physical, documentary evidence of their identity and having had their bodies closely scanned and scrutinised before boarding – passengers and crew alike exist in a temporary state of voluntary exile, suspended above and between nations. The expansion of the air-traveling middle classes in Southasia in the last few decades – which has also been a key driver of the democratisation of photography in the region – has subjected us more frequently than ever before to this “airplane condition”.
The essays and interviews in Unframed: Discovering Image Practices in South Asia, edited by the curator and publisher Rahaab Allana, present some of the complex dimensions of lens-based practices in the region. The volume discusses profound overlaps and fusions within our shared subcontinental geography and history, often against the backdrop of the regressive border politics of nation-states. By examining the shifting dimensions of visual cultures and deploying discursive modes of thinking, the book’s 31 texts, curated in five distinct sections, serve to dislocate and unframe monolithic histories of photography, and to place them in the meta-contexts of the region.
Various texts navigate larger narratives, counter-narratives, overlaps, departures, interdependencies and entanglements through image-based practices in India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Nepal and Myanmar. The reader moves through the content not seamlessly, but with slight adjustments each time, repositioning and reconfiguring the manner one confronts the divided reality of the post-colonial Subcontinent. In these alignments and realignments while navigating the book’s various texts and contexts, one often escapes into the “airplane condition”, achieving a much broader view of the Subcontinent’s terrain and visual practices.
The sense of “nothingness and nowhereness” is well discussed in the writer and critic Aveek Sen’s lyrical text ‘Between Blue Rocks’. Sen writes, “To migrate is also to mutate – a transformation of identity, a rite of passage, which must take these travellers through the experience of turning into nothing before they can become something else.” The text confronts the gazes of illegal immigrants – stripped of their personhood, in this specific case held up in a lorry at the border between Mexico and Guatemala – and compares these with the privileged gaze of a modern artist.
Between the “nowhereness” of the airplane condition and the “everywhereness” of borders might lie a productive space to discuss and discover whether there is anything that could commonly be measured as Southasianness.
The art historian Saloni Mathur writes in her essay ‘Partition and the Visual Arts: Reflections on Method’:
… as the border itself becomes strengthened and fortified, inciting fierce protectionism and xenophobic nationalism, it becomes all the more important to seek discursive points of entry, to counter the excesses of this material reality with the knowledge that borders are simultaneously weakened by other kinds of forces and energies …
In March 2023, upon returning home from the PhotoKTM festival in Kathmandu, the Karachi-based artist Fazal Rizvi shared a 27-second video on a WhatsApp group for the festival’s guests. Taken from the window of Rizvi’s flight back, perhaps simply as a digital note, the video showed a series of hazy white circles in a curvilinear series. Rizvi’s post accompanying the video said, in part, “This video you see is a zoomed-in video of the Pakistan/India border seen from my flight upon return last night. But one returns, more hopeful this time.”
Photography, in its rudimentary sense, has been an act of forfeit between the photographer and the subject, where only one of them – the photographer – lays claim to the knowledge constructed.
What is this “hope” Rizvi refers to? At the risk of over-analysing: I noticed Rizvi’s unusual choice of punctuation, preferring a forward slash between “India” and “Pakistan” instead of the more commonly seen dash. “India-Pakistan” suggests a pause, an interruption between the two, while fixing the limits of separate entities. “India/Pakistan” suggests more of the forces Mathur invokes in her essay, opening up a dialogue of relationships and conjunctions and proposing a combination that is so entangled that a sense of loss arises each time there is an attempt to look at these two geographical, historical and cultural entities in isolation. Rizvi’s hopeful record of the border was created without any prior objective or burden of making art, but rather with a deliberate aim to share transnational commonalities and solidarity, even has he is aware of this border as a physical marker of the complex socio-political reality of the Subcontinent.
Section two of Unframed expands this idea of transnationalism through an exploration of the flows and counterflows of images across and beyond the Subcontinent. The historian Omar Khan, in his essay ‘Paper Jewels: Postcards from the Raj’, writes of “the history and circulation of the colonial postcard struck from photographs, an industry that exponentially flourished through new printing technologies, with millions of postcards continuously in circulation across the globe, including those sent ‘home’ from the colonies, as a source of information, art and entertainment for the viewer.” The essay looks at these postcard images, which contributed to and still influence people’s cultural imaginaries, as an invaluable mode of popular visual historiography, especially as circulated through the regions of Ceylon, the North-West Frontier Province, Lahore, Karachi and Sindh. What is also evident in these postcards is the colonial entanglement with photography and the ethnographic knowledge-project of imperial forces that documented, catalogued and separated the people of colonised regions into native “types”, freezing them into exotic categories appealing to the Victorian masses in the West – as evident in captions such as “Four Kandyan Girls, Ceylon”, “A Street Arab, Ceylon”, “Head of a Tamil Girl”, “Types Northwest Frontier India” and “Natives of Sindh”.
Two postcards stand out and are worth discussing as a pair – one captioned “Watchers Trans-Border Type (c. 1915)” and the other “Afghan Territory Border with British India (At the Frontier, Landi Khana, c.1930)”, showing images produced on either side of the Third Anglo-Afghan War. The former postcard, from before the war, refers to the “trans-border type” who moved between Afghanistan and the North-West Frontier Province, and the two tribesmen in it gaze at the landscape from a hill while being photographed from a relatively intimate distance. The latter postcard, produced post-war, depicts some much-photographed signage demarcating the tense border between the two territories, at the western edge of colonial India. The signage states, “It Is Absolutely Forbidden To Cross This Border Into Afghan Territory”, and appears alongside an Afghan man posed confronting the camera while firmly guarding Afghan land. The events of the intervening years – tribal revolts against imperial forces and the reiteration of the Durand Line at the end of the war – are inscribed not just in the border but also in the evident change in the relationship between the colonial photographers and the photographed. Implied in the images is the disappearance, or at least the retreat from prominence, of the “trans-border type” who would walk across the border landscape as a way of life.
Aveek Sen writes of Antonio Paraggi, the protagonist of the Italian writer Italo Calvino’s short story ‘The Adventure of a Photographer’, and his relationship to photography: “a state of isolation caught between obsessiveness and a pervasive sense of loss; everything that is not photographed is lost.” That which is photographed is stolen – a subtle, narrow, imperceptible seizure of a soul within the bounds of a frame. Photography, in its rudimentary sense, has been an act of forfeit between the photographer and the subject, where only one of them – the photographer – lays claim to the knowledge constructed.
If you search the name “Gadabas” on Google, it shows you several vibrant portraits of elderly women – some smiling, some confused, some gazing firmly into the camera, dressed in traditional attire and adorned with exquisite jewellery. Held captive by these highly romanticised images of tribal life, at the beginning of my career I and two colleagues, unaware of the full potential and complexity of the photographic image and the true weight of the camera, began on an expedition to look for these women along the state border between Andhra Pradesh and Odisha, in the south-east of India. In our initial way of seeing, the project was an inadvertent continuation of the colonial gaze – a search for an “exotic” people living in the remote hills and forests of the country. But the work soon became a protracted engagement with the people and the region.
Rahaab Allana’s ‘Unframed’ is neither a comprehensive review nor a synoptic representation of shifting visual practices in the politically divided, variously partitioned Subcontinent. Instead, it offers a frayed reflection of our reality.
After modern borders divided the Gadabas’ traditional homelands between separate administrative entities – Odisha and Andhra Pradesh, in the present day – the community evolved two separate identities over subsequent generations owing to the influence of state policies, agencies, languages and other measures of cultural control. The project’s premise became to show Gadabas colonial photographs of their community taken roughly a century ago on either side of the border, and to speak to them about these images. Their inability to connect with such photographs opened up many conversations related to identity and representation.
My first encounter with some Gadaba women happened in a bustling market. Once an informal place of exchange between close-knit communities, the market is now an institutionalised event managed by the government as a weekly showcase of tribal culture, and where officials, tourists, researchers and academics – each group with its specific gaze formed by its specific agendas – can study the Gadabas and also offer varying kinds of “salvation”. Looking at the scene from one end of the market with my camera, I hesitated before clicking any pictures, unsure if my intent was to capture the spectacle of the organised market or the spectacular presence of the Gadaba women. Soon I found myself in an argument with a group of women who, seeing me seeing them through the viewfinder, fervently demanded a bounty – 10 Indian rupees – for each photo I had taken. The black box captures a part of their souls, one of them said to our translator. Despite being unaware of the history and evolution of the camera, these women were very well acquainted with the power hierarchy, the gaze of the other and the extractive tendencies that the machine brought with it.
Section three of Unframed presents the photographic gaze in relation to the nature of spectatorship. The documentary filmmaker Rahul Roy, in his ‘Seeing, Being and Belonging’, discusses how a certain way of seeing can dehumanise specific forms of human existence. Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, a theorist of visual culture and photography, speaks of the abolition of imperial rights to take photographs and how a photograph is an outcome of many things coming together. While the work of the photographer has been central to photography, Azoulay discusses the interests and labour of the many involved in the making of a photograph, and also of those who have always been considered extras, secondary actors or raw material in the events of photographic history. Gadabas, like many other indigenous communities, have been subjected to this history of photography, which Azoulay convincingly posits and which was, perhaps, alluded to somewhere in the act of the Gadaba women demanding their share of compensation for photographs taken of them. Photography has historically diminished them through the voyeurism of the viewfinder and the photographer, where the image produced is a product of something always deemed superior to their very being.
In her book Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory, the literary critic Marianne Hirsch writes:
Postmemory characterizes the experience of those who grow up dominated by narratives that preceded their birth, whose own belated stories are evacuated by the stories of the previous generation, shaped by traumatic events that can be neither fully understood nor recreated.
After the demise of my grandmother, who migrated during Partition to what is now Haryana from Multan, now located in Pakistan’s Punjab province, we stored all her photos and videos on a drive titled “Amma” – a digital trace, a residue, an etching of a life lived away from her homeland.
What is evident in these postcards is the colonial entanglement with photography and the ethnographic knowledge-project of imperial forces that documented, catalogued and separated the people of colonised regions into native “types”.
In the fourth section of Unframed, which focuses on curatorial methodologies and new representations of the Subcontinent in a transnational setting, there is a conversation between the curator Sabih Ahmed and the members of the Raqs Media Collective. One of the trio’s members, Jeebesh Bagchi, leaves us with a premise by asking, “When you are no longer seeing the image, when the image is not in front of you, what are you doing with the image?” The “Amma” drive, with a precise of 6,01,15,54,801 bytes storing its 199 items, was left untouched for eight years. Each time it is opened, it means reliving in vivid detail moments of a dear life slowly degrading. Each time, one re-encounters the end of the mother.
My reading of Unframed was coloured by the fact that I carry a kind of muscular memory of Partition passed down through two generations, though of course I never experienced the atrocities of the event myself. This meant a heightened awareness of the book’s substantiation of the broken realities of the Subcontinent, and the violent implications of the borders, polities and state agencies that mark the decolonised landmass, all aggravated by today’s increasingly hostile nationalist environment. The volume extensively discusses various artists, collectives, exhibitions and visual practices emerging from the region that offer productive methods in the visual arts to push back against enforced differences. Going beyond this, my engagement with the book was imbued with a search for a language that deals with non-art images of and from the Subcontinent, and foregrounds lives altered by confronting its boundaries, borders and other forces that restrict our movements.
Allana’s timely, inceptive and necessary collection is neither a comprehensive review nor a synoptic representation of shifting visual practices in the politically divided, variously partitioned Subcontinent. Instead, the book offers a frayed reflection of our reality, itself mirrored in the volume’s meta-textuality as its component texts offer critical perspectives on themselves and each other. Unfixing any singular narrative of post-colonial Southasia, the book works through disarrayed notes on the Subcontinent that still point to commonalities, hope and solidarity. These notes address moments etched in our conscience through generational memory, while still very much narrating our present contexts.