Dreams of India
photos and text by
This work begins to tell the story of my lifelong dream
of exploring India, the land of my father's birth. My father left his
native country at the age of seventeen. He died without telling me much
about the culture in which he was brought up or the story of his early
life there. Growing up in the United States, isolated from Indian culture
and influence fostered the cultivation in my imagination of Orientalist
fantasy about the land of my ancestry. My knowledge of India ripened from
romanticized National Geographic specials, the masterfully aestheticized
images of Henri Cartier Bresson, George Harrison's muddled psychedelic
spirituality, and Rudyard Kipling's tales of exotic jungle adventure.
None of this prepared me for the discovery of the circumstances that drove
my father away from his family as a teenager, or the actual masala mix
of complexity, misery and beauty of contemporary India that I finally
had the opportunity to see for myself during a pivotal year of travel
This journey had taken place in my imagination as long as I could remember.
Having now made the actual trip, and collected a wealth of photographic
images, videotape, and journal writings, I feel compelled to shape this
material into a cohesive body of work that connects and contrasts my youthful
fantasies of India with my adult experience building a relationship with
the land of my ancestry. I hope to symbolize the merging of the actual
lived journey with the expectations I carried for half a lifetime to create
an artistic journey through India as visually rich and layered as the
one I have experienced in both imagination and in life.
I am weaving media including digital and analog photography, printmaking,
digital video, and text into a narrative describing a metaphoric and physical
journey. I am merging images from different times and places to juxtapose
ancient and modern, mythical and real, imagined and lived. One way I am
accomplishing these goals is to collage appropriated popular Indian calendar
art imagery of Hindu deities into my photographs. In bringing this storied
imagery into the contemporary world, I am referencing contemporary clashes
of values and cultures that are occurring on the subcontinent. By asking
how Lord Krishna might deal with a Calcutta traffic jam, or whether Kali
has a cellular phone, I am removing these printed gods from spiritual
contemplation in sylvan glades and temples, and bringing them into the
chaotic hurly burly that is contemporary India.
This sort of question is partly tongue in cheek, but also a testament
to the durability of a culture that has survived unbroken through thousands
of years of invasion, warfare, colonial subjugation, westernization and
modernization. For the Hindu gods are just as vital as they have been
for eons. Rather than submitting to the forces of change that have buffeted
the subcontinent for all these centuries, this is a culture that simply
assimilates what seems useful, while retaining, for better or worse its
essential character. Lord Krishna, Kali, Shiva, and the entire Hindu pantheon,
representing an imperturbable and entirely non-western view of reality
really do walk the streets of Calcutta, Delhi, Chennai, and Trivandrum.
Their presence is palpable in the integration of spirituality into the
daily life of India.
These images have a long history of multiple interpretations. To western
viewers, they represented a glimpse into the mind of “the other”.
To Indians, they had practical devotional and political uses. Because
the British rulers of colonial India curtailed Indian political activism,
yet paid little attention to Indian religious institutions, Indians used
the relative freedom of religious organizations to engage in clandestine
political activity. Images that to Western eyes read simply as devotional
images dedicated to exotic, obscure gods, were read by Indians as allegorical
calls for political action, unity, and independence that were able to
circumvent the strict censorship imposed upon the Indian presses and political
organizations by the British imperial government. An emerging independence
movement effectively used these popular images to help create a sense
of unity and national identity, which finally enabled India to throw off
the yoke of foreign imperialist control.
As a child of mixed British and Indian heritage, I witnessed and took
part in similar post-colonial battles playing themselves out on a domestic
scale. This work examines what happens when one learns about his cultural
heritage through a colonizing media. How does this mediated interpretation
compare to the way that the object of this gaze sees itself directly?
And what is "the other" when one is of mixed blood, seeing half
of one's own culture through the lenses provided by the gaze of the other
half? Finding some way to reconcile these differing perspectives inspires
this creative project.