Photo Project: The Idea of India

Rabindranath Tagore once argued that the “idea of India” itself militated against a culturally separatist view—”against the intense consciousness of the separateness of one’s own people from others.”

This argument is the inspiration of a new photo project that I have already begun that explores India’s heritage of religious and cultural pluralism and syncretism.  The project is a one-man civil society initiative to counter and correct the simplistic and reductive historical narratives that pit India’s religious communities against each other,  color the debate on the issue of Kashmir, and were the basis of the separation of the state of Pakistan from India.  By examining the real, lived experiences of the people of the region called the Indian Sub-continent (India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) I intend to highlight landscapes, sacred spaces, literature, poetry and even philosophies that reflect to the long history of mutual respect, tolerance and most importantly acceptance that have defined the historical and cultural experience of India’s many religious communities.  In a region deeply and adversely affected by a politics of hate and sectarian nationalism, I want to show how traditional practices of cultural and religious tolerance can offer a means to communal dialogue and a weapon of resistance to the rhetoric of the sectarians.

This project, tentatively called ‘The Idea of India’, is a journey though an alternative India; of lived experiences, of lives and imaginations not bound by sectarianism. In some instances I will be documenting real, lived acts of resistance and cultural sharing. In other instances I will explore social spaces that point to worlds more complex, beautiful and vital than those offered by the threadbare hate mongering of the sectarians. In other words, I will use photography not only as a means of evidence, but also as a vessel for the imagination.

I began the work about 2 months ago in Ayodhya and am documenting the diverse religious community and culture in that city.  Though much of it has been lost since the destruction of the Babri Mosque and the ongoing campaign of a certain group of Hindu fundamentalists to construct a Ram temple at the site of the destroyed mosque.  Yet, there is a strong and active community of Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs and just plain residents who have resisted the sectarian divisions and are attempting to heal the wounds of the 1992 destruction.  The story of the city Ayodhya is not as simple as we may think, its history and heritage marked by centuries of Hindu-Muslim co-existence and tolerance.

Today one still finds mosques within Hindu neighborhoods, Hindu families visiting and praying at Sufi shrines, and Muslim men who assist them in performing the necessary rituals at these shrines, Hindu mahants dismayed at the destruction of the lives of their neighbors and campaigning against the fundamentalists and Hindu festivals attended by Muslim residents of the city.  I was even surprised to learn that the only craftsman in Ayodhya skilled enough to make the special tablas used in Hindu temple ceremonies belonged to a Muslim family whose shop is few meters away from Ayodhya’s holiest Hindu temple, the Hanumangarhi.  More details about Ayodhya, its history, and other topics will be posted on this site in the coming months.

In the mean time I have begun to seek some independent funding for the project and though its current scope will see me travel from Kashmir to Kerala, its actual scope will be determined by the financial resources I can generate along the way. More details and more specific posts on the work, plus previews of the photographs, will be posted at this blog in the coming months.

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