The diagram below is my attempt to explain the birth and execution of this project I am tentatively calling The Idea Of India. I have been asked to present this work on at least five occasions now and each time I have struggled to really articulate it. The fact remains that I am simply unable to veil under structured thought and organized presentation a work that has largely relied and been inspired by a series of random events, readings and conversations.
This course says far less than is required, but it simplifies and organizes the ways in which this work came about, and the outcomes that are emerging as a result of my journeys in India. As you can see, I am making photographs, but also writing essays on Indian history and other topics, compiling personal notes and anecdotes, documenting my travels via maps that mark the key sites and locations. The box marked ‘Artifacts’ refers to things I am picking up along the way that represent personal mementos or items handed to me by the many people I am meeting along this journey. Mostly strange documents, pamphlets, leaflets, posters and such that I can’t seem to throw away.
Despite the diagram’s seeming discipline, this work emerged as a result of coincidences and random events. There is really no other truth to the matter, and I remain particularly aware of this because I am not sure I will ever be able to pull off a work like this again. This may be my swan song.
I have always believed that for work as personal and individual such as this it is crucial to not just talk about the ideas and issues raised in it, but also about ideals and values that inform it. That is, it is important to not only know the ‘what’, but also the ‘why’ to finally comprehend the form and intent of the work.
The idea for this work emerges out of a series of coincidences and conversations that largely took place in 2007 and then again in 2008. It was developed and conceived while sitting in cheap chai stalls and public internet cafes in the city of Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh. In fact, my original project proposal for the Aftermath Grant was written at a cyber-cafe in Faizabad, Uttar Pradesh, with almost all corrections and edits done at a local chai stall a few meters down from the hotel I was staying at. I am grateful to the patient and support of the men who daily chided me for my wayward outlook on life and yet continued to ply me with tea whenever I turned up to write.
I have already written about the influence of the works of people like Edward Said, Eqbal Ahmed, Lilla Abu-Laghud, Ammiel Alcalay, Ayesha Jalal, Partha Chatterjee, Elizabeth Key Fowden, Jack Goody, Martin Bernal, Amitav Ghosh, and the many other complex, complicated and complicating writers I started to explore. Their perspectives compelled a re-examination of the many ideas and presumptions I had about South Asian history.
Simultaneously there were a series of casual conversations with friends and acquaintances that revealed their ignorance and prejudice against history itself. Anglo Indians waxing lyrical about the benefits of colonial rule for India, American editors commenting confidently on the programmatic iconoclasm of India’s ‘Muslim’ dynasties, Arab Palestinians denigrating South Asian Islamic culture as pretty much a small variant on mainstream Arabic Islamic culture, friends in Pakistan reductively accusing ‘Hindu’ hatred of all things ‘Islamic’ for the necessity of Pakistan’s creation and a number of other frustrating and reductive conversations that left my feeling helpless. A particularly vexing conversation took place in late 2007 with an editor from the USA whose entire premise about Islamic history and culture was mired in a reductive, cartoonish ‘clash of civilization’ understanding, from which he proceeded to make the most ahistorical and judgemental comments about a varied and complex polity of ‘Islam’. I was struck by the truth of Eqbal Ahmad’s statement that ‘…distorted histories [that] have created a new kind of medieval histories that is Hindu history and Muslim history…’.
At about the same time I had decided to move away from the literal and ‘has to be seen in the frame’ limitations of photography and pursue a more instinctive and open-ended form of photography. I just wanted to explore different aspects of my eye, mind and photographic instinct. I wanted to produce work where the image was not literal, or the story limited to being seen in its literalness, but that the images became, as I said in my original proposal, ‘..vehicles for the imagination.’ I did not want to include the obvious in the frame, but go past it towards something suggestive and inviting. And to use texts in conjunction to help complete the process of discovery that came from exploring the image and absorbing the writing. It all sounds quite well thought through now that I write it, but it wasn’t and still isn’t. But it is the way I am working, and it is the only way to really understand the relevance and meaning of the images. To know why I produced a particular image from Srinagar, Kashmir, you will have to read the essay that it accompanies. The answers lie in the full engagement with the work, and not just certain aspects of it. It is one of the reason why I have refused to exhibit the work on the basis of the photographs alone.
With these thoughts in mind I decided, in the late summer of 2008, to travel to Ayodhya. I was not sure what I would do there, but something compelled me to head to this town which, since the destruction of the Babri mosque in 1992, had become ‘ground zero’ of war of ideas over India’s history. I had some initial thoughts about the possibility of a project on Indian history and I remember discussing it with Pamela Chen of the Open Society Institute at Visa Pour L’image that year. She was one of the first people who heard the general, very general, outlines of this work. The other being my friend Chloe LeCoq – a lovely French transplant to Sweden who had to suffer my South Asian history ramblings while we watched our daughters take turn riding horses in a Stockholm playground.
I had expected Ayodhya to be an embattled and divided city, but was instead surprised to find a city that still held onto vestiges of its tolerant pluralist culture, spoke eloquently of its long heritage of syncretism, and retained elements of the complex Awadhi political and social culture that had been responsible for the flourishing of the Ram cult in the region. As Amitav Ghosh once pointed out in a review of the emperor Babur’s autobiography:
Hindu religious activity. Hinduism as we know it today – especially the Hinduism of north India – was essentially shaped under Mogul rule, often with the active participation and support of the rulers and their officials and feudatories. The Ramcharitmanas, for example, the version of the Ramayana that was to be canonised as the central text of north Indian devotional practice, was composed in Akbar’s reign by the great saint-poet Tulsidas. The early years of Mogul rule also coincided with a great renaissance in the theology of Krishna. It was in this period that Rupa Goswami and other disciples of Chaitanya Mahaprabhu rediscovered and mapped out the sacred geography of the Krishna legend.
Hinduism would scarcely be recognisable today if Vaishnavism had been actively suppressed in the 16th century: other devotional forms may have taken its place, but we cannot know what those would have been. It is a simple fact that contemporary Hinduism as a living practice would not be what it is if it were not for the devotional practices initiated under Mogul rule. The sad irony of the assault on the Babri mosque is that the Hindu fanatics who attacked it destroyed a symbol of the very accommodations that made their own beliefs possible.
It was here, while on the ground, that a clearer outline of the work began to emerge.
The proposal that I began to put together that last summer of 2008, and which was diligently edited by my wife Pernilla Rafiqui and close friend Peter Lagerquist, gave birth to a project that I am now pursuing. It has required some of the most extensive and intensive reading and research I have ever carried out, and this aspect remains crucial to the tenor and direction of the work. Every photograph connects itself to an essay or a note on the basis of an underlying idea. Only by reading the essays and seeing the images does the full story emerge. This is perhaps why the work has consistently been ignored by mainstream editors. Most have expressed their disappointment and confusion, if not outright dismissal of its intents. It is just one of the many burdens I carry with me as I proceed on with the work.
However, even after two years of work on it I have to admit that its contours remain uncertain, and its final outcome unclear. I have since resigned myself to the idea that as in any search, this work will remain a tentative exploration, an amateur’s uncertain path towards stories and histories that explain and reveal what we have long forgotten or chosen to ignore. Many ask me what the final outcome of the work will be, but I do not have an answer to that question. I do now state that I would love to finally compile it into a book – something personal, and one that reflects the vagaries and uncertainties of the journey that project actually is.
I have a title in mind – Longings Of An Exiled Son:A Journey Back To India or something like that.