Its been a long, tiring two months in Gujarat’s heat, dust and paranoia. Behind the triumphant rhetoric of a fast industrializing Gujarat lie the quiet whispers of a fear and psychosis that colors most everything that happens here.
The communities live in suspicion of each other, and it affects anyone trying to work in the state. As a photographer you quickly become a source of suspicion and worry, and are either asked to move on by local residents, or questioned by the local police. Throughout my time here I have been working with the awareness that I will not be allowed to.
Religious sites have become battlefields and caretakers are scared. What may once have been considered areas of tolerance are today being fought over in an effort to ‘purify’ them into one theocratic tradition. All this has made visiting such sites rather difficult. Spending time there has been near impossible. Basically the caretakers at almost every shrine or temple I have tried to visit and spend time at have been worried about my presence. Sometimes I have managed to convince them of my intentions, on other occasions I have simply been denied access and asked to leave the site. This has of course proven to be a source of great frustration as a photographer as I am already struggling to deal with the rather monotonous light and urban landscapes in these small indian towns. And with the day time temperatures soaring around 40C and above, I have been weighed down with the effort to find the stamina to simply be out and working.
Nevertheless, I am now wrapping up my time in Gujarat and moving on to the next phase of the project. I will have to return, but in a few months. There are some new sites, and new stories that I have discovered since I began traveling here. This region remains an amazing source of Indian history and culture and there is no doubt that what has allowed me to continue working here has been the generosity and support of the many ordinary Gujarati residents who have allowed me to hang about and go through my over-complicated photography process. In the same time I have been reading and exploring some amazing works that lay open the amazing complexity and history of this region, revealing secrets and understandings that I had never even imagined.
For those who are interested, here are some of the works specific to the region of Gujarat that I have been reading:
Samira Sheikh’s Forging A Region: Sultans, Trader, and Pilgrims in Gujarat, 1200-1500 which is an excellent historical account of the regions political, economic and religious landscape. As I continue to explore the reasons and trajectory of the state’s current religious divisions and anti-Muslim propensities, Sheikh’s work helps place the violence and xenophobia of today into broader context.
Farina Ibrahim’s Settlers, Saints And Sovereigns: An Ethnography of State Formation in Western India is a complicated read, but unveils a region that is often seen to not contain much more than nomads and desert. The Kutch region of Gujarat however has had a powerful influence on the formation of the identity of Gujarat itself, and of course. As a border region, the story of the partition of India played itself out here and defined the collective memories of the people of the area. I have as yet not finished this work, but for anyone looking at Gujarat, it is a must read.
Yagnik and Sheth’s The Shaping Of Modern Gujarat and Ahmedabad: Royal City to Megacity are interesting reads, though at times a bit too sparse in details. It is however a good general read for those looking for a quick introduction to the history of the state, and its recent decline into xenophobia and violence. I do feel that as writers both Yagnik and Sheth, in an attempt to understand the reasons for this complex regions spiral towards today’s xenophobia and anti-Muslim sentiments make too linear and teleological argument. However, they do offer a good argument for how recent changes in the economic and industrial landscape of the state affected relationship between communities and castes. What perplexes me is that the same changes affected many other regions of India and we fail to see similar levels of divisions between communities there. So there seems to be something else at play here. Regardless, I do recommend both these works.
Edward Simpson’s Muslim Society and the Western Indian Ocean: The Seafarers of Kachchh was a surprising find, thanks to Rita Kotari and it proved to be an invaluable and important read. It was this work that pointed me towards the story of Dariyapir and why I traveled to Mandvi, Gujarat as part of this project. However, at a broader level it speaks about the history of changes that have taken place in the state, seen from the telescopic detail of one town, and how it has created tensions and violence between its religious communities, particularly the Hindu and Muslim communities. You can actually preview quite a lot of the book at Taylor & Francis.
Some works that focus on broader issues, but contain some important essays related to the culture, development, and politics of the state of Gujarat include:
Geert de Neve & Henrike Donner’s The Meaning Of The Local: Politics of Place in Urban India has a fascinating chapter by the same Edward Simpson as above titled ‘The Rituals of Rehabilitation: Rebuilding An Urban Neighborhood After The Gujarat Earthquake of 2001’ which examines how neighborhood reconstruction after the 2001 earthquake was influenced by broader religious and Hindu nationalist ideologies. This was a fascinating read and reveals how the entire urban landscape of cities like Bhuj were inflected and influenced by the ideals and prejudices of a larger Hindu project of historical and cultural imagination. This included the performance of rituals. myth making, re-naming etc. that left a deep imprint on the spatial and social makeup of the post-earthquake city.
Edward Simpson has another excellent essay in Saraswati Raju, M. Satish Kumar, Stuart Corbridge’s Colonial and Post-Colonial Geographies Of India called ‘Militant Cartographies And Traumatic Spaces: Ayodhya, Bhuj and the Contested Geographies of Hindutva’
There are still more works to research, but for the moment these are the principal texts that have taken me through Gujarat. There are some key issues that I have been unable to find good material for. For example, I have yet to see an explicit examination of the influence of Gujarat’s adoption of broad industrialization and its celebration of the corporate/capitalist ideology and the impact this has had on defining and transforming the social and cultural values and practices in the state. There are of course studies that have examined the connection between corporatism and fascism, but I have yet to see one specific to Gujarat. There is a very clear prioritization and belief in the values of the corporation, with Modi often being referred to as the CEO of the state.
Clearly, a very influential mercantile and industrialist class has convinced itself that it can run a polity along social and decision-making structures of a corporation. This is not an obvious conclusion to arrive at, and people have to decide to do this. What does this mean for issues of justice, equality, equity, environment, human development indices and so on? How do corporate values translate into social and cultural priorities and values? What impact does the adoption of such corporate values as broader social values have on the nature and functioning of an ostensibly democratic political system? These are just some questions that I am curious to explore when it comes to Gujarat and continue to look for materials and research that can help.
I will be writing some new site specific posts in the coming days. I have fallen behind on this. But I wanted to get this set of updates out.
I am now in my last week here in Gujarat. A need to change locations and scenery will see me shifting focus for some weeks to the Bengal and Kerala most likely. I just need to see a new kind of light, a new kind of world.