It was the 24th anniversary of the attack on and destruction of the Babri mosque in Ayodhya, Uttar Pradesh on December 6th, 1998. Click on the image above to go to a selection of essays about and/or related to Ayodhya.
My project on India began in Ayodhya. In fact, when I arrived in Ayodha in the Fall of 2009, I wasn’t even sure what the project was going to be. It was after staying in Faizabad – Ayodhya’s sister city some 30 minutes rickshaw ride away, for some weeks, and spending time walking and talking to people in Ayodhya itself, that the shape and structure of the work finally emerged. The Idea of India is a very personal engagement with complex histories, and my first attempt to break away from the suffocating definitions, rules, constrictions and limits of what passes for photojournalism. I did not want to have anything to do with it. It was during this work that I discovered why I went out into the world with cameras and a notebook, and what it was that I wanted to do with them. And though there were many mistakes along the way, and though the work remains intentionally ‘incomplete’ – what is this bizarre obsession people have with completing a project? No one completes a project, you merely abandon it!, because the questions I began to ask, the spaces I began to seek, and the inquiries I began to make, are still with me. And I am grateful for it. The curiosity, the excitement, the joy of producing this work remains, and since I can abandon the project at any time – the entire work has over 250 final selected images and dozens of essays, I have chosen not to. I do not want to give it up, nor do I want to feel that I am done with it. Perhaps it isn’t a personal choice anyways – the issues plaguing the region: the xenophobia, the sectarianism, and what Eqbal Ahmed called ‘distorted histories’, stay and are perhaps more extreme today than when I began working on the project. Perhaps I feel that now would be a good time to return, to re-start, to add more to the work if for no other reason than to keep up what was always an act of resistance and personal refusal to accept official and state historical narratives. It can still happen. After all, the project isn’t ‘complete’.
Shrine of Maula Sahin, Paithan, Maharashtra
I am now in the final few weeks of this stage of the The Idea Of India project and focusing on key sites and stories from the state of Maharashtra. Details »
Note: This essay was originally published on March 21st. This is an update based on a recent meeting with historian Samira Sheikh who has generously provided me with her research into the legend and contested history of Bahuchara Mata. All updates reflect insights gained from her work.
A continuity of history has been erased at the temple of the goddess Bahucharaji. As I walk into the center of the temple I am surprised to see a dozen or so men busily working at carving and cutting away stone and cement blocks, constructing a new temple where once a classical Indo-Islamic structure had stood. The shrine complex that I had expected to see is no longer. Details »
He is waiting for me in the hotel lobby, but barely lifts his head to acknowledge me when I come down from my room to meet him. His face, decorated with a pair of plastic sunglasses, is perfectly round. An equally perfectly round chin, nose, pair of cheeks and eyes but an incongruously square mouth complete a the face of my interrogator. A mustache covers his upper lip, and his middle age is betrayed by his receding hairline and thinning hair. His police uniform is sharply pressed, its starched perfection suggesting professional dry cleaning. It clings to his frame like shrink-wrap and suggests a tailored fit measured to accommodate the demands of his large frame and without a hint of being ill-fitting. The buttons are well polished. His black, patent leather shoes equally well buffed. A fastidious man, I think, one that may be equally fastidious when he question me about my reasons for being in his city. Details »
It stands there with its veneer of rude decay and abusive repair. Peeling paint, carelessly applied white wash, cracked and broken jalis (screens), gently leaning wooden doors held in place by rusting hinges, and large areas of carelessly applied cement to repair gaps in its walls. Sitting low to the ground, the mausoleum appears to slump towards the earth, a posture reminiscent of soul realizing death and waiting for it. Shanties surround it, and thorn covered bushes garland it from all sides. Refuse and waste dance in the wind on its patios, and bird droppings decorate the perfectly round forms of its nine domes. The angry scars of time and neglect cover its entire surface…and yet it is beautiful. Details »
A new set of translations of the works of the Indian poet Kabir are about to be published by The New York Review Of Books.
Professor J.J. Roy Burman, who currently teaches at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences (TISS) in Mumbai/Bombay, India has been a crucial guide and advisor on the current phase of The Idea Of India project.
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.