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Across Mumbai
March 13, 2013 - March 27, 2013

The Racer vs.The Flaneur at the Focus Photography Festival Mumbai 2013

“Life is a game of minutes”-  Rob, Competitor, The Amazing Race, Season 1

“...that essentially Gallic individual, the deliberately aimless pedestrian, unencumbered by any obligation or sense of urgency, who, being French and therefore frugal, wastes nothing, including his time which he spends with the leisurely discrimination of a gourmet, savoring the multiple flavors of his city.” - Cornelia Otis Skinner on flâneurs

If a flâneur ever meets an Amazing Racer,  they probably won’t  have much to say to each other. That is assuming, if they ever meet. Because to a  flâneur, the amazing racer is a curious blur on the opposite sidewalk and  to the latter, the former is the slowpoke who despite being screamed at in a foreign accent for directions, isn’t giving away any. They might be in the same point in time and space, but are from two different worlds.

Yet these two beings from two different planets, one hyperventilating go-getter and the other slow-mo serendipity seeker,  have to be dated and mated for doing the full round of Focus Photography Festival Mumbai, 2013. Being a photography festival that spans across precious few  weekends, has 22 exhibitions spread across 19 venues in 3 neighbourhoods of Mumbai, with some of the exhibitions lasting only four days, it is bound to press all the hot buttons of  anybody’s inner schedule-crazy, hyperactive Amazing Racer. Yet a  flâneur, that ‘kaleidoscope gifted with consciousness’, ‘that sovereign of the road’ who sees the whole urban experience as a ’series of  moving photographs’ is who you have to be in order to appreciate the first edition of this biannual  festival themed  ‘The City’. Who better than a flâneur to haunt these 19 venues, (more than half of which are deliberately chosen from non-gallery spaces to encourage mass participation), and the roads that lead from one to the next?

But how does one make room for these two personalities in the same body:  one that always knows what he is looking for and therefore finds only that (e.g., one Amazing Race contestant found Paris just like SoHo) and the other not knowing what he is looking for and  ends up so often with nothing? What are the hot tips to make these alternate body-snatching experiences between OK-One-Box-Ticked-What’s-Next and Breathe-Stop-Stay-Watch less vertiginous? Apparently there is none.

But be a Flâneur or a Racer, it would  make anybody’s head reel to walk out of India’s central bank and straight into the Hermès showroom a few steps away . It’s not just because of  the change of decor. It’s mostly about the change in value brought about by photography. Because the kind of typical Indian unkemptness and chaos, the cobwebbed drawer, the nonchalant faces, the sweat-stained uniforms,  which were eyesores at the bank, once they were carefully photographed in black and white, framed and displayed (not part of the exhibition) in the très chic interiors of Hermès, become objects of  yearning gaze. After this curiously perverse contrast en route  the show by photographer Sean Rocha upstairs, we find ourselves,  once again, inside a study in contrasts. The photographs and a time-lapse video, shot across the world, show the rare pockets of quiet in cities:  a group of North Indian men catching a break under the tree; idle vendors in  a market corner in a Chinese city;  an empty room inhabited with a crowd of photographs; show how we make room for a bit of private peace in the crowd. The (deliberately?) untitled photographs try to suspend our preconceived judgements about cities and make us look for the universal. The timelapse video shot across different cities in the world show the diurnal motions of a specific corner of the city, eerily devoid of humans but teeming with signs of human existence. It rewards the patient viewer in a deserted gallery  with brief moments of pure calm. The racer kept tapping his feet in impatience. The  flâneur dug his heels in, looking resolutely at the screen.

During the journey from one venue to another, the flâneur is in his elements, camera on the ready, stumbling upon heat-struck soft-toys looking as miserable as  trapped pets, but the moment he starts actively looking for serendipity, the racer takes over.

These are not the only two identifies one tries on for size while going in and out of the venues. In the Hermès store, as a non-prospective buyer, you are invisible to the  sales staff, but all the polite dismissal still  bristles at the nape of your neck. In Horniman Circle Garden,  one of the few truly public places of Mumbai, your invisibility is liberating, letting your camera gaze upon people eating, chatting, flirting or catching some shut-eye. Raymonde April’s intimate portraits of this city and others, decidedly warmer than Sean Rocha’s,  are infused with new meaning and energy in this garden full of people completely ignoring the exhibition. The  flâneur disappears from the garden as uneventfully as he appeared, but not without a parting shot.  

From Horniman Circle to Filter is a bit of a walk, long enough to chance upon oddities like this. The racer kept quiet for the moment having ticked two boxes already. He even got a friendly smile and nod while doing so from a fellow racer, a pesticide serviceman, ticking off boxes in his daily rounds clipboard.

Urban subalterns like this, and his fellow invisibles who are keeping India ‘shining’, surface with a plop-fizz-bang of Technicolor in  the Filter exhibition with the photographs of soft-porn and regional language cinema halls, a popular haunt of the migrant labourers, truck drivers and assorted vagrants of the city. But being set up inside an elite design store, it takes upon a carnivalesque persona complete with a sassy photo booth. It turns into a parody of itself, the invisible becoming visible but turning into a caricature in the process.  Inevitable, considering, “In Mumbai the minute there is a glass door the crowd changes.

After virtually rubbing shoulders with the city’s subalterns, in Kala Ghoda Cafe one has to literally rub shoulders with the city’s expats and fine food enthusiasts. Because this cubbyhole of a cosy cafe hardly has room for one additional person in the lunchtime, forget  two split personalities. Yet one perseveres, looming over plates of food and ducking plate-to-mouth elbows to peer into  the photographs on display from the cafe’s permanent collection. The polite diners oblige, most of them not realizing that these photos are not part of the standard decor. Considering most of the photos depict the elusive entity called urban leisure, the situation is just about appropriate. Framed pictures of  skyscrapers overlooking sea beaches, cemented  backyard ponds and awkward mountain vacationing of Sikh families dot the walls among people catching their fifteen minutes of good times.

Moving on,  while visiting the three exhibitions at Cheval Bar & Restaurant, a realisation dawns that using non-gallery spaces is a mixed blessing. The first exhibition, reflections of the unkempt side of Budapest,  is a pool of postapocalyptic silence , making  you shiver and look over your shoulder, even though there are noisy diners  all around. The second exhibition showing the uninhabited and unfinished structures of Mumbai, in contrast, has an unkemptness which is almost comforting. They show the chinks in the armour of the city, through which we can see the  dream of progress writhing inside, making Mumbai seem almost human, almost worthy of pity. But that pity is short-lived as a gaggle of lunching ladies arrive there for a private party, making a hasty exit necessary, leaving the third exhibition unseen.The racer delights at  the time gained. The  flâneur fumes, thinking of lost experiences.

Galerie Max Mueller is a tall drink of cool water on a hot day, after the good-bad-ugly-indifferent experiences in non-gallery spaces, even though the gallery was  being invaded by a swarm of very chirpy schoolchildren for a pinhole camera workshop. None of the early Bombay photographs (1840 - 1900)  would  come as a revelation especially those who have visited these two recent exhibitions of vintage Indian photography or frequented many vintage Indian photograph websites. But this key exhibition serves a much more vital purpose.The conscious choice of relatable photographs  by the curator made most of the visitors widen their eyes in surprise at the wide gap between Bombay then and Mumbai now, and more importantly, perhaps made them learn to  value photographs as time capsules.

As the  flâneur gazes over the city, he rarely chances upon fellow women flâneurs. No matter what rung of socio-economic ladder they are, in India, women are conditioned not to gaze, and to strictly follow ‘no-looking-left-no-looking-right-always-looking-ahead’ policy since their childhood.  Hemmed in from all around by gazes, when women pick up the camera and turn the gaze back at the city,  what do we see? The other key exhibition of the festival at the Jehangir Terrace Gallery,  with the work of  twenty two contemporary  women photographers  from across the globe is an attempt to answer the question. The answer is anything but the usual straight and narrow. The voices range from tender to strident to provocative to poignant and all shades in between.  The bigger pieces are hung out on the open terrace, while the smaller ones are inside the air conditioned garrett, where ironically no photography is allowed. On entering, Shilpa Gavane’s Clear Series of translucent plastic bags floating around the city, though coming from a cautionary place, can’t but remind us of the heart-stopping sequence from American Beauty. Chino Otsuka’s seemingly ordinary portrait series of two women of different ages, Imagine Finding Me turns poignant, when you realise both of the characters are the photographer herself, in different ages. Mohini Chandra appropriates her family photographs to a different end, reducing her father to a silhouette patterned with common Indian studio backdrops, places where emotions are projected at but never responded to. Vidisha Saini’s You Like Mr. Shekhar  shows backdrops which are equally telling, freshly gutted buildings revealing more than they mean to, another suburban dream gone sour.

Moving to and living in big cities are so often about making a fresh start: working hard at making a new version of oneself, finding a replacement of the family left behind; with the self and the other friendly few or building a brick-and-mortar utopia around yourself. But things hardly go as planned, more so for the women,  as we see in the works mentioned above or in Anusha Yadav’s series on children’s reality show contestants or Joy Gregory's Cinderella Stories where she takes a pair of golden high heels from a Panama City brothel on a Europe tour because the owner would never be able to.

The feminine gaze continues, now echoing with Anita Dube’s characteristic voice, at Art Entrance Gallery . These black and white photographs of enamel votive eye installations draw and redraw very many boundaries, between sacred and profane, between masculine and feminine (these eyes are used on both male and female deities) and more importantly between human and the mechanical gaze. The high point of this exhibition was Via Negativa where a female mouth attempts to swallow an eye and in the process turns into one. Whether you take it as the feminine taking over the masculine gaze or re-establishing the dark (feminine?) side of the divine is up to you. The companion exhibition of this was here (not a part of this festival).

If the previous exhibition was all about God’s-eye-view, the curiosity-cabinet-esque exhibition in Clark House Initiative was all fly-in-the-wall, a wondrous tableau vivant of how photography was domesticated in India. This maze of a place which cocks a snook at the traditional white cube is as perfect a backdrop as it can be. With turn-of-the-century photographic collages , assorted studio portraits (found or otherwise), printed labels, other cityscapes  and many other video and photomontages , it retraces and celebrates the evolution of photography from the colonizer’s tool to that of the colonized. The boundary slowly blurs between what’s an exhibit and what’s part of the decor; what’s contemporary and what’s avant-garde from the past. Much like the chaotic history of Indian photography itself.

The flâneur is an insider of the city, trying hard not to look like one. Instead, he wants to see with the fresh eyes of an outsider, who has not yet been lulled into familiarity of his surrounds. The racer is an outsider to the city, trying to be an insider as fast as he can, picking up patterns and cutting out the unnecessary, by which he means everything that doesn’t concern his immediate goal. The exhibition at Sakshi Gallery is full of poseurs like this. Nandini Valli Muthiah shows avatars as divinity cosplaying , Waswo X Waswo problematizes the handpainted colonial photograph by casting contemporary subjects within their frames creating multiple degrees of beautiful irony. Vivek Vilasini populates temple carvings with real people, and Nariko Yamaguchi presents us with Keitai Girls (Mobile Phone Girls), imaginary beings of the future, who are half-human, half-gadgets. But the most multivalent of posings come from Gregory Crewdson’s photograph. In a suburban space that’s half dystopia, half fairy tale, a solitary female figure stands in the water, half of her missing clothes gathered in a wet bunch. Is she giving up? Or starting afresh? The answer depends on who we are posing as at the moment.

This twilight of meanings chases us as we move on to Chatterjee & Lal  where insomniac Noida photographer Dhruv Malhotra walking around with a five-kg sandbag, a tripod, his camera and pepper spray at the dead of the night brings us images of sleeping men, deserted streets and odd public places which open up like portals to another dimension, or ‘cinderella moments’ as the official Focus Festival essay aptly puts it. The photographs taken with very long exposure, almost always show a light-polluted angry red sky which presides over the ominous overnight urban growth. The vexed question of invasion of privacy rears it head, but we must remember that, unlike the first world the boundaries between public and private spaces in India are really thin. But as a subject,  as a fellow night photographer it’s charged with much unease and ambiguity, a fertile ground for all art.

In The Guild, the twilight zone of exploration happens to be the one between stills and video. One of the many questions asked by the participating artists seems to be whether video is more than a sum of its parts, stills. The artists switch back and forth between both, giving us a wealth of perspectives. Baiju Parthan’s images alternately glow with bliss and menace. The multiple frames of hands holding stones over a cityscape dissolve into dark laughter in the last frame where an asteroid-proportioned stone looms over a city. Mithu Sen mocks the illusion of movement with a video that shows the carcass of a bird being dragged by ants, creating a mockery of flight, in the process. Gigi Scaria continues investigating the absurdity of urban spaces and the mind spaces of the urban dwellers while Pooja Iranna induces vertigo with alternate illusions of stability and instability.

The exhibitions in Design Temple and Studio X could be watched only by a lucky few because they lasted for a few days and had to be given a miss.

In Project 88 , Chirodeep Chaudhuri’s beautiful photographs of Durga Puja taken across twelve years in his ancestral village in Bengal, brings our city selves in sharper focus by exploring our problematic relationship with the village. Though the photographer vehemently denies any nostalgia or yearning for a bucolic past (he grew up in Mumbai), but the photographs, deliberately undated and framing only the quaint, the timeless and the pleasant, tell a different story.  They can, very well, pass off as production photographs taken for a Satyajit Ray film.

The people in the photographs being all kith and kin to the photographer also give him a unique insider / outsider status which is a bliss and a curse in an equal measure. The line between a photographer on assignment and a photographer on a holiday keeps getting blurred.

The leg of South Mumbai venues coming to a close, the racer should have been more in command than ever. But the exhibition at Art Musings forced the racer for a careful do-over. Not just because it’s the most accessible and  aesthetically pleasing of all the exhibitions so far, but because of a silly, little game devised on the spot. Named as ‘Orientalism Test’ this game questions the notion of image as experiential and image as construct and tries to guess a photographer’s nationality by the subject and style of the photograph. These frames, populated by objects and devoid of people by definition, prove to be just the right mirror to reflect the bias in the photographer’s gaze. You are cordially invited to play the game yourself right here. To get you started, this is the kind of Indian flowers that appeal to a foreign photographer (Tim Hall) and this is  the kind of Indian flowers that appeal to an Indian one (Mahesh Shantaram).

The last stop in the South Mumbai venue race was Chemould Prescott Road, only it was not. A miscommunication led to a closed gallery and brought upon  online viewing (a fairly generous sample). While the racer was glad to catch a breather, the flâneur kept agonising over the legitimacy of the experience. Don’t most of our art knowledge based on reproductions of artworks (print, internet etc.)?  Even exhibitions have always taken objects out of their authentic context and displayed them in a new interpretive frame. In that sense, museums have been creating virtual environments all along. How different can it be for photography? But then again, viewing the exhibition online might rid of the distraction of fellow visitors in the gallery but adds the great distraction of internet in the process. Only an offline view and a careful comparison might answer some of the questions above.

The streak of miscommunication continued as the Dutch Design Workspace turned out to be closed on a Saturday. Instead of the exhibition, one was confronted with nonchalant goats (it’s located in the unlikeliest corner of Parel) and smirking security men. On further query, the security guard said that the space itself is shutting down in a few days. This brought back memories of the sad end of Matthieu Foss Gallery and stirred up the vexed question of the fate of any experimental space in this city. Let’s hope that the security guard was misinformed and the Dutch Design Workspace is moving to a bigger, better space.

The racer was third time unlucky in the Mehboob Studios, Bandra. The two-day event was cut short into an one-day do without any prior notice. Hassled assistants, preoccupied photographer, tense curator and photographs strewn around were all that on view. The flâneur though, took delight in the chaos and surreal sights such as this and this.

In Good Earth Store , memories of the Hermès perversion came back, as the well-heeled of the city wined and dined blissfully unaware of the exhibition around them showing the stark sides of the city. The multiplicity of gazes, characteristic of a non-gallery space, also came back to haunt. The projected identities kept flickering between potential shopper to potential diner to loiterer to dining-interruptor (some images were right next to the tables). These mild conflicts apart, most of the photographs expertly managed to capture both the macro and micro views of the city in a single frame. The image of an Worli Goat sitting and gazing over the city from a pulpit (like a guardian lion) perfectly summed up the photographer’s eye for both the grand and the nuanced. While finally walking out without generating any kind of revenue for the space, the text in big and bold " All prints are on archival silver metallic paper and are available for purchase in limited editions" called back as a last-ditch effort.

Finally, at the BlueFROG the flâneur was allowed to apply his characteristic gaze indoors as Kaushal Parikh exhibited Mumbai street views from the eye level (unlike the grand frames of Sunhil Sippy). Some of them amused, some provoked but none of them offered to explain. Because a city like Mumbai, is best left unexplained, much to the delight of  flâneur. The racer doesn’t care much for that kind of things anyway.

Posted by Sourav Roy on 4/7/13 | tags: photography

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Some lovely writing in here. I like the push-pull rhythms, as it flips between the zippy Racer and more louche Flaneur...

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