New Login   

Collective Memories

Gayatri D. Acharya

By Khushwant Singh Photo Editor Prashant Panjiar
Penguin, 2004, pp. 166, Rs. 1250.00


Photographs, especially iconic ones, have a central function in codifying and perpetuating the myths and values of a given culture. Yet in India they remain unexamined and unavailable in book form. Other than occasional exhibition catalogues on specific themes, there are no anthologies of excellent or representative works that can be used for contemplating the uses of the one artistic medium that confronts our lives every day. This gap has been partially filled at last in the book under review. It will therefore be greatly welcomed by those interested in photographic meaning and visual culture.   Particularly commendable are the texts accompanying each picture. They explain the photographer’s equation with his subject or reveal what lies behind the taking of a remarkable shot. Raghu Rai is exceptionally adept at giving multifaceted explications of what was happening both outside and within him during the framing of a particular scene. Conscious of the semiotics of photography, he also guides our reading of his works.   Since photographs are commonly printed with cryptic captions, there are many we have seen without knowledge of their meaning. Thus, Steve McCurry’s composition of Rajasthani women in a dust storm has been endlessly reproduced for its aesthetic appeal. But this pretty picture does not have a pretty subject. McCurry is concerned with the difficult lives of women forced into road construction at times of drought, and here, they are huddling against each other in a dangerous storm: “They were barely able to stand in the fierce wind now and clustered together to shield themselves from the sand and dust. I tried to take pictures. The road workers didn’t even notice me. In the strange orange light, with the wind howling savagely around them, they sang and prayed. Life and death seemed to hang in the balance.” The depth and resonance of this picture is not available to us without McCurry’s words.   Other shifts of meaning are offered by the editor’s own knowledge of his subject. Felice Beato’s “Interior of Secundra Bagh after the slaughter of 2000 rebels” in 1857 was commonly reproduced in our childhood history books as factual documentary. But Beato came to India only in 1858 and was commissioned by the War Office in London to document the Sepoy Mutiny. He restaged this scene several months after the massacre and the numerous skeletons scattered in the palace courtyard were probably disinterred and foregrounded as ...

Table of Contents >>
Please or to Read Entire Article

Free Access Online 12 Back Issues
with 1 year's subscription
Archive (1976-2011)
under construction.