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This Indian Festival Redefines Photography in the Age of Fake News and Social Media

Farmer suicides, Sabarimala devotees, and other stories from the ongoing Chennai Photo Biennale.
Pallavi Pundir
Jakarta, ID
p sainath chennai photo biennale india
An image from Indian journalist P Sainath's project, People's Archive of Rural India. Photo: P Sainath/Chennai Photo Biennale. 

Photography in India is at a strange crossroads. From still contending with “visual imperialism” to being used as a political tool in the fake news industry, the form has traversed the traditional formats and definitions. And artist and photographer Pushpamala N—who is known for instilling traditional artforms with transgressions and commenting on nationalism, dissent and abstractness in photography—is currently at the epicentre of this ever-evolving movement in India.


In the ancient coastal city of Chennai in southern India, Pushpamala has brought her politics, activism and whimsy to the ongoing Chennai Photo Festival, functioning as its curator. “Photography seems so banal these days because it surrounds you, these photographic images,” the Bengaluru-based photographer tells me. “Everybody takes photos all the time. So, in a way, you don't take the form seriously anymore, as much as art or music. We're living in this image-centric world, you know. By putting it together under a larger philosophical or theoretical framework, it becomes interesting because then it shows that we are surrounded by connecting images.”

The theme of the festival, which is in its second edition, comes from the ancient Chinese myth. “I discovered ‘Fauna of Mirrors’ on Wikipedia while researching for a work of mine. It's a fable which says that behind a mirror, there exists a parallel universe, and it is inhabited by unknown creatures, nothing like those on earth,” she tells me. “I wanted to take this myth as a metaphor for photography itself. I look at photography as this mirror portal which is creating this other, parallel world, which is filled with images. It's very poetic, philosophical, and surreal.”

The festival brings together varied responses from across the world. VICE took a look around to bring you works of four photographers you must catch:

Gauri Gill

New Delhi-based photographer Gauri Gill captures her fascination for the annual Bahora tradition in Maharashtra, in the Adivasi communities, in which they participate in ritual performances over several nights to enact a mythological tale. The Bahora masks are considered sacrosanct—they take weeks to make and constitute a “moral and imaginative universe”. Gill used a cast of ‘actor’ volunteers to enact real-life visuals, “across dreaming and waking states, in and around the village.”


Untitled, Acts of Appearance (2015-ongoing). Photo: Gauri Gill/Chennai Photo Biennale.


Untitled, Acts of Appearance (2015-ongoing). Photo: Gauri Gill/Chennai Photo Biennale.


Untitled, Acts of Appearance (2015-ongoing). Photo: Gauri Gill/Chennai Photo Biennale.

Nandini Valli Muthiah

In 2016, photographer Nandini Valli Muthiah started working on a photo series, ‘The Devotee’, which has gained a new perspective this year. Over the last few years, Muthiah shot Sabarimala pilgrims as part of her cultural-anthropological study of the people who form a small community within the Indian society. Women between the ages of 10 and 50 were not allowed to enter the temple, until a Supreme Court verdict in September 2018 lifted the ban. Protests against the verdict are still on. “[The work] is not political. It's just portraits of these guys. But at this current moment, it’s very charged. So it's interesting how that happens,” says Pushpamala.


Untitled , The Devotee (2016). Photo: Nandini Valli Muthiah/Chennai Photo Biennale.


Untitled, The Devotee (2016). Photo: Nandini Valli Muthiah/Chennai Photo Biennale.


Untitled, The Devotee (2016). Photo: Nandini Valli Muthiah/Chennai Photo Biennale.

Rashid Rana

Pakistani artist Rashid Rana’s work is famously political. In this work, he created artwork out of small images that depict violence. “This work points out the great divide between Eastern and Western cultures and the stereotypes that perpetuate those differences,” he says.


Red Carpet-2. Photo: Rashid Rana/Chennai Photo Biennale.


Detail, Red Carpet-2. Photo: Rashid Rana/Chennai Photo Biennale.

Vijay Jodha

Photographer Vijay Jodha’s work at the biennale touches on the currently volatile subject of farmer suicides due to India’s agrarian crisis. “The survivors, predominantly widows, are both the victims and first witnesses in this ongoing tragedy,” says Jodha. This project is in collaboration with some of those witnesses. The photos also come with names and relationship of the living with the departed, the size and location of their land, and the amount of unpaid loans on the day the farmer decided to end his life.


Photo: Vijay Jodha/Chennai Photo Biennale.


Photo: Vijay Jodha/Chennai Photo Biennale.


Photo: Vijay Jodha/Chennai Photo Biennale.

Chennai Photo Biennale is on till March 24. Visit their website for more details.

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