Photography and Public Engagement: The Chennai Photo Biennale 2016

 

Raj Lalwani sifts through conversations around photography and looks back at Chennai Photo Biennale 2016 and its incredible effort to make art accessible to everyone.

Photograph/Natasha Desai                                                                                                 Photographs/Raj Lalwani

Raj Lalwani sifts through conversations around photography and looks back at Chennai Photo Biennale 2016 and its incredible effort to make art accessible to everyone.

There is a story from India’s first photography festival that I cannot get out of my head. Swapan Parekh, at the Delhi Photo Festival 2011, observed a young girl running across the gallery that was showing Kanu Gandhi’s intimate photos of Gandhiji. Like all children, she was playing, presumably not interested in the ‘serious’ photographs around her, but a few moments later, Parekh realised that the girl was softly humming to herself… Jana Gana Mana.

Cut to four years later at the Chennai Photo Biennale, as I sipped the best chai I had had in weeks, in the land of filter kaapi. The saviour of this hopeless tea lover was a man called Shankar from Jharkhand, who was selling chai at the Nageshwara Rao Park, where Yannick Cormier had curated a fantastic show. Shankar told me he was in love with tasveerein after the few days he had been staring at the large exhibits. Much like the chai he’d brew, Shankar chose to brew his own stories about the photos, with bits of information absorbed from overheard conversations, and others from his head.

“Aur yahan pe dekho Nehruji ka ghar hai, aur yeh tasveer kursiyon ki hai.” The paan seller outside Satramdas Dhalamal Jewellers at Park Street is a little like an official photo guide, with a copy of Dayanita Singh’s Sent a Letter displayed in the vitrines of the jewellery shop since 2008. Dayanita with her emphasis and concern for the dissemination of the image, has actually been responsible for a lot of public engagement with the medium. Just imagine the thousands who walk by Park Street, every day.

“The Biennale has probably been the first time in the Indian photo festival landscape where new work has been born.”

 The show at Nageshwara Rao Park, titled Surrealistic by Nature, not only featured some excellent work that was a delight to see in large prints, but was also honest in its simplicity. The photos and their visual play often demanded a second viewing, but the essence of most of the work was relatable and universal.

Sadly, I missed some of that attention to detail in the other large show, Urban Water, at the Lighthouse train station. The idea was fantastic, photos of the people, by the people, shown to the people, but the arbitrary manner in which some relevant work was put up, seemed careless. Barely lit, prints coming off and a lack of connect caused by keeping descriptions only in English. Photography can be delightful when it is all over, but it shouldn’t be all over the place. That said, CPB has probably been the first time in the Indian photo festival landscape where new work has been born, courtesy the excellent initiative to host emerging photographers in a guided art residency.

You win some, you lose some. Every time you press the shutter, your vision may not get fulfilled, but the idea is to keep tapping away, one picture at a time. I do dream of a time that photography is all around us, not just in Chennai, but in the Delhi Metro, in a Bombay Irani café, even a large flex print in the hills, somewhere. What’s crucial, of course, is that there’s careful thought and respect given to the vision, the print, the medium, so that democratisation is not just about a crowd, conversation is not just chatter. The best democracies are those that aren’t just engaged, but also informed. We need more Chennai Photo Biennales, more Delhi Photo Festivals and a better understanding, not only of where we stand or where we may be going, but also where we are coming from.

Photograph/ Raj Lalwani

Tags: 2016, Chennai, Chennai Photo Biennale, May 2016, Photography Festival, Raj Lalwani, special feature, Surrealist by Nature, Urban Water

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