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Through Indian eyes

Taking a giant leap from 19th century India to our times may seem a daunting task to many, but that is exactly what the tiny and frail Judith Mara Gutman, the New York-based author specialising in the field of the social history of photography, has done, and she seems to be quite unfazed. Gutman had written Through Indian Eyes, considered a path-breaking book when it was published in 1982. It held that when Indians looked through the lens of a camera they did it their own way, rejecting the Western viewpoint. She has continued to make trips to India since, but now she is here to explore what is for her terra incognita — contemporary Indian photography.

Gutman has been doing so for the past three years, and this time she is here on an invitation to talk at the National Institute of Design, Ahmedabad. She has taken the opportunity to meet photographers and travel to Calcutta, a city she fondly associates with connoisseur-writer R.P. Gupta, who had directed her to the steel factory in Jamshedpur, which had a collection of photographs at a time when photography was yet to gain the elevated status of an art form and collections and archives were unheard of.

Born in 1928, Gutman travels alone, is always chipper, and is undeterred by her newly-acquired iPad which she eagerly attacks to show the images she has stored. She comes to the 19th century image of a man, perhaps a merchant in the guise of a musician, sitting on a chair playing what looks like the sitar. She had used it for the cover of her book. The man is photographed but the carpet is painted. “Whenever I showed it to my friends in New York they thought he was in the air,” she says. “It reflected how people see in the subcontinent. It was meant to be two-dimensional like a miniature painting. That’s what this photograph tries to emulate.”

Gutman, who had earlier written Lewis W. Hine and the American Social Conscience in 1967, shuttled between India and the US between 1977 and 1982 when she was working on her project that focused on indigenous photographers, many of whom were anonymous. The USIS had sent her to Bombay to talk about photography, when a man asked her if she was interested in Indian photographers. That took her to Hyderabad, where Ami Chand, a descendant of Raja Deen Dayal, offered her the master’s prints for Rs 10 each, as reproductions were more expensive.

Gutman came to the conclusion from an ad in a Bengali newspaper that photography arrived in India in 1839-40, soon after equipment was allowed to be distributed publicly, and Calcutta was where it all began. In the bare room of a hotel, she laid the photographs acquired from Bourne & Shepherd alongside those taken by Indians and she felt “animated” for they were so different. It took her years of research and meetings with various scholars in various fields to find out what it actually meant.

She had totted up a list of 150 photographers of the subcontinent, and when she researched files in Bombay she discovered an Englishman’s note written in 1871 to the home ministry in London to the effect that “These Indians just won’t go to schools set up to teach photography. All that they would do is to go to their fathers in the bazaars.” Gutman’s reaction was that if they went to their fathers in 1871, photography was already popular in 1851. And secondly, the tradition of putting people in the frontal field was continuing.

She already had 700 photographs and with the help of the Ford Foundation and local philanthropy the Piramal Gallery opened on the grounds of the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai, in 1988. And this is where Gutman held her exhibition.

Three years ago she was asked in New York if she knew about contemporary Indian photography. And this started off her current venture. Since 2010, she has met several Indian photographers and video makers who “see beyond themselves” and seems to be slowly getting the picture. She speaks enthusiastically of Vivan Sundaram, Gigi Scaria, Prashant Panjiar and the young Sohrab Hura and Poulomi Basu. She stresses that these Indian photographers are “interested in not thinking of what’s inside but of the world outside. That is the common bond that ties them together, although that is not immediately apparent.” At her age Gutman is remarkably receptive to the ideas of young photographers.

Gutman is busy with another project — a show of Hine’s photographs, part of Roosevelt’s scheme for the Depression, opening next September. In these, man and machine work in tandem at a time when strikes were rampant. She is sure it will be “groundbreaking”.