This volume traces the evolution of photography in South Asia from the 19th century to the present and challenges our conditioned habits of viewing.
The following is an excerpt from Rahaab Allana’s introduction to Unframed: Speculating Image Practices in South Asia, edited by him. The photographs are from the book.
The conceptualization of Unframed rests on my role as archivist-curator-custodian of an image archive (The Alkazi Collection of Photography). Almost two decades of this multifaceted work has mandated continual reflection on the processes of selection, aggregation, re-classification and preservation of images, and continually enables me to marvel at the re-emergence of obscured or subjugated historical traces and trajectories.
Regular immersion in a large historical visual archive has undoubtedly influenced the way I have structured this volume on South Asian lens-based practices and image spectra. Hence they traverse multiple chronologies (past, present, future, and the erasure of time-schemes in the virtual domain); multiple mappings (inhabited/uninhabited spaces, landscapes, built forms, and the spectral edifices of photons and pixels); multiple rhetorics (political, cultural, aesthetic, methodological, existential, symbolic); and multiple subjectivities (social, singular, hybrid).
The navigation of these mingled modes has become reflexive within my thinking, and has proved immensely useful in the intimidating task of selecting material of appropriate breadth, depth and complexity for this volume, which I have envisioned as the first of a two- or three-part series. […]
Photography was first deployed in the subcontinent in the mid-nineteenth century as part of the colonial knowledge project that included systematic ethnographic documentation and study of the “natives” and their diverse cultures. From then into the present, the medium has enjoyed significant agency and purpose within the subcontinent as a whole.
Unframed scrutinizes the complex, intersectional dimensions of lens-based practices in “South Asia”—today a divided entity with major new borders violently gouged into the decolonized landmass, and with hardened political genealogies and mutually hostile nationalist agendas.
This volume presents photography as both an originary media that can assume hybrid form, and as a political, historical and social resource that has radically expanded our understanding of artistic and activist engagement in colonial and postcolonial “South Asia”.
Different modes of vintage and modern photography, in fixed and itinerant formats, have long enabled a deep visual interpenetration, assimilation and diffraction of “South Asian” realities, and have continued to challenge existent image discourses. And “South Asian” image-making has effortlessly transitioned into the contemporary “post-digital” cyber-moment that has drastically altered our concepts of territoriality itself, through all manner of subdued and strident methodologies of seemingly infinite replication that allow for the seemingly infinite deferral of any final “meaning”, and for the seemingly infinite expansion of viewership.
However, one must also consider how digital media still has limited access in the subcontinent and does need to still be considered within the bounds of economic viability. Its deployment in news, information portals and other political expression is often mediated by corporate power.
Unframed then turns a critical eye upon how lens-based practices in the subcontinent are today merging lyrical and evidentiary frameworks so as to challenge the obduracy of our narrative positions, and to dismantle our conditioned habits of viewing that reinforce our intractable claims to know “who” and “where” we are, “what” is real in our seemingly substantial inner and outer worlds, and “why” we remain entwined with our roots, or seek alternate horizons, or juggle both imperatives.
Rahaab Allana is Curator/Publisher, Alkazi Foundation for the Arts, New Delhi.