Does India have a single visual culture? This and much more was discussed during a session titled Outside In, Inside Out: Decoding India’s Visual Culture at the Jaipur Literature Festival on Sunday. At the end of the hour-long discussion, the answer was a resounding ‘No!’ because India is just too diverse to have a single visual culture.
Asked about his experience about shooting in India, photographer Steve McCurry said: “This is the ground zero for material for photographers. There is a good reason why Raghu Rai and Raghubir Singh did most of their work in India.”
Writer-restorer Aman Nath was scathing about India’s lack of interest in its own visual culture. “Whatever you say about India, the exact opposite is true. It is a very complex place. But because we have been a colonized nation, we tend to look at India through the West and are always looking for validation. Everyone goes to the Taj Mahal but how many have been to Ellora? It took 800 years to build that. We don’t even know the logo of Hinduism. India cannot be visually packaged; India is this, that, and everything,” he said. “Our disinterest in our own culture could be from the fact that we are the world’s oldest continuous civilisation. So we build and rebuild are unconcerned about the past. We have an embarrassment of riches and so we don’t care,” he said.
Expectedly, the discussion veered towards the crisis of restoration of our heritage in India. Vidya Dahejia, professor of Indian and South Asian Art at Columbia University, raised a point about how temples in Tamil Nadu are being destroyed because the “easiest approval is given for restorations” by the Tamil Nadu Hindu Religious and Charitable Endowments (TNHRCE). “The old stone work is gone in many of them, and is being replaced by tiles. We are destroying a rich tradition. On the other hand, look at the beautiful restoration that has been done in Chidambaram which is outside the TNHRCE’s grasp,” she added. “We must stop taking heritage for granted.”
Agreeing that India needs to do much more when it comes to conservation and restoration, William Dalrymple, author and one of the festival’s directors, said art history is a fresh field in India and each corner of India’s rich visual history needs to be mapped. “We know about the schools of art… but we still don’t know the names of numerous numbers of painters. This needs to change,” he said.
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