The retrospect show of representative photographs by and about Jitendra Arya’s (1931-2011) at NGMA (Bengaluru, till 21st August 2018) is, first of all, about the historical alterations in the cultural sights that India as a nation began to evoke since 1950s. Arya mostly shot photos of those for whom ‘appearance’ was also in itself a cultural investment, be it a singer from Pakistan, a musician (Bismilla Khan) or even a visual artist (Jamini Roy, M.F. Husain). Like another photographer Sunil Jana, Arya often created appearances of/for these ‘public personalities,’ by publishing his shots in popular magazines like Femina.
Arya’s people, in the show, are hardly anonymous now, but were so before being shot, then. In between came his shoots, like a magic wand. Often mostly the unintended shots by him, of the now prosperous personalities, might not even find a sacred place in their personal album, but for being Arya’s imagery (Jaya and Amitabh Bachan’s wedding photo, for instance). Appearances, for both Arya and the models, were in the making, taking a while, while his shoot was only an intervention. The spirit of Arya’s photos in the show is a teaser, indicating a missed out white cube space in the country till late 80s that could fill in that gap created between the lobby-photos and calendar imagery.
This thin difference between how they were and how they were made available through their presence and appearances is exactly wherein Arya, as a mechanical-reproducer of sights that mattered to build a nation, steps in. Arya photographed humans, at a distance where only those comfortable with him would and could pose. The candid photos of Raj Kapoor and Nargis’ crossing the London streets are testimony to it. At the same, he had photographed them as if that’s how they were, circulated in the cover pages of several popular magazines like Femina, Roopalekha etc. Interestingly, the passionate curator of this show, Sabeena Gadihoke, includes the sectionalization and display as an inevitable part of this/her show to prove that it is the candid, negative-film role photographer as he appears now, for those who are around us that really matters. The way the show is curated seems to insist that contemporary archiving is at its best when the archived is in action as a restored image. Every time someone opts to pull out a cultural piece from an archive, he/she segregates the physical spaces of archive and display, which this show refutes, as an appropriation. There is no archive to Arya beyond this display, because his products, at the moment of production, were there on the stalls throughout the nation, wherever there were bus stops, taxi stands, markets and the like. Arya, in this sense is like an illustrator: both need to premeditate as to how their imagery might look, beyond their canvases, in print.
There is no more Arya beyond the show, no reclaiming of the historical past or nostalgic reminiscences possible anymore. This has something to do with layers and layers of politics of appearances as sensory politics of choices (for the photographer, curator and the viewer) rather than the poetics of chance:
Jitendra Arya’s photos, arguably, could not be seen like this, alongside him, while he was yet alive. He gave up photography in the last decade of his life, a decade ago, like say, a stalwart actor of silent movies being uncomfortable with the talkie films, perhaps. He was fated to begin his career as early as at the age of fifteen, amounting to six decades of his romance with lens, as a diasporic Indian, born in India, migrated to Kenya, worked London and then arrives back to India. It will make a fascinating narrative to pitch Arya’s visual choices of construing a certain ‘India’ next to that of other contemporary diasporics who addressed the same theme in other media: Naipaul, Rushdie, Anish Kapoor, Krishna Reddy among others.
Arya had concluded framing the world when photography lost its material-(real)ity and scale, owing to the arrival of the simulation of appearances, in the form of scale-less digital images. Ironically, without the latter, he would not have had been presented by the curator in the way it has come through: along with the painstakingly excavated, renovated, reformed, chosen, edited photos of Arya, the curator also treats ‘these sets of Arya’s Photographs’ itself as a subject matter of her addressal. The first thing that she facilitates to sight is how his photos could comfortably yield to the mechanism of simulation. Baudrillard famously said that the disease created by simulation has no real cure. In Arya’s case the simulated-appearance is his true photo as per now, thus treating the hardcopy of his negatives and gelatin prints as the raw material. The curator’s insights significantly contribute to this. Hence walking through this show was meandering through a set mutually differently defined reflection, without any source mirror, since it, like Arya’s actual archive, becomes a triggering agent in essence. When it was shot and initially printed, nobody imagined these photos to be blown up to such a scale, nor printed on a transparent layer, nor would the image of the photographer himself become a part of his own image, like an author being part of his own text. It is both about him and by him. The illusion of layers of appearances that contributed partially to the imagination of India as a new nation since 1960s is what the curator has attempted by metamorphosing a monograph into a larger narrative.
Arya’s friend Dev Anand as well as Nutan are the highlights of the show. The overall display of the images of the sets of the film ‘Manzil’ can be anybody’s nostalgia about any film-shoots they have witnessed. Alongside the series of other two (foreign) films, Arya’s insightfulness is translated as that of the show: the images of the body double of a heroine is shown alongside the protagonist. The artist is so appropriated that the show seems to be as it if is both the curator and the artist’s collaborative project.
The mundaneness inherent in the photographs wherein the star actor Dilip Kumar himself is shaving his face, Nutan is looking at herself in a mirror leaned against a tree, Ram Kinker Baij wears a shirt and Nandalal Bose wears a shawl, looking out at the open fields of the Birbhum district, wherein the shawl’s pattern seems directly out of his own painting—are what one doesn’t connect as the background of the memories they have stored. Did Arya trace this absent mundaneness or was it that which was invisible for others that at first Arya and then the curator found it, in order to be shot and displayed, respectively! The show adds and deletes a chunk of one’s nostalgia while warns the sight that it is just a present thought.
Recalling the fact that it was the same curator who curated both Homai Vyarawallah and Arya’s photographs over a gap of half a decade, it is curious to observe that Homai’s photos wove together imageries that historicized politics while those of Jitendra politicized a certain aesthetic objects or candid, photographic imageries of the art of independent Indian photography itself. Currently, Arya’s works appear to be twenty first century’s digital sightings about nostalgia.
The show includes photos by and about Arya, his letter communication with who-is-who of Indian culture among his contemporaries, those whom he made and those who became someone without him (Amitabh Bachan). What is remarkable about his photos is his subaltern will to be the king-maker. He availed platforms to upcoming talents but refused to go after them, after they gained popularity. Ambiguity in visuality, specific to Indian sight, so to say, is his premise. His images, in summary, refused to be specified, since they were not political in will.
“The Light Works: Jitendra Arya” is a show about how to add filters of curatorial layers to a cultural production with such an aptness that it almost seems that what is being addressed becomes the very addressal. Arya’s photographs commix the stored, restored and the displayed. Also they reminiscence what is already in the viewer’s minds through memories of the popular magazines in which they were published. Just like the curator has used his photos for a certain arrangement, Jitendra himself had used the popular publications to evoke an appearance of the model as well as that of the artist. Memory, nostalgia, archive, popular art and the existential quintessential question of photography as an investment in the making of a national memoire are the multiple layers that the light works show evoke, beyond being a mere selfie of the artist’s ego.//
“The Light Works: Jitendra Arya” is a show about how to add filters of curatorial layers to a cultural production with such an aptness that it almost seems that what is being addressed becomes the very addressal. Just like the curator (Sabeena Gadihoke) has used his (Jitendra Arya’s) photos for a certain arrangement, the photographer himself had used the popular publications (Filmfare, Femina etc) to create an appearance of the model as well as one for the nation. Arya’ mostly shot photos of those for whom ‘appearance’ was also in itself a cultural investment. The spirit of Arya’s photos in the show is a teaser, indicating a missed out white cube space in the country till late 80s that could fill in that gap created between the lobby-photos and calendar imagery.