The late theorist and photographer Bhupendra Karia’s lifelong mission may best be summed up as a quest for objectivity. In Bhupendra Karia: India 1968–1974 at Sepia Eye, black-and-white vintage photographs chosen from his vast portfolio and Population Crisis series capture his role as a documentarian of the poverty-stricken Indian hinterland. In a letter he sent to the Hungarian-American photographer Cornell Capa in 1969 (included among the exhibition’s display of ephemera), he congratulates Capa for his images from the Concerned Photographer series that appeared in Life Magazine Asia the year before and expresses his concern with India’s economic divide. He describes himself as someone with “insight into the struggle between the man who wants desperately to show the truth and the society that wants persistently to ignore it, suppress it, shut its eyes, and lend a deaf year.”
Compared to the vibrant portrayal of life in India that was the preferred subject of many photographers — including Henri Cartier-Bresson and Raghu Rai — Karia’s pared-down rural and urban landscape photos are distinguished by their use of objects to portray his subjects. Stripped of villagers going about their business, his domestic interiors and building façades come alive. In “Painted Wall with Brass Pots, Dewat” (1969), modest earthen and metal pots lie on a ledge below hand-painted decorations and religious motifs on the wall. The stark domestic scene crystalizes the simplicity of the inhabitants’ lives and the meagerness of a population living beyond the realm of modernity. “Turban and Gun, Bhavnagar” (1969), which shows the titular objects hung together on a bare wall, commingles rank and prestige, revealing the most important traits in the hierarchy of the Indian caste system and thereby conveying the role of the objects’ unseen owner. In “Birdcage and Saris on Porch, Sankheda” (1967), symbols of companionship and clothing — two major components in the formation of personal identity — dangle before the viewer.
For Karia, the dignity of his subjects emanates from the peasants’ feet and hands, which become crucial to exposing the most rudimentary aspects of a community. “Peasant’s Foot on Cart, Bhuj, Kutch” (1968) and “Woman’s Feet with Bangles, Bhavnagar” (1968) economically convey the livelihood of the inhabitants of the villages he visited in his extensive travels around the country. Uncluttered by the intimacy of close-up shots, Karia’s objective stance stays clear of chronicling individuals. He avoids dramatizing the lives of peasants and manual laborers, or giving heroic stature to his bedraggled subjects. Contrary to Cartier-Bresson and Rai’s emotionally fraught images, empathy in Karia’s photographs is not drawn from juxtapositions of ominous clouds over a toiling laborer or crowds with extended, begging hands. Instead, the quiet decorum of his pictures exudes deeply felt involvement.
In the Population Crisis series, mostly taken in Bombay (now known as Mumbai), a bird’s-eye perspective shows the crowded streets of the city. The deliberate distance between the subject and the object creates a sense of detachment. But Karia’s cropped aerial photographs — which offer, for instance, a sliver of an open garbage truck filled with refuse or a glimpse of village folk selling vegetables on the floor in a city market — are just as poignant for their veracity as his stark images of rural India taken in the late 1960s.
Through his long association with Capa, who became a colleague and mentor, and his years at the International Center of Photography in New York, Karia’s dedication to exposing India’s seamy side intensified. He spent years traveling the country as a concerned citizen documenting a segment of society that had long been forgotten during the British Raj and remained ignored by politicians almost two decades after independence. With this work, he fulfilled his belief “that good art is the product of a good man.”