CHENNAI, India — The afternoon light streamed through the ornate stained-glass doors and onto the installation — an arrangement of traditional prayer-book holders positioned on brick platforms scattered with rice. Walking around the installation in the high-ceilinged hall, I felt as if I was inside a sacred space — and yet, the reality was that the prayer-book holders held only one prayer: that of hope. Each metal holder contained testimony from and a monochrome image of a woman belonging to one of the communities in the conflict-ridden state of Kashmir. As in any conflict in which women’s voices are lost in the clamor of crossfire, Kashmir women are no exception. Sheba Chhachhi and Sonia Jaffer’s image-text installation When the Gun Is Raised, Dialogue Stops … (2000) excavates and allows us to access those buried voices collectively pleading for peace and for an end to the violence. An older work (the images were taken in 1994–95), it acquires greater poignancy and urgency given the ongoing tensions in Kashmir that once again erupted mid-February this year.
The work is part of the second edition of the Chennai Photo Biennale, featuring over 50 photographers from 13 countries, as well as an extensive program of artist talks, skill development workshops, films, residencies, and an conference focusing on contemporary global photography practice. Much more ambitious than the previous one, this year’s biennial is spread across the city, with many of Chennai’s heritage sites providing layered historical contexts and compelling physical backdrops to these large-scale urban photo-interventions.
“When we saw all of these beautiful spaces and the dilapidated condition that they were in, we felt it was so important to draw attention to to these forgotten gems of the city,” Shuchi Kapoor, one of the biennial’s founding trustees and a photographer herself, told me when I met her during my visit. This year’s biennial philosophy derives inspiration from an old Chinese myth, Fauna of Mirrors, which posits that our mirror reflections are actually another species inhabiting an alternative universe, waiting to emerge and take over our lives. The biennial’s artistic director, Pushpamala N. — a prominent Indian performance artist who works with photography and video, and a pioneer of Indian conceptual photography — says that she looks at “photography as this mirror portal which has created a netherworld of specters” that can be either welcoming or hostile and attack the viewer. Several exhibitions were shaped by the character of the venues, she adds. These spaces heighten the sense of entering an alternate, secret universe; the meshing of the architecture and the photography made me experience the buildings through the photographic narratives.
Many of the venues date to Chennai’s British colonial past, and represent the significant historical role it played as part of British India. Apart from some cleaning and minor repairs, the structures were untouched for the biennial. One such structure is the Senate House, which currently functions as the administrative center of Madras University. Completed in 1879, it is widely considered to be one of the finest and oldest examples of Indo-Saracenic architecture in India. Atul Bhalla’s installation, On The Edge of The Sea (2019) found a fitting home in the Senate House’s spacious great hall. Bhalla’s practice engages with the eco-politics of water. This work, commissioned for the biennial, depicts the vanishing livelihoods of Chennai’s fishing community, while, ironically, visitors can glimpse Marina beach from the building itself.
The gravitas of the Museum at the Government College of Fine Arts, founded in 1850, provided a solemn backdrop for meditations on gender and identity. Korean artist Chan-Hyo Bae’s photo series, Existing As Costume (2007–16), displayed on an age-stained pale blue wall, negotiated doubled Others through the prism of Occidentalism. His pensive gaze, while performing as Queen Elizabeth I, felt both intimate and intense. Akhila Vijayaraghavan’s glass-boxed portraits of Indian women in motion, embracing sports and physical fitness, in his series Fierce, were juxtaposed with Bae’s images.
I wove in and out of the maze-like main gallery hall at the College of Fine Arts, in anticipation of what I would discover around the next corner or in an alcove. I stood in silence before Vijay Jodha’s large, haunting monochrome portraits of people who have lost family members to farmer suicides installed on a wall extension running the length of the gallery. Beyond this wall lay a warren of nooks where I discovered the dreamy, fictive digital collages of Vivan Sundaram depicting one of his relatives, the famous artist, Amrita Sher-gil.
My last biennial stop was at India’s oldest functioning library, Madras Literary Society (1812). It provided a stage for the works of Angela Grauerholz, Liz Fernando, and Putu Sayoga, all of them addressing the themes of books and libraries. Grauerholz’s photo series, Privation (2002) encompasses scans of the front cover and spines of books that survived a fire that destroyed her 25-year-old library; here, the scanner performs as a camera. Grauerholz contemplates the books as objects and artworks while alluding to the past destruction of libraries by fire, cultural censorship and hatred, and war. As a work about libraries situated within a library that is also an important historical monument, the work is a fitting end; it powerfully encapsulates the biennial’s aim of encouraging thoughtful dialogue by engaging contemporary photography with the larger scope of the city’s public spaces.
The Chennai Photo Biennale continues at various venues in Chennai through March 24.
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