BERKELEY, Calif. — Alicia Eler’s recent Hyperallergic post “Searching for the Switzerland of India” raises a host of issues regarding the colonial legacies at play in modern India without dissecting any of them. The artist she profiles, Christine Rogers, is said to have spent a year “talking with people there about why [northern India] has become the Switzerland of India,” yet none of those reasons is actually articulated. Rogers’s work ends up as just another image of India produced for a Western audience: exotic local traditions juxtaposed against landscapes that read as “European,” thereby couching the seductively unfamiliar within the comfortingly familiar in an idealized manner redolent with Orientalism. A measure of historical and cultural awareness on the part of both the author and photographer would reveal that the phenomenon Rogers examines is about much more than this.
Why is the Indian imagination so captivated by the image of the Swiss Alps? This landscape, or one that resembles it, has been a mainstay of Bollywood cinema since the 1960s. In contemporary Indian films, mountainous, pristine, and snowy scenes are ubiquitous backdrops in the first hour when the hero and heroine typically meet and fall in love, far from home. What these landscapes represent in the Indian consciousness is complex. They are certainly images of Europe — idealized, continental Europe, not the rainy grey of the British Isles. Indian-German relations have been close since the 19th century, when Max Müller translated Sanskrit texts into German and prompted Romantic philosophers such as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer to incorporate Hindu ideas into their works. Indians declared their love of Germany in the early years of the Second World War, when popular revolutionary Subhash Chandra Bose went so far as to express his admiration for Adolph Hitler. Enamored of the Germans as the enemy of the hated British, and seduced by their appropriation of Hindu cultural elements such as the swastika, the caste system, and the militaristic rhetoric of the Bhagavad Gita, Bose and his followers in the 1930s myopically embraced the Nazis without realizing that they, as Indians, would not be received in kind.
Today, neutral Switzerland offers all of Germany’s quaint charm with none of its ugly history. Switzerland appeals to Indians both because of this history of cultural exchange and because it’s perceived as an orderly, tidy society with none of the messy complications that plague daily life on the Subcontinent. Forced to reckon with the chaos of the world’s most populous democracy, the Indian elite yearn in some ways for the rigor of fascism.
Beyond the attraction of Europe, the mountainous landscapes of Bollywood cinema have another, more immediate meaning in contemporary India. The majority of these scenes are not shot in Switzerland but rather in Manali, a region in Himachal Pradesh that is the northernmost point in uncontested Indian territory. Beyond Manali lies Kashmir, legendary for its pristine Alpine beauty but ravaged by an ongoing civil war fueled by Indian and Pakistani nationalism and sectarianism. For Indian Punjabis — the ethnic group whose interests most thoroughly inform mainstream Bollywood films — Kashmir is a site of displaced nostalgia for their own pre-Partition ancestral lands. Much of Punjab is now in Pakistan, but Kashmir is nominally in India, although that state’s struggle for autonomy is both ongoing and the object of brutal oppression by the Indian government. Photographer Michael Bühler-Rose has explored this nostalgia for Kashmir among non-resident Indians (NRIs) in New York with his series Kashmiri Landscapes (2010–11), in which he photographs the mountainous backdrops of Bollywood love scenes from the vantage of the lower Manhattan living rooms where they are screened repeatedly. The juxtaposition of these images with their surroundings speaks to the clash of nostalgia and reality that drives Indians’ mountain fantasies.
In the movies, Manali is the place where young lovers find a temporary escape from the strict constraints of family life and realize the promise of individual choice that makes the West so attractive to Indians. In the 2013 blockbuster Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani — currently Bollywood’s fourth-highest-grossing film of all time — bookish Naina (Deepika Padukone) rebels against her parents by embarking on a youth hiking tour to Manali. There she finds love with unpredictable Bunny (Ranbir Kapoor) one early morning, when they conquer the highest peak of the mountain while all the others are sleeping. In a typical Bollywood plot, their budding romance is cut short when Bunny leaves the motherland to pursue his dream of becoming an international travel photographer and cinematographer, while Naina remains at home, pursuing a sensible medical degree and taking care of her aging parents. The film resolves with Bunny’s reluctant homecoming, the rekindling of their romance, and his ultimate decision to abandon his international life in order to make the socially responsible choice to settle down in India with the stable and well-behaved Naina. Bunny’s passion for self-realization is characterized as youthful folly, appropriate in a child but unbecoming of a mature adult. Manali is the wilderness where young people can enjoy something like the Amish rumspringa and get the adventurousness and individualism out of their systems before returning to the socialist, nationalist fold of Mother India.
What’s more, Manali has replaced Kashmir, once the vacation destination for India’s wealthiest, as the prime site for domestic tourism. Today’s Indian upper class is largely Western-educated and versed in the hobbies of the global elite, such as skiing, as markers of their superior social status. Asian social and economic elites are driving a tourism boom within their own countries that can have a damaging effect on indigenous communities and cultures.
Patty Chang addressed a parallel phenomenon in China in their work “Shangri-La” (2005), for which she visited a town in Yunnan Province recently redesignated by authorities as the fictional “Shangri-La” of Western colonial fantasies. Visitors to this mountain resort are predominantly Chinese couples from the cities in search of a romantic holiday. Employees of the resort are largely members of an ethnic minority tasked with the labor of maintaining this fictional landscape. Chang makes that labor visible by commissioning resort workers to build a replica “Shangri-La” mountain out of Styrofoam, and later covered in mirrors, with the object then driven around the resort town in the back of a pickup truck. Chang directs the laborers in broken Mandarin, a language neither she nor her assistants speak well. Later, she poses in a wedding dress for photographs while documenting the unromantic circumstances surrounding that fantasy’s creation.
Christine Rogers points out on her blog that there are many claimants to the title “Switzerland of India.” She’s correct in identifying a fascination among Indians with the natural beauty of Switzerland, which is reflected in increasing numbers of Indian tourists to the country. However, a year spent in India does not seem to have been long enough for Rogers to abandon her preconceived notions of India and get to the heart of why this affinity exists. Her seeming lack of awareness of Indian history and current events, and her insistence on juxtaposing the Swiss-like landscapes of Northern India with images of pre-industrial Indian culture, perpetuate rather than challenge a colonial mindset.
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This post makes vague claims of colonialism in Rogers’s work without dissecting any of it. The work Vikram attempts to criticize is said to be Orientalist and full of preconceived notions, yet none of these criticisms is actually articulated. (Furthermore, a measure of historical and cultural awareness would reveal that Swiss and German culture are quite distinct.)
If the author had spent as much time thinking through and constructing arguments as she did grandstanding, we might know, specifically, exactly how Rogers claims to “know” why the Indians love Switzerland (she doesn’t), or how the work caters exclusively to a Western audience (it was received well, shown, and written about within India). We get brief descriptions of Bühler-Rose’s and Patty Chang’s artwork without any insightful connections made to Rogers’s project.
Vikram is correct in identifying accurately what these artists, with different projects than Rogers, depict within their work. However, an afternoon spent on her laptop does not seem to have been long enough for Vikram to have developed knee-jerk reaction into cohesive analysis. Her (demonstrated) lack of awareness of the artworks she purports to criticize reveal someone who likes the sound of her own voice.
loooooove this comment
Rogers claims to want to know why the Indians love Switzerland, and my point was simply that if she really wanted to know, she could have found out. Perhaps you missed the fact that my critique is largely directed against Indians who are engaged in a project of colonization within their own borders, in Kashmir. The fact that the work was shown and well-received in India is in no way contradictory to what I am saying.
As for my charge of Orientalism, Rogers’ inability to show Indians as complex in their relationships to history or to the landscape is at the heart of this criticism. She prefers to create images that celebrate pre-industrial traditions while isolating the subjects from the realities of their daily lives in a post-industrial economic and social landscape. This is the essence of Orientalism – idealization of Eastern archetypes for pleasurable consumption by Americans and Europeans who see their own values and romantic notions of “the Other” reflected rather than challenged.
When did I say “I want to know why the Indian’s love Switzerland”? Your critique was totally unclear and all over the place. What are these “pre-industrial traditions”? Skiing? Drinking beer?
I must have misunderstood. Eler opens her profile with the statement that you wanted to know how the idea of this landscape exists in the cultural imagination, and why each site is the “Switzerland of India.” I understood this as you wanting to know why Switzerland is significant in the cultural imagination, ie “why the Indians love Switzerland.” If I was mistaken, I apologize. If you do not want to know why, though, that still troubles me as it again underscores how incurious your approach appears to be with respect to what these images actually mean in the Indian cultural imagination.
As for pre-industrial traditions, the Hyperallergic profile is illustrated with a flower vendor, women in traditional dress and henna, and a landscape shot that I did not read as skiiers as the figures are so tiny. I don’t see any beer drinkers or car drivers on your blog, but I see cows and men with dirty faces there.There is an enormous market for these kinds of images of India that juxtapose the grit of poverty with glamorous textiles, henna, and jewelry. To create more such images without acknowledgement of what they represent in the Western imagination is also really problematic. There are some old-fashioned trains on your blog, and some nostalgic photos of a family with a 1960s airplane, but very little that speaks to the reality of India today in which high-tech and low-tech ways of life are constantly in proximity and in conflict.
We don’t need any more images of the romantic fantasy of India unless there is also recognition of the real complications that characterize life in that country. Just because the fantasy you’re replicating is one that Indians share does not ameliorate the need to be careful in this regard. You talk about how “landscape is a constructed term” but again, there’s nothing about how it is constructed. What is the relationship between landscape, property, and conquest? What of the relationship between urban Indians and their fantasies of nature, and the people who dwell in these hill stations and support the tourist industry with their labor? I think that these are necessary questions and I don’t see you asking them.
if you went beyond the first page of my blog you would see images of people smiling, playing in snow, couples holding one another, friends lying in the snow in the sun, horses, trees, yes men drinking beer, girls playing with balloons, images that deal with the Gorkha conflict in Darjeeling (which you haven’t even touched upon in your critique of my work and in your apparent vast knowledge of local politics), museum curators, ministers of tourism, every single type of hotel (from five star to budget), and on and on and on. I’m sorry that you are so steeped in your own ideas of how foreigners view India that you cannot get beyond this view and really look at any of my actual photographs. I’m sorry that you believe that an image of a bride is locally exotic but we’ll just have to disagree there. The boy is not a flower vendor but rather a young man who provides props for tourist photo ops.
I think you need a clear artist statement that articulates your relationship to the tourist industries you’re chronicling if you would like for your work to be read as more nuanced than a celebration of said tourist industry (and, by implication, the history of colonization that underpins that industry’s evolution). If it’s buried at the back of your blog, you should move it forward. If you’re dealing with conflict then that should be articulated. Getting angry at me because I responded to what I saw (on more than one page of your blog) is misguided.
I love this! Tell me how to read your photos in a nuanced way! God forbid we look at photos without artist statements
stupid system deleted my comment when i logged in.
basically, never discourage or embarrass people who are genuinely interested in another culture.
how are you so sure your explanation is the right/complete one? hasn’t the work made you think/question it yourself? the artist isn’t even concerned with ‘correct’ explanations, but more with a perspective she was captivated with.
these worldviews, especially those of foreigners, must be valued and understood rather than dissed as ‘shallow’ without any positive comments – it reflects worse about you rather than on the person you’re criticizing.
but still, overall i think such a post was needed, just not in a full-fledged article form. it helped give voice to some questions i had with the project myself. the work definitely does bring in questions about authorship and worldview (i could tell straightaway that this was done by a foreigner), which are themselves great topics for art projects today. hmm.
I don’t know that my explanation is complete. I am trying to add a perspective that is missing from the initial discussion of this work and this phenomenon. I would never want to discourage interest in another culture, but I do want to discourage romanticizing another culture – particularly the Indian culture, because the history of colonization in that part of the world is very closely tied with romanticization of its culture.
While I was initially amused and a little excited to hear there was going to be a “long response” to my work via Twitter (feeling like I’d finally arrived with a possible Twitter hater) I must say I’m pretty disappointed with the critique that my work lacked a certain historical knowledge or discourse or even more dubious, I just failed to get it and “abandon my preconceived notions” after 9 months in India.
Let’s look at the turnaround time: Alicia Eler’s article was posted and within mere hours someone who I’ve never spoken to had decided she knew exactly how to dismantle a complicated project of an artist who is still in the midst of producing this work a few weeks after returning from a 9 month Fulbright fellowship. At this point I’d like to mention as well I am in the process of translating this work myself in many ways for a foreign audience -in this case an American audience. Within the context of my solo exhibition in India, the response among Indians was that of understanding of my subtle cultural references, archival advertisements, juxtapositions, film stills, and of course – the historical and cultural context of how, when and why this notion of landscaped emerged.
I’d like to raise this question: is Vikram’s article a response to my work or to the article written about my work? Ms. Vikram did not contact me to ask me about my research and understanding of the cultural context of these landscapes, so she can’t know that I have also read the work of Ranjani Mazumdar (and in fact I met with her and interviewed her while I was in Delhi), and that I’m familiar with the work of Chang and Bühler-Rose (and while I happen to like their work, I think the connections Ms. Vikram draws show a fundamental lack of understanding of what my work is actually about) and yeah, I also saw Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani (opening weekend to be exact, and it was a lot of fun, although I suspect Ms. Vikram might find the heteronormative message of the film to be highly problematic). In short, I’ve done my homework and any suggestion to the contrary I must take issue with.
Ms. Vikram assumed almost immediately that I somehow did not understand the background and discourse of my subject matter and was prepared equally quickly with a response to my work. However much like her easy assumptions on my personal understanding of the history and cultural context of North Indian Hill stations, I can’t help but feel like she has very little ground to stand on after reading a 500-word write-up on an art blog introducing people to the general idea of my project and to about 5-7 images. I could give Ms. Vikram a bonus point for actually claiming to have looked at my blog, but I’m not sure she’s spent much time looking into my writing, any other newspaper reviews, my preparation and research process, who I am as an artist, what I was thinking when I decided to go to India, and what I actually found there. Her discussion of my work was basically non-existent beyond a suggestion that I don’t know the history and cultural discourse of my research but she fails to address any actual art pieces that I produced to bolster her opinion. Instead, she immediately jumps to an opportunity to discuss her own generalized knowledge base.
Why not just write an article about the same thing I’m making art about? Why use a fundamental misunderstanding of my work as your starting point? The work I made in India used the history and memory of a landscape to begin to articulate a larger project about landscapes as a whole and even more broadly a conceptual examination of the genre of landscape photography and a story about love, mountains, roadwork and the middle class domestic tourist industry as it exists today. I am an artist – not a historian, anthropologist or cinema scholar. And yes, I was a foreigner. Making art. In a foreign country. That is of course always going to be a part of the work I made in India, but its a part of my work that I am happy with and I have embraced and never tried to hide from.
When I read the article Alicia wrote about my work I was of course excited to see a little press about my project. With any dealings with publicity the reality is that the subjects are paraphrased to a certain extent. It was a short piece that was written after all. Naturally, this could lead to readers potential misunderstanding or for potential assumptions to be made. This is a risk of any publicity and I’m ok with that. It’s a short snapshot of a much bigger project. Alicia’s article was meant to be a small snapshot laying the foundation for a larger text in the future.
I wish that Ms. Vikram would’ve taken the time to contact me, to ask what texts I have read, and to understand that the process of writing a Fulbright grant requires an immense amount of research. I have never taking my work or my research as an artist lightly. I would’ve delighted in such an exchange with a stranger who happens to share many of my research interests. However, she came back with an opportunistic response, one that allows her to talk about some work she likes or work she approves of and does very little to understand what I am doing. Had she contacted me, she would know that while I was in India I met with artists, curators, writers, film makers, and cultural theorists as well as honeymooners and tourists, and that I learned a great deal about how, when, and why Indians became interested in the northern landscapes. And furthermore, if she had actually looked at the work on my blog, she would’ve seen that I incorporated these elements and research findings into my solo exhibition in Bangalore. My exhibition by the way, was met with extremely positive reviews in India, and was featured in Time Out Bangalore, The Bangalore Mirror, and The Hindu.
Kudos to Ms. Vikram for using my work as a way of getting a long article published, but it’s unfortunate that she did so without research and with superficial criticism. In my view, all that her article accomplishes is perpetuating a vicious cycle of the very thing she is attempting to take me to task for doing: failing to “abandon preconceived notions.”
Should Ms. Vikram like to ask me any questions, discuss my art or my time spent in India, I would welcome such a conversation. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
I thought I made it pretty clear in my introduction that I was writing about the issues at play in your work and the subject matter you are taking on when I said “A measure of historical and cultural awareness on the part of both the
author and photographer would reveal that the phenomenon Rogers examines
is about much more than this.” If you took my purpose to be a direct critique of your work and images, this was never my intention. Instead, I was interested in deconstructing the history of Indians’ obsession with Switzerland from a number of directions. Having dug further into your blog, I have as yet found nothing that contradicts my initial assessment that the complexities of Indians’ relationship to the fantasy image of Switzerland are of less interest to you than is the idea that Indians would be interested in Swiss landscapes as a form of escapism. This is your prerogative, but I feel it is couched in an incurious attitude toward the history and current politics of India that is unfortunately quite typical of foreigners visiting the country.
Furthermore, if you feel that my readings of your interview with Alicia Eler and your blog are inaccurate, I would challenge you to point to an example of where I might have found the kind of critical voice that I am calling for in my response. If your work requires a viewer to research your entire body of published literature in order to get the “correct” read of your intentions then perhaps you are not being clear about what those intentions are. Contrary to your allegation that my article is lacking in research, in fact I have spent years researching the history of landscape as a genre of European art that rose in popularity concurrent with the development of a middle class body politic and in conjunction with aggressive expansionist policies that spurred the colonization of large areas of the world including the Indian subcontinent. If you do not believe that your work is engaged with this history, that in fact supports my critique of your project as a rehash of a colonial mindset in which a European-descended individual is once again using India as a landscape of idealization and fantasy.
This is not to say that no non-Indian should make work in or about India – far from it. I cited Bühler-Rose and Chang specifically because both artists work in ways that make their own complicated relationships to their subject plainly apparent. Bühler-Rose engages directly with the mediated image of India which informs any non-resident whether foreign-born or Indian. Chang’s work challenges the received view of colonialism as something done to the East by Westerners, instead foregrounding the colonizing behaviors of Chinese citizens themselves. My own text was far more directly critical of Indians than of “outsiders.” In fact, I expected to get blowback from Indians, which may still happen but so far has not.
Fundamentally, what motivated me to respond to your work in this way was my astonishment that you could purport to engage with the image of this landscape in Indian pop culture without a whisper of acknowledgement of the decades-long conflict in Kashmir. This suggests to me that you are taking the comments of the Indians you encounter at face value rather than attempting to fully understand the tensions and histories that inform cultural norms in this part of the world. Again, your lack of curiosity has provoked my response, which, I’ll reiterate, is intended to articulate another perspective on the ideas you raise rather than to analyze your work directly.
If your intention is to deconstruct the history of Indian’s obsession with Switzerland then you should just do that. There is no need to involve your misunderstanding of my work in that process. You have no intentions to learn or awareness of directions my work is going in (you would know that I was not able to visit Kashmir on this trip due to the limitations of the specific research visa I was traveling with and you would also know that I have been planning on going to Kashmir this coming summer). But you truly don’t seem interested in getting to know this in the least bit or really dealing with any work I’ve actually made. You are interested in your perspective and not much else and that is fine. I understand you have your obsessions, it just doesn’t make any sense to continue to involve me in this process any further. This is the last I have to say on the matter.
confused. anyway i like the detailed comments and replies and the charged discussion even though it may be annoying to some.
since i also think that these issues are important i would want these to continue but with a little less rigidity. this is sort of the purpose of art.
I agree. I think its hard to have a productive conversation when the conversation feels so rooted in assumptions rather than open questions. That said, I have appreciated your thoughts and questions that you’ve raised on this thread. I’m personally more drawn to art that is also open and exploratory rather than work that attempts to know everything before it is even made… what is the purpose of making the work if you know all of the answers before you begin?
Did you just write an intro and conclusion as book ends around a piece that was written for another purpose? You don’t mention the artist’s work outside of these paragraphs, but somehow purport to be writing a critique.
I wrote a critique of the phenomenon she describes in her art, not a critique of her work.
This article is offensive and reinforces colonial stereotypes to a greater extent more so than any of the works of art referenced in it. The author summarizes countries and entire continents is broad swaths: Germany as a place of “quaint charm” with an “ugly history”, and that daily life on the Subcontinent of Asia plagued by “messy complications” and “chaos” which leads the elite in the region to “yearn in some ways for the rigor of fascism.” It has been a long time since I have come across a piece of writing that so recklessly confuses and conflates periods of history and culture. With some hastily gathered and mostly incongruent facts, the author achieves much: new heights of tedium, vain intellectualism, and senseless, useless attacks on a working artist today.
I’m describing a world view that is rooted in colonial relationships. It naturally replicates some colonial archetypes, particularly in how the fantasy image of Europe is constructed by Indians sight unseen. However, if you don’t believe that daily life in India is full of chaotic and complicated situations, I would wager you have not spent much time there. And to argue that Germany does not have an ugly history is a non-starter.
If you do not think that “ugly” is a weak word choice when describing the Holocaust, then I would agree that starting a conversation with you seems impossible. If you are writing about another point in Germany’s history (you often don’t make it clear what you are talking about in your article), then I apologize. My main problem with your article is that you do not live by your own standards. For example why is it so “natural” that you, in referencing a colonial history, should be allowed to “replicate colonial archetypes” and yet an artist who references the same area visually is condemned when similar archetypes appear in her images? With regards to India, I have never been there, but I assume that the main stereotypes which have been sold to me over the years about India (that it is messy, chaotic, and complicated) cannot be true everywhere and all the time, in the same way that I can testify that not all of Germany is “quaint” and “charming” and not all of Switzerland is “orderly” as I have visited those two countries. I assume that there is a deeper, more intricate and interesting way of life in India and think that if you want to begin changing people’s perceptions of India, you might want to begin there instead of being enraged every time a photograph from India shows jewelry or henna. If you would rather stick to quick, lazy descriptions of places and history in writing, I would point you in the direction of searching for a job in tourism.
I see more kinship in Ms. Roger’s project than this article gives her credit for. According to Alicia Eijer’s article The project idea germinated after visiting Switzerland to explore a landscape mythologized in her own country. Understanding the place of geography in culture is pretty interesting. We all have our own baggage (pun intended).
It’s exactly because she started from such a promising place that I felt the need to criticize her statements in this way. How is her work furthering our understanding of the place of geography in culture? What is that baggage? I would have loved to see these questions addressed by the artist, but since she did not, I opted to express my own views.
You gave some concrete explanations, which were interesting insights.The artist primarily gave us images to ponder. The claim of ‘colonialism’ seems like ” damned if you do and damned if you don’t”, so really we allow the artist to explore their vision (including the baggage). From my own rather skewed perspective I want to ask “what is it about Switzerland, anyway?
We must always allow artists to explore their visions. I am simply asking that the artist be self-aware and refrain from objectifying others in realizing that vision. Or, if that’s not possible, comment on the objectification and how it is a necessary component of fantasy.
my work that i made in switzerland was not about switzerland really but rather this longing for a sense of perfection and heaven on earth, geneological obsessions and lingering regret… the notion of “the switzerland of india” has become so complicated and multi-faceted that it too is a place that is constantly shifting and being modified to the point of it being more of an idea of a place than an actual place that is really fixed in reality. within the text i’ve written about my work you can see places that “lose their title” as the switzerland of india for one reason or another or places that are newly emerging as new “switzerlands”. i continue to ask myself what is it about switzerland now? i understand what it has been in the past but today, and tomorrow, what does it mean? is it meaningful to the tourist industry? is it significant in terms of local politics? is it primarily for a photo-op? and even more specifically its about the idea of visiting one place, through the lens of another place or an imitation of an imitation. i appreciate your questions.
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