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.