Where Three Dreams Cross

Where Three Dreams Cross, continuing at the Whitechapel Art Gallery in London (Aldgate East or Aldgate tube) until 11 April 2010 is an important show although it perhaps does not live up to its subtitle, 150 Years of Photography from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. It is worth going to see mainly because of the broad cross-section of contemporary work it displays from the sub-continent, but perhaps fails to deal adequately with the earlier history of photography there.

I say perhaps, because I don’t know in detail what history exists, though I feel sure there must be considerably more than this exhibition reveals. One indication that this is so is the very poor showing given to the work of India’s first great indigenous photographer, Lala Deen Dayal (1844-1905), whose work I wrote about at some length a few years ago. There are eight pictures by him on display in the ‘Street‘ section of the show, four of them interiors. None really fits this section of the show, and only one is a good example of his work.

Although my piece on Lala Deen Dayal is no longer on line, you can find more about this remarkable photographer on the Lala Deen Dayal web site. He gained international recognition with his work being exhibited in the photographic shows in London and Chicago as well as India, gaining over 25 gold medals between 1875 and 1905. The problem perhaps for the organisers of this show is that Deen Dayal was very much a photographer of the Raj, and honoured by the Nizam of Hyderabad who appointed him Court Photographer and gave him the title of ‘Raja’. In November 2006, one of his images appeared in an edition of 0.4 million on an Indian 500 Rupee stamp.

Deen Dayal was certainly the leading Indian portrait photographer of the nineteenth century, but unless I missed them (and it is large show in a gallery where the layout is always misleading to simple guys like me) this work was missing from that section of the show.

The work in the first gallery of the show deals with the two themes of ‘The Portrait‘ and ‘The Performance‘ with the historical material in the second containing considerably too much routine cinema publicity work.

Raghu Rai is I think still the only Indian photographer (born in what is now Pakistan in 1942) to have made it to Magnum, and his work certainly stood out in this show. You can also read about him on Global Adjustments.

Most of the nineteenth century work on display in the portrait section appeared to be studio portraits by unknown photographers, and much of it was pretty ordinary stuff. It’s hard too to believe that the first half of the twentieth century has so little to offer from India, and although there was some exciting material from the second half, most of it came from names that will already be well-known to many, though it was still welcome to see it being given greater exposure here.

Perhaps the  most intriguing work in this gallery was that of Umrao Singh Sher-Gil (1870-1954.) I actually find his work rather more interesting in itself than in the more widely known works based on them by his daughter Amrita Sher-Gil. Umrao Singh began taking photos in 1889 and continued for over 60 years, during which time he married a Hungarian opera singer in 1912 and was a political exile in Hungary for the next 9 years. The family returned to Europe for five years in 1929 so Amrita and her sister could study at the the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris. His best-known work is probably an extensive series of self-portraits.  Another member of this artistic dynasty also has work in the show, Vivan Sundaram, the nephew of Amrita Sher-Gil, whose work in ‘The Family‘ section consisted of montages of Umrao Singh’s pictures. I’d  rather have seen the original photographs on which these works were based.

The Family gallery also contained perhaps the most traditionally Indian of the works on show, large hand coloured rather symmetric tableaux that could almost have been embroidery. Here photography was being forced into a very non-photographic mould and retaining little of its inherent magic, although the results do have a certain charm.

The final gallery of the show contains work on the two themes ‘The Body Politic’ and ‘The Street‘, and although there was a great deal of fine work it was dominated by the large colour photographs of Raghubir Singh, (1942-99) arguably the greatest Indian photographer and photographer of India of the twentieth century and one of the first to work seriously with colour in the early 1970s.

But there is plenty more fine work, particularly some pictures by Rashid Talukder (you can see more of his fine pictures on the Majority World site.) Talukder’s powerful images of the liberation struggle in Bangladesh were the outstanding work in the Bangladesh 1971 show at Autograph in Shoreditch, and the co-curator of that show, Shahidul Alam, also has an interesting set of pictures (and a letter) ‘A struggle for Democracy 1967-70′ on view here. As well as being a fine photographer, Alam is the founder chair of Majority World, and also founded the Drik picture library, the South Asian Institute of Photography and much more.

Sunil Janah, born in 1918, photographed much of the history of India from around 1940 on, including the Independence movement and partition. You see his work and learn more about him on his Historical Photographs of India (and they truly are) which also contains a virtual version of his 2000 San Francisco show,  Inside India, 1940-1975. The site are rather dated and the reproduction of images is often not up to current standards.  You can also watch him talking about some of his work on YouTube. It was disappointing not to see more of his work here.

Apart from the work that I’ve mentioned, the strength of this exhibition lies in the survey of contemporary work it shows. It does exhibit a wide range of work, some from well-known artists (Saatchi has bought Pushpamala N‘s work for example) and others from photographers unknown here. I found it hard to find anything much peculiarly Indian in the best of this work, but there is certainly much of interest. But I think the best is probably the least known here. There really is too much worth looking at for me to list. Go and see it and make up your own mind.


  • The show is free for under 18s & Sundays 11am–1pm, otherwise £8.50/£6.50 concessions.  It was well attended but not crowded when I visited on a Saturday afternoon.
  • I’m still often asked if inkjet prints can match the quality of conventional silver or dye coupler prints. Reading the labels here, almost all the modern prints are inkjet of one kind or another, though some make a great effort to hide it, with such descriptions as “archival pigment print.”

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