None of this prepared me for the discovery of the circumstances that drove my father away from his family as a teenager, or the actual masala mix of complexity, misery and beauty of contemporary India that I finally had the opportunity to see for myself during a pivotal year of travel in 2002.
This journey had taken place in my imagination as long as I could remember. Having now made the actual trip, and collected a wealth of photographic images, videotape, and journal writings, I feel compelled to shape this material into a cohesive body of work that connects and contrasts my youthful fantasies of India with my adult experience building a relationship with the land of my ancestry. I hope to symbolize the merging of the actual lived journey with the expectations I carried for half a lifetime to create an artistic journey through India as visually rich and layered as the one I have experienced in both imagination and in life.
I am weaving media including digital and analog photography, printmaking, digital video, and text into a narrative describing a metaphoric and physical journey. I am merging images from different times and places to juxtapose ancient and modern, mythical and real, imagined and lived. One way I am accomplishing these goals is to collage appropriated popular Indian calendar art imagery of Hindu deities into my photographs. In bringing this storied imagery into the contemporary world, I am referencing contemporary clashes of values and cultures that are occurring on the subcontinent. By asking how Lord Krishna might deal with a Calcutta traffic jam, or whether Kali has a cellular phone, I am removing these printed gods from spiritual contemplation in sylvan glades and temples, and bringing them into the chaotic hurly burly that is contemporary India.
This sort of question is partly tongue in cheek, but also a testament to the durability of a culture that has survived unbroken through thousands of years of invasion, warfare, colonial subjugation, westernization and modernization. For the Hindu gods are just as vital as they have been for eons. Rather than submitting to the forces of change that have buffeted the subcontinent for all these centuries, this is a culture that simply assimilates what seems useful, while retaining, for better or worse its essential character. Lord Krishna, Kali, Shiva, and the entire Hindu pantheon, representing an imperturbable and entirely non-western view of reality really do walk the streets of Calcutta, Delhi, Chennai, and Trivandrum. Their presence is palpable in the integration of spirituality into the daily life of India.
These images have a long history of multiple interpretations. To western viewers, they represented a glimpse into the mind of “the other”. To Indians, they had practical devotional and political uses. Because the British rulers of colonial India curtailed Indian political activism, yet paid little attention to Indian religious institutions, Indians used the relative freedom of religious organizations to engage in clandestine political activity. Images that to Western eyes read simply as devotional images dedicated to exotic, obscure gods, were read by Indians as allegorical calls for political action, unity, and independence that were able to circumvent the strict censorship imposed upon the Indian presses and political organizations by the British imperial government. An emerging independence movement effectively used these popular images to help create a sense of unity and national identity, which finally enabled India to throw off the yoke of foreign imperialist control.
As a child of mixed British and Indian heritage, I witnessed and took part in similar post-colonial battles playing themselves out on a domestic scale. This work examines what happens when one learns about his cultural heritage through a colonizing media. How does this mediated interpretation compare to the way that the object of this gaze sees itself directly? And what is "the other" when one is of mixed blood, seeing half of one's own culture through the lenses provided by the gaze of the other half? Finding some way to reconcile these differing perspectives inspires this creative project.
— Neil Chowdhury