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"Collective creativity": Delhi Photo Festival 2013

Delhi Photo Festival 2013, under the banner of bringing photography into the public space, returned to the Indian capital as an experiment in inclusivity, collaboration and diversity. This article was originally published on Art Radar (18 October 2013).

Installation view of Sacha Goldberger's Super Mamika at Delhi Photo Festival 2013, India Habitat Centre. Photo: Kriti Bajaj

The second edition of the Delhi Photo Festival returned to New Delhi, India for two weeks from 27 September to 11 October 2013, with a few pre-festival events through the month of September. Co-organised by Nazar Foundation and the India Habitat Centre (also the primary venue), along with 26 partner galleries across the city, the biennial fair included a selection of varied events designed to have a broad public appeal.

“We sought to evolve the ideology of the festival. It’s at one level our recognition to [sic] the people’s art,” said India Habitat Centre’s Director Raj Liberhan at the opening ceremony. Focusing on the democratic nature of photography as a medium, Liberhan hoped the Delhi Photo Festival would be the kind of event at which “amateurs, professionals and everybody else can rub shoulders with each other. There’s a lot to learn, a lot to know, and every picture is only a step towards a better one.” 
The goal of the festival was, primarily, to be open and inclusive, thereby increasing the interest and accessibility of photography in India. Aside from print photography exhibitions, the festival also included digital and audio exhibitions and slideshows, portfolio reviews for serious as well as amateur photographers, walk-throughs of the exhibitions, an open library and an array of seminars and workshops.

Installation view of Prabuddha Dasgupta's early work at Delhi Photo Festival 2013, India Habitat Centre. Photo: Kriti Bajaj

The theme for the print exhibitions at this year’s festival was “GRACE”, intended as a tribute to the late photographer Prabuddha Dasgupta, a self-taught and respected photographer best known for his fashion and fine art work, who passed away in August 2012. During his speech at the festival’s inaugural edition in 2011, Dasgupta explained the importance of ‘grace’ to his work: 
I want to have a long string of images, held together by grace, because grace is that undefinable, non-rational, non-linear word that I am looking for…
Held together by grace 

Clearly ‘grace’ is indefinable and was left open to interpretation by festival organisers. According to the submission call on the festival’s blog, “absence or lack of grace” was equally acceptable. The works of both young as well as established photographers were exhibited, with an interesting story being the only criteria for selection, leading to a broad range of exhibits that might seem assorted, though effective and powerful. 

In some the theme was clearly discernible: Ketaki Sheth’s A Certain Grace: The Sidi, Indians of African Descent and Sooni Taraporevala’s exhibit on India’s Parsi community at the National Gallery of Modern Art; Sacha Golberger’s Super Mamika, photographs of his grandmother visualised as a superhero(ine); Asmita Parelkar’s Giraffe Behind the Door depicting animals in the picturesque confines of a zoo. 

The festival reportedly received nearly 2400 submissions from ninety countries, an overwhelming response for a festival only in its second iteration. 

Installation view of Flavia Schuster's Admissions Ward at Delhi Photo Festival 2013, India Habitat Centre. Photo: Kriti Bajaj

Art in the heart of Delhi 

The India Habitat Centre and many of the festival’s partner galleries are located in the heart of Delhi, throbbing hubs of artistic and cultural life. In what Dr Alka Pande, Curator of the India Habitat Centre Visual Art Gallery and a creative director of the Delhi Photo Festival, called “India’s international photography festival”, 41 print exhibits were arranged around the India Habitat Centre’s vast courtyard. The centrepiece was formed by huge monochrome prints of Prabuddha Dasgupta’s early work. Flavia Schuster’s Admissions Ward lined the curve on one side with its striking portraits inviting a rethinking of the discourse on mental illness, the last panel a simple rectangular mirror. Giacomo Brunelli’s The Animals was set up as an installation of cube-shaped lights with the images on the front amidst the foliage.

Installation view of Giacomo Brunelli's The Animals at Delhi Photo Festival 2013, India Habitat Centre. Photo: Kriti Bajaj

Sara Boccacci, a photographer from London and Italy currently studying in Jaipur, India, lauded the selection and set-up. 
The projects had enough space and weren’t cramped one on the other as I’ve seen in many other exhibitions. I think it really showed an effort, a commitment and an interest in researching and promoting art and photography. I think, though I might be wrong, that nowadays India is investing a lot into [photography] whereas in Europe funds are being cut constantly. 
Other partnering galleries included the National Museum, National Gallery of Modern Art, Triveni Kala Sangam and smaller exhibition spaces like Photoink, Printer’s Devil and Nature Morte. Language and cultural institutes also collaborated, with exhibitions and talks at Goethe-Institut, Alliance Fran├žaise, Instituto Cervantes and the Japan Foundation, in an effort to bring work from or about their countries to an international portal. 

Christopher Pinney, Professor of Anthropology at University College London who has written extensively about visual culture in India, gave a talk on “The Civil Contract of Photography in India”, and also curated the exhibition “Studio Suhag” at Art Heritage gallery in Triveni Kala Sangam. He said of the festival: 
I was deeply impressed by the sense of collective creativity. The Habitat Centre displays, together with the amazing range of shows in partner galleries (such as the exceptional shows on Iran and by Pablo Bartholomew, Fabien Charua, and Cop Shiva) really foregrounded an incredible diversity of practice right across the city which was very exciting. The festival programme of talks featured fewer international participants than say Chobi Mela in Dhaka (which has been running for much longer) but presented some wonderful events such as Ram Rahman’s brilliant re-evaluation of Raghubir Singh. 
Installation view of Jason Sangik Noh's Biography of Cancer at Delhi Photo Festival 2013, India Habitat Centre. Photo: Kriti Bajaj

Accessibility to the “real democratic art form” 
The aims of the Delhi Photo Festival were, according to their website, primarily to open the “democratic” art of photography to the wider public and to create awareness of the medium. To this end, the festival spanned a fortnight, including something for everyone: professionals, enthusiasts and the curious alike. Evenings saw screenings, slideshows and digital exhibits; talks and seminars were held on a range of subjects, from portraiture in South Asia to dealing with law and copyright concerns. There were also workshops and portfolio reviews.

But is photography ‘democratic’ enough? 

Chandan Gomes, who showcased his work Elegy for the Unsung Cubicle, felt that the portfolio reviews, though in an interesting format, could do more to incorporate the aspect of guidance for aspiring photographers from an industrial point of view. 
Although digitalisation has made it easier to take photos, it has become more difficult to find platforms to share them. In that sense it is not democratic – there’s no set mechanism for approaching magazines, publishers and galleries with your work. 
Installation view of Alvaro Laiz/David Rengel's Future Plan at Delhi Photo Festival 2013, India Habitat Centre. Photo: Kriti Bajaj

The festival was free and non-commercial, both for photographers who submitted their work for printing and exhibition, as well as for visitors (with the exception of a few workshops by external organisations such as the reputed Magnum Photos). This meant that the public was able to make the most of an opportunity to listen to and interact with established national and international artists, photographers and art historians such as Sephi Bergerson, Sacha Goldberger, Karen Knorr, Christopher Pinney, Urs Stahel, Ram Rahman, Aditya Arya and Rahaab Allana, to name but a few. In keeping with its objective of inclusivity, these talks and open sessions were also uploaded on YouTube and some works were featured online on Google Cultural Institute art project.

Sooni Taraporevala, a photographer, filmmaker and screenwriter who this year curated an exhibition of her photographs titled “Through a Lens, By a Mirror: The Parsis”, and was on a panel discussing culture and the internet, said: 
The Delhi Photo Festival is something I’ve looked forward to since its inception in 2011. There has never been anything like it in India and it is a wonderful opportunity for photographers to meet each other and to broaden our horizons. I love everything about it, the exhibitions, the artist talks, the night screenings, the T-shirts! I am sure it will go from strength to strength. It already has.
Add captionInstallation view of Maika Elan / MoST's The Pink Choice at Delhi Photo Festival 2013, India Habitat Centre. Photo: Kriti Bajaj

Open library, open space, open minds 

True to its aim of providing access to photography in various forms and through various resources, an “open library” was organised at the Amphitheatre of the IHC, where visitors were free to browse through a selection of photography books. Organised by Rang, a Delhi-based community of artists working towards creating an open space for the visual arts, the library included titles that would ordinarily be extremely costly in the market. 

Chandan Gomes, Co-founder of Rang, said that their open library (based at 1AQ/Ojas Art in Mehrauli, and NGO Apne Aap at the India International Centre Campus) houses nearly 450 books, journals and catalogues of photography, including texts by Raghu Rai, Henri Cartier Bresson and Diane Arbus. The project, which is currently unfunded, relies completely on contributions. 

As festivals gain more popularity and exposure, they face the danger of becoming scattered or compromising their goals – in the case of Delhi Photo Festival, that of free access and inclusivity. With the second edition of the festival attracting exponentially growing numbers, with 2350 submissions (compared to 600 in 2011 – almost a 400 percent increase) and venues spread across the city instead of just the India Habitat Centre, it remains to be seen how the event will be steered and streamlined in 2015.