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Visual fables: Photographer Karen Knorr’s song for India

How William Dalrymple, the Commonwealth Games and Rajasthan inspired a photographic series.  This article was originally published on Art Radar (9 January 2015).

Published in 2014 by SKIRA, photographer Karen Knorr’s India Song is a celebration of the country’s regal heritage and lush fauna. Edited by curator Rosa Maria Falvo, the monograph offers an immersive glimpse into Knorr’s travels through Rajasthan, India.

India Song book cover. Image courtesy Rosa Maria Falvo.

Karen Knorr (b. 1954, Frankfurt am Main) is a photographer known for her exploration of the politics of representation through images. In her recent work, including India Song (2008-2014), she often reinvents documentary photography through photo manipulation to create original and surreal scenarios. According to her website, India Song explores “Rajput and Mughal cultural heritage and its relationship to questions of feminine subjectivity and animality.

In addition to 62 full page colour photographs, the book also contains a preface by British writer and historian William Dalrymple, an essay on the history of Indian satire by anthropologist and art historian Christopher Pinney, and an interview between Karen Knorr and Rosa Maria Falvo. The book was launched at Paris Photo in November 2014 and at The Photographer’s Gallery in London in December 2014.

Crafting photographs

In her interview with Falvo, Knorr talks about the inspiration behind the photo series:
In 2008, I travelled to sixteen different historical sites across Rajasthan […] this was life-changing because I discovered a complex and syncretic culture that totally fascinated me. I observed that India was undergoing rapid development and that animals were already being cleared out from cities […] swept away during the preparations for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi. I had read William Dalrymple’s White Mughals and Nine Lives, and I admired his commitment and what he was doing for India. I felt that perhaps somehow I could do the same kind of thing visually. 
Knorr’s photographs in this series feature majestic backdrops – rooms, palaces, temples – peopled with fascinating animal characters that are Photoshopped in. Effectively taken out of time and place, these animals serve as the gateway to an imagined, carefully crafted world – a world where animals rule. In the preface to the book, William Dalrymple writes:
None of these situations are inherently impossible; but they are hugely unlikely and they take us back and startle us. It is as though these grand, princely settings had been cleared of humanity and taken over by a world full of sagacious speaking animals, like some Indian Narnia.

Karen Knorr, The Peacemaker, Chandra Mahal, Jaipur City Palace, Jaipur, 2010, archival pigment print. Image courtesy the artist.

Monkeys are allowed 

Knorr’s images are not meant merely to startle, but also to comment. In his essay “No Monkeys Allowed: A Brief History of Indian Satire”, Christopher Pinney traces the use of animal symbolism and allegory in Indian stories, from the Jatakas and the Panchatantra to Kalighat paintings from Calcutta. He suggests viewing India Song as a “practice of satire”, a “mythical-allegorical space of freedom and incarceration”.

Knorr expands upon this in the interview:
Images are polysemous, that’s to say they have several meanings and may quote or echo texts or other images. […] In India Song, the birds and mammals inserted in my photographs link the Ramayana culture of Northern India to allegorical representations of femininity and masculinity that aim to disrupt the spectator’s expectations, creating visual “disturbances” in rooms and palaces. 
Suggesting that “humans are only as civilised as their treatment of animals”, Knorr effectively re-imagines an already zoomorphic India to challenge hierarchies and conflicts, while at the same time celebrating the country’s rich cultural and natural heritage.

Kriti Bajaj